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Right Bank, Right Now
By Michael Franz
Jan 18, 2011
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If you will be able to scrape a little cash together--either now or during the next 18 months--you’ll have a chance to acquire some truly amazing wines from the “Right Bank” appellations in Bordeaux.

I understand that the “if” in the preceding sentence is a key word; most of us are strapped for cash these days, and it takes some serious cash to score the top wines from right Right Bank appellations like Pomerol and St.-Emilion.  However, I would suggest that the word “little” should also be taken seriously, since less famous appellations like Lalande de Pomerol and the St.-Emilion “satellite” AOCs have produced some gorgeous but reasonably priced wines in recent years, especially in the spectacular forthcoming vintages of 2009 and 2010.

Which appellations are we talking about here, and why should you care?  The list includes:

--Saint-Emilion
--Saint-Emilion Grand Cru
--Montagne Saint-Emilion
--Lussac Saint-Emilion
--Puisseguin Saint-Emilion
--Saint-Georges Saint-Emilion
--Pomerol
--Lalande de Pomerol
--Fronsac
--Canon Fronsac

Although Saint Emilion and Pomerol approach the fame of Left Bank appellations such as Pauillac and Margaux, the world-wide scramble to acquire most of the wines from the Right Bank isn’t as intense.  The properties are often smaller in extent than those in the Medoc and Margaux, and their names are rather less well-known, not least because they were not included in the famous 1855 classification of the wines of the Left Bank.  Consequently, Left Bank wines often offer stronger value, and since most are based on Merlot and Cabernet Franc rather than Cabernet Sauvignon, they are generally softer and easier to enjoy when young--though many can improve for a decade or more, and hold for much longer than that.

During an intensive week of tastings in late December, I visited 23 chateaux and tasted hundreds of new releases and barrel samples from the 10 appellations that comprise Bordeaux’s Right Bank.  The tastings that formed the core of this trip were unusual, and consequently my report will be a bit different than what I’d normally recount.  In most instances, the tastings were much “broader” than they were “deep,” in the sense that the wines were not confined to a particular appellation or vintage, but rather were assembled from different Right Bank appellations and vintages.

Accordingly, it makes less sense to delve deeply into the specific characteristics of appellations such as Pomerol or St. Emilion than to provide two other things:  First, an overview of recent and forthcoming vintages, and second, identifications of particularly strong wines to be pursued in the marketplace.  I’ll pursue the first of these below, and will take up the second task in my column here next month.

I have some very good news to report from the recent week of tastings and interviews, but lest my critical credibility be undermined by my enthusiasm, I should note up front that, of the vintages that are currently available in significant quantity, only 2005 is truly outstanding.  However, the vintages of the past decade offer many opportunities for those who buy with care, and forthcoming 2009s and 2010s are terrific.

With regard to current stock, wines from 2001 have never compared well with their famously strong counterparts from 2000.  However, considered apart from the 2000s, the 2001s have turned out very well, and surely would have received much more favorable press had they not been overshadowed by a great preceding year.  It is also worth noting that the 2000s are now very scarce, and that they were purchased at high prices in the first place, so the comparative merits of the 2001 vintage now look a lot better than they used to.  For specific pointers on fine 2001, see my recommendations at the tail end of this column.

The 2002 vintage was quite wet, and though some good wines were made, we can dispense with this vintage.  By contrast to 2002, the 2003 growing season was scorchingly hot.  Nevertheless, one clear conclusion from my recent tastings was that Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac produced stellar wines in that year, some of which are still available at very attractive prices relative to the quality of the wines.  Some over-achieving chateaux in other appellations also made very good wines in 2003, but many or most of these have now sold through at the retail level.  So, with the exception of wines from Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac, I’d advise you to look to more recent vintages for chances to get strong values.

The 2004, 2006 and 2008 vintages produced some very fine efforts, but even most of the better wines will require cellaring and patience before they can really shine.  I heard these vintages referred to repeatedly during my week in the region as “classic Bordeaux vintages.”  However, that term was always used as a subtle point of distinction from really superb years like 2005, and I learned that the phrase should probably be decoded as “wines without a lot of immediate appeal unless you drink them with food, but good promise for those with cellars and patience.”  There are, of course, exceptions to the generalization that the wines from these vintages are still too tightly-wound to enjoy, and surely there are more exceptions from these years from the Right Bank than from the Medoc and Margaux, which have much more Cabernet Sauvignon planted.  I’ll note some wines from these vintages that are worth snapping up toward the end of this column.

Nevertheless, if you don’t have a cellar and want to buy Merlot-based Bordeaux to enjoy in the near term, 2007 offers better options for you.  To be clear, the 2007s are generally not great wines.  They tend to be light in weight and ill-suited to long-term cellaring.  However, many show lovely aromas and soft, expressive flavors, and though few of them have the heft to pair up with really robust food, many would prove downright delicious with something like roast duckling.  The vintage has a generally poor reputation, and consequently prices are not unreasonable relative to other years, so careful cherry-picking can yield some excellent values.

If you’ve got cellaring capacity, 2008 is a year to take seriously.  The wines were vinified during the scariest days of the global financial crisis, and then offered for sale under grim circumstances during the following spring.  The economic climate has only improved marginally since 2008, but the viticultural climate in Bordeaux improved dramatically, and the terrific wines resulting from the 2009 and 2010 vintages have certainly dampened enthusiasm for wines made in 2008.  Many of the wines are well balanced and very promising, with lovely sweet fruit that will--ultimately--counterbalance the abundant tannins as they soften.  But that softening will take time for wines made from this growing season, and this is a caveat to take seriously.  But if you’ve got a cellar, I’ve got plenty of recommendations on 2008s.

My tastings during December showed indisputably that the highly-touted wines from 2005 were not over-hyped.  Many of these tastings were unusual in structure, including a range of wines from different vintages and appellations.  Again and again, I found that I’d hit a 2005 in the midst of these tastings and it was as though someone had turned on another bank of lights in the room:  No longer did I need to look for the charms of the wine in my glass; they were obvious and immediate.

It takes effort to find fault in the wines from 2005, as they routinely show perfectly symmetrical proportions, with plenty of acidity and tannin but more than enough sweet fruit to hold everything together.  Almost all of the wines will still get much better with additional ageing, but there’s so much sweet succulence in them that they are already thoroughly enjoyable.  This is exactly what it means to talk about a “great vintage” in Bordeaux:  The wines shine right from the start, and continue to taste great even as they acquire additional dimension with age.  Tellingly, the 2005s shone in my tastings regardless of appellations, and it was often the case that a 2005 from, say, Lalande de Pomerol utterly eclipsed a much more famous St.-Emilion Grand Cru.

Since the 2005s were obviously terrific right from the outset, they commanded high prices when offered to the trade, and sold well nevertheless.  However, you should consider seriously any bottles that you find, even if they seem pricey by comparison to wines with better pedigrees from 2006, 2007 or 2008.  They are “birds in hand,” and that counts for a lot, even by comparison to the 2009s and 2010s.  These forthcoming wines will ultimately be terrific, but you can only buy them now as futures, and that makes them “birds in the bush” in an economic climate that could conceivably drive some brokers or retailers out of business before the promised wines are delivered to already-paying customers.

Wines from 2009 are currently on offer from various retailers on a pre-arrival basis, and futures for the 2010s will become available in the spring.  Early indications suggest that the wines from 2010 may be even better than those from the preceding year, with less heat stress on the vines and better acidity in the resulting wines despite the fact that the grapes ultimately achieved great ripeness over an extended growing season.  The high sugar content prolonged fermentations, and likewise malolactic fermentations were later and slower than usual, so many of the wines are still unsettled and cannot be evaluated precisely with regard to their potential.  They will stabilize and begin to show their qualities more clearly during the next three months, and you’d be well advised to hold some of your wine budget in reserve to enable you to jump on a few of the more attractive futures offerings.  I’ll be back next month with notes on a selection of currently available wines from standout producers that you should consider for near-term enjoyment.

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Questions or comments?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com