Bordeaux wine vintages: Finding the best value

The right Bordeaux wine vintages can still offer great value, if you trust your own palate and follow a few basic rules.

That’s the advice of Gavin Lennard, Head of Fine Wines at broker Langtons, who acknowledges that Bordeaux has fallen off the radar for many drinkers in recent years.

“In the last decade, as has been well documented, the market price of Bordeaux has gone through the roof, driven by substantially the Chinese market,” Lennard says.

“That has left a lot of us out of the market.”

At the same time, Lennard says Australians have had their interest piqued by fine wines from increasingly far-flung and unusual places.

“We’re seeing more Italian wine in Australia, we’re seeing more Spanish wine, even wine from places in Eastern Europe,” he says.

“The sommelier crowd in all the cultish restaurants are pushing the envelope into more and more exotic places, when it comes to wine.

“So dear old Bordeaux has just been seen as being a bit old fashioned, if you like.”

Bordeaux wine vintages selection by Mahler Besse
Wines from some of Bordeaux’s leading chateaux

But Lennard argues that by taking a shrewder approach to your purchasing, there is now a very compelling case to revisit the Old World’s grandest wine region, revered mainly for its long-lived Cabernet Merlot blends.

“You might go for a little deviation off to Portugal or wherever, but the track record Bordeaux wines have in the marketplace for their cellaring potential and for their quality and drinkability remains,” he says.

“They do end up being the standard by which others are judged.”

Bordeaux wine vintages: How to choose

In recent years, Lennard says Langtons customers have pricked up their ears to Bordeaux only when news arrives of the most hyped vintages.

“We [Australians] do tend to follow the big critics like Robert Parker. Everybody wants to buy the gun vintage,” Lennard says.

“So we had a huge amount of success with 2009 and 2010, for example, because they were rated as successively the best vintage of all time and then the next best vintage of all time.

“So Bordeaux wasn’t out of fashion at that time, because we sold record amounts of Bordeaux.

“Australian people tend not to want to buy what you might call the ‘lesser’ vintage. Compare that to Europe, where people will buy the lesser vintage because it’s cheaper and generally it means it is more early drinking and more approachable.”

And according to Nicoli Hedegaard, international sales and marketing director at Bordeaux exporter Mähler Besse, the less celebrated vintages now offer better value than ever before.

He says viticultural advances in Bordeaux have been profound in recent decades, starting with the replanting of lower yielding vines producing higher quality fruit.

“The grapes coming are in a better sanitary condition than they were in the past,” he adds.

“And the way they’re being harvested and the date of harvesting is also more precise today. We can start on the day that the grapes are perfect and mature.

“In the old days, the harvest could go on for like a month and a half, so they started very often before the grapes were 100 per cent mature and then sometimes they finished when they were almost overripe.”

These and other technological improvements in the winery ensure Bordeaux is making its best ever wines, Hedegaard says.

“They’re not harsh, as they could be in the old days, when they were very young. So you can drink them younger today but you can still keep them for many years,” he says.

Lennard says a comparison of two of Bordeaux’s most celebrated vintages of the modern era, 1982 and 2010, illustrates the jump in quality.

“There is no question that, whilst the best wines of ’82 might be able to match with the best wines of 2010, the average quality of wine made in 2010 is much higher than it was then,” he says.

The same improvements are evident in lesser vintages such as ’11 and ’12, Lennard says, the latter of which Langtons launched into Australia at a series of Bordeaux roadshow events earlier this year.

“The average quality of wine production is just getting better and better. What struck me in tasting the ‘12s is just how beautiful the wines were to drink. They were really lovely, elegant, vibrant wines,” Lennard says.

Bordeaux is the only significant wine appellation that has a major en primeur (wine futures) campaign, whereby much of the wine is sold in advance of being bottled.

As a result, Lennard says the price of Bordeaux wine is dictated more by market forces than it is by actual wine quality, so there will always be some wines that are undervalued.

He points to a poor en primeur campaign for the cut-price 2011 vintage, which had a terribly hard act to follow in 2010 – now considered possibly the best Bordeaux vintage of all time – as offering up some bargains in the following years.

“In retrospect they didn’t drop their prices enough [for 2011],” Lennard says.

“So then when ’12 came along, which I thought arguably was a little better, they had to actually continue dropping prices and that continued into ’13 as well, really.

“But that was not so much driven by wine quality but market forces.”

Lennard says 2012 Bordeaux is half the price of 2009 and 2010 releases, some of which may require up to 15 years’ maturation for optimal drinking.

“You’ll leave those in the cellar and you’ll actually drink ’12 before you drink the ’10s and the ’09s,” he says, adding that the best 2012s will still cellar for up to 20 years.

He has some simple advice for wine enthusiasts who want to bolster their collection with some Bordeaux reds, without overpaying for hype.

“Taste all you can and let your own tastes be your guide. If you slavishly follow Parker, you may end up buying wines you might not actually like,” says Lennard.

More:
Jancis Robinson on the changing world of wine: S4E4
Wynns Coonawarra Estate winemaker Sue Hodder: S3E3
Penfolds Wines’ evolution with Jeni Port and James Godfrey: S1E5

Author: James Atkinson

Journalist specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®.

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