Your Guide to Bordeaux Vintages: How to Pick the Best Bordeaux Years for Your Collection

Guide to Bordeaux Vintages

Any comprehensive guide to Bordeaux vintages will include wines from Sauternes and Margaux, since these regions produce high-quality, collectible bottles. Photo Credit: Pixabay CC user jackmac34

After spending nearly a week in France last year, I quickly learned which recent Bordeaux vintages were worth my time. I already knew which vintages critics loved best, like 2009 L’Evangile or 2005 Lafite-Rothschild, but trying these superb Bordeaux years in French restaurants was still an eye-opening experience. Most 2009 and 2005 Bordeaux bottles are near-flawless, yet when I tasted a flight of these wines for myself, I discovered that I preferred 2009’s ripe, luscious fruit over 2005’s prominent tannins.

Any list of the best Bordeaux years comes down to personal preference–one collector’s wine of the age could completely bore another collector. However, critics and collectors can still agree on our essential guide to Bordeaux vintages. In it, we list the vintages that receive the most praise from wine enthusiasts, and offer you tips on how to add these bottles to your own collection.

Your Guide to Bordeaux Vintages by Region

How much impact can a region’s average climate have on Bordeaux vintages year after year? More than you might think. Before you get into whether 2011 Bordeaux was better than 2012, you’ll need to consider how much the terroir affects the grapes, and invest only in vintages when the weather was ideal for the specific terroir’s climate. After all, rainfall in Medoc might spell disaster for the vintage, but the same amount of rain in Sauternes could be a blessing.

Take a look below at our map of the essential Bordeaux regions that you need to know, along with their ideal weather conditions.

bordeaux-mapMedoc

Grapes planted: Primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Ideal weather: Heavy rain tends to plague this region, so the best vintages will come from years when rain was scarcer than usual.

Must-try terroirs: Haut-Médoc, Pauillac, Margaux, and St. Estephe.

Additional investment tips: This region has the highest number of collectible wines by far, with some of the finest producers in Bordeaux residing within its borders. It’s a great investment, often regardless of average vintage score.

Graves

Grapes planted: Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (for red blends), or Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc (for white blends).

Ideal weather: This region tends to be warmer than most other regions of Bordeaux, so the best vintages will include cooler nights and some mild rain late in the season to increase acidity levels.

Must-try terroirs: Pessac-Leognan.

Additional investment tips: Graves’ Haut Brion is the primary collectible wine in this region, and is one of the few blue-chip wines located outside of Medoc.

Sauternes

Grapes planted: Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, usually of the sweeter variety (which comes from noble rot).

Ideal weather: Very mild conditions in the spring and early summer, followed by fog in August, encourage noble rot growth, so look for this in the wine’s tasting notes.

Must-try terroirs: Barsac (for dry wine) and Sauternes AOC (for sweet wine).

Additional investment tips: The ultra sweet wines from this region are usually the most collectible, but you should also try wines from Barsac if the weather is better-suited to dry grape varietals.

Entre-Deux-Mers

Grapes planted: Mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Ideal weather: Because this region is located between two rivers, it can be cooler than other regions of Bordeaux. The best vintages will embrace this chilly climate, but will temper that cold with some warm early summer heat.

Must-try terroirs: Entre-Deux-Mers AOC.

Additional investment tips: You’ll mostly want to invest in white wines from this subregion, because the red wine is mass-produced and not particularly age-worthy. Most of these wines drink young.

St. Emilion

Grapes planted: Primarily Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Ideal weather: Its clay-rich soil soaks up rain, which is excellent, because this region tends to be on the dry side. Avoid vintages with heavy rainfall, since the clay retains too much water.

Must-try terroirs: St. Emilion AOC.

Additional investment tips: For decades, this region was largely underrated. Now, it houses four of the top estates in Bordeaux, and is a go-to for collectors wanting high-quality, rare wine.

Pomerol

Grapes planted: Merlot and Cabernet Franc make up most of the region’s vineyards.

Ideal weather: During the day, this region gets extremely hot, and at night, extremely cold. The ideal vintage will have both of these extremes, but not enough to scorch or frost the grapes. Merlot is better in cooler years.

Must-try terroirs: The best wines come from the eastern section, near St. Emilion.

Additional investment tips: Although this region has no classifications, many of the wines are in high demand due to their excellent quality and rarity, making them very collectible.

Côtes de Bordeaux

Grapes planted: Mostly Merlot.

Ideal weather: The massive size of this region makes it difficult to generalize its climate, but usually, its best wines come from warmer vintages, as the grapes have the chance to fully ripen.

Must-try terroirs: Côtes de Blaye.

Additional investment tips: This region is chock-full of mass-produced table wine that’s not worth collecting, however, you can still find some collectible gems in the Premieres Côtes de Blaye terroirs.

When you go through our guide to Bordeaux vintages, it’s important to consider more than just the vintage’s numerical score. You’ll also want to pick years that best match the ideal climate for each terroir above.

Your Guide to Bordeaux Vintages by Producer

Once you’ve considered the ideal weather conditions for these terroirs, think about investing in at least one of the producers under each category below. These producers usually create the best examples of any vintage, even in years when the weather wasn’t ideal. For instance, I’ve never had a bad bottle of Cos d’Estournel, including vintages where most of Medoc struggled to produce high-quality grapes. Their winemaking techniques can often overcome a vintage’s flaws.

To make the most out of your Bordeaux collection, look for bottles from the following producers:

Guide to Bordeaux VintagesThe Best Red Bordeaux Vintages in Recent History

While it’s true that the best Bordeaux producers can produce superb wines even in poor years, it’s still important to memorize the following guide to Bordeaux vintages from 2005 through 2015, especially if you’re planning on reselling your bottles for a profit later. A seemingly small, two-point difference in average score could mean hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars’ difference on the market. You might not be able to taste much difference between a 96 and a 99 point wine, but you’ll see a clear distinction in their market value.

To use this guide to Bordeaux vintages, simply memorize which recent vintages represent the best of the decade, which vintages are of mixed quality, and which vintages are risky investments.

Guide to Bordeaux VintagesThe Best Vintages

Your safest recent red Bordeaux investments are in 2015, 2010, 2009, and 2005. This is easy to remember because most of them are divisible by five. Critic Jancis Robinson was one of the first to notice this pattern, and, with few exceptions, it’s held true for the past few decades. And of course, although red Bordeaux happens to peak in vintage quality every five years, this is more of a coincidence than a hard rule, so don’t rely too heavily on it for your future investments. All four of these vintages saw hot, dry summers and relatively cool, slightly rain-soaked days as harvest season approached. Which vintage you choose depends on your preferences. The 2015 is rich and velvety (especially on the Right Bank); the 2010 is fresh and more “classic Bordeaux” in flavor; the 2009 is extremely ripe and intense (especially on the Left Bank); the 2005 is extremely tannic and age-worthy.

Average Quality Vintages

The 2014, 2011, and 2006 vintages are likely worth a space in your cellar, but you’ll have to spend more time researching them first to ensure that you’re making the right choice. The 2014 vintage experienced a damp summer, meaning that the grapes had trouble ripening. These wines tend to be high in acid and very fragrant–they’re great for early drinking, rather than cellaring. Meanwhile, the 2011 vintage was plagued by low alcohol and high tannins, which could make some of these wines feel unbalanced. Only buy Grand Cru or Premier Cru producers from this year if you want a truly safe investment. Finally, the 2006 vintage struggled with chaotic weather conditions–one month was drought-prone, while another was miserably rainy–yet it produced quite a few concentrated, high-quality wines. Focus mostly on Pomerol in this vintage.

Lower Quality Vintages

Unfortunately, red Bordeaux has struggled over the past decade. Poor weather across the region produced lower quality wines than usual, and it’s only now starting to recover. The 2012 and 2008 vintages suffered the most from uneven ripening, and only the top producers managed to make high-quality bottles. I recommend not straying from blue-chip wines in these two years, even if you only plan on drinking (not reselling) your bottles. The 2013 and 2007 vintages were even worse off, with mildew problems and diluted grapes. In 2007, some top producers culled the bad grapes early and managed to pull off decent vintages. The 2013 vintage didn’t have as much luck; even the top producers struggled. Take extreme care when you see a bottle of 2013 red Bordeaux.

The Best White Bordeaux Vintages in Recent History

For the most part, when you use the words “white Bordeaux,” you’re usually talking about Sauternes. It’s the most popular white wine subregion in Bordeaux because its natural climate is usually perfect for growing delicate Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. This is why, for every numerical score below, you should also have Sauternes’ ideal climate in the back of your mind. Remember that this subregion thrives under mild conditions, especially when warm, late summers produce a fine, misty humidity that gives the grapes noble rot.

Here’s your guide to Bordeaux vintages for white wines:

 

Guide to Bordeaux VintagesThe Best Vintages

The best recent white wine vintages include 2015, 2014, 2011, and 2009. Out of these, the 2015 and 2011 vintages show the most promise when it comes to long-term aging. The 2011 is far more thrilling than any of the other recent vintages on this list, with an especially concentrated taste that should lend well to decades of cellaring. The 2015 isn’t as powerful, but it has a slightly higher acid content, which will make these wines last. Go for Sauvignon Blanc-heavy bottles in this vintage, as Semillon tended to be too thin-skinned. The 2014 and 2009 vintages are a bit more fun to drink than to cellar, but you can safely choose either option. If you love a sharp, acidic wine, you’ll prefer the 2014 vintage to every other year on this list. However, if you’d rather have a balanced wine, the 2009 will be a better investment for you.

Average Quality Vintages

Most of the recent white Bordeaux vintages are of average overall quality. The producers you choose will make the most difference in these years. On the higher end of the quality scale, the 2013, 2010, and 2005 vintages stand out above the rest. The 2013 tends to be light; the 2010 is typically fresh and full-bodied; the 2005 is ultra concentrated (albeit borderline flabby). All of these vintages are a joy to drink, and none will make risky investments, even if you go with lesser-known producers. Meanwhile, white Bordeaux ranging from 2006 through 2008 tends to favor dry styles, rather than sweeter wines. These vintages feature high acidity and intense minerality.

Lower Quality Vintages

Unlike red Bordeaux, which has been a mixed bag over the past decade, white Bordeaux really only had one flop. In 2012, sporadic changes in the weather resulted in uneven grapes. The dry wines had far more success than their dessert wine peers. To make the most out of this vintage, choose producers who are renowned for making excellent dry wines, especially those residing in Graves. This particular subregion was one of the only areas that managed to pull a refreshing liveliness out of their wines in 2012. Even so, these aren’t usually wines worth storing for decades.

Legendary Bordeaux Vintages of the Past

Bordeaux is the most collectible wine in the world for a reason: its greatest vintages are the stuff of legend, surpassing nearly every other wine region. I know some collectors who will only buy these old legendary wines, and have no interest in the newer vintages. While you’ll make a greater profit when you invest in young wines and store them for a few decades, it’s also worthwhile to invest in older Bordeaux, especially if you want to drink your wine right now. Not all collectors want to wait for a young vintage to mature.

If this sounds like you, take a look at our guide to Bordeaux vintages prior to 2000 that represent the absolute best that this region has to offer.

You might think that Bordeaux from the 1920s isn’t worth buying or drinking, but that’s not true. In 1928, the quality of the wine was so high that they’ve lasted through 2017, and they don’t show any signs of spoilage. If you have yet to try a 100-year-old wine, then buy your 1928 Bordeaux now and hold onto it for another 10 years.

The 1940s and 1950s were back-to-back golden decades for Bordeaux. It’s difficult narrowing these legends down to just a handful of picks. If you can only buy one legendary Bordeaux, make it the 1945. In 1945, drought-like conditions produced an ultra-concentrated wine. In France, this reward was extra sweet, as the entire country celebrated a victory in WWII. Mouton-Rothschild created a new label commemorating the moment, and today, it is highly collectible.

Bordeaux’s upward trajectory waned a bit in the 1960s and 1970s. You can still find some hidden gems, like the 1964, which had immense success due to ideal weather conditions throughout the region. As you move through the 1970s, you’ll likely get the most out of the 1970 vintage. This was a comeback vintage after a few years of poor quality wines, and it still has beautiful balance.

As you move into the 1980s and 1990s, you have more freedom to hold onto your bottles without worrying about whether they’ve already reached their peak. For 1980s investments, sticking with a classic, blue-chip option like 1982 is a sound investment. This vintage was the first representation of Bordeaux’s modern winemaking style, and it helped launch the career of critic Robert Parker. If you’re looking for something a little more unusual to add to your cellar, consider the 1989, which had a ripe, unmistakable flavor. In the 1990s, both 1996 and 1990 were of the highest quality–critics consider the 1990 in particular to be one of the greatest wines of the century.

Investing in Bordeaux Vintages

The best way to use this guide to Bordeaux vintages is to memorize all of the recent vintage scores and a few of the legendary past vintages. You can use this as a strong base when you shop for wine. Search for wine from these top vintages first, and then narrow down your hunt by ideal regional weather, and then by the finest producers in the area. Working from a broad vintage standpoint, and then getting more detailed tasting notes as you go will help you make informed decisions about which wine to buy, and will introduce you to some of the finest wines Bordeaux has to offer.
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