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Parker's phenomenally successful first book, which established him as "the most influential wine writer in the world today" (Los Angeles Times), now completely updated. It is also expanded to contain discussions of 100 more chateaux and tasting notes for 1,000 more wines. Decorative art and maps.
PREFACE TO THE 2003 EDITION
WHY BORDEAUX IS SIGNIFICANTLY BETTER TODAY THAN IT WAS 25 AND 50 YEARS AGO
The oldest courtier firm in Bordeaux, Tastet and Lawton, has provided Bordeaux vintage assessments since 1795. In order to make the following argument I have used their evaluations of vintages in which the highest are rated exceptional, then good to very good, followed by mediocre or poor. For the period from 1900-1939 (40 vintages) only three vintages were rated exceptional, 10 good to very good, and 27 mediocre or poor. In contrast, during the last 21 years, 1980-2000, four vintages were rated exceptional by Tastet and Lawton, 13 were good to very good, but only three were mediocre or poor (1992, 1991, and 1984). I do not believe that global warming can be held accountable for this extraordinary change in the quality of Bordeaux vintages.
Looking back over my tasting notes of the last quarter of a century, it is interesting to note how many truly legendary wines were produced in some of the most noteworthy vintages. Being as generous as possible, the 1945 Bordeaux vintage, considered to be one of the mythical vintages of the last 100 years, actually produced only 25-30 profoundly great red wines. Even in 1982, which established my reputation as a serious wine critic, the number of monumental reds is less than three dozen. In 2000, according to my tastings, approximately 150-160 great wines -- about 28-30% of what I tasted -- were produced. Obviously I cannot go back in time, but my instincts suggest the raw materials available in 1945 as well as 1982 were not dissimilar from those that were harvested in 2000.
Why is modern-day Bordeaux so much better than it was a mere 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago? I have listed the reasons in five categories: 1. progressive changes in the vineyard, 2. techniques and modern methods that take place in the wine cellars, 3. changes in the wine's upbringing and bottling, 4. the competition that exists in the modern world and the role of the informed consumer, as well as the influence of wine critics, and 5. miscellaneous changes such as improved methods for weather forecasting.
Progressive changes in the vineyard
In the 1960s and 1970s, octogenarian professor Dr. Emile Peynaud and famed professor of oenology Dr. Pascal Ribeau-Gayon, departmental head of oenology at the University of Bordeaux between 1977 and 1995, began advocating significant changes in viticultural management. Later harvest dates were encouraged in order to pick riper fruit with lower acid levels as well as sweeter tannin and greater fruit characteristics. Later harvesting automatically produces wines lower in acidity and slightly higher in alcohol. Moreover, if the harvest is not undone by rain, exceptional fruit and ripeness can be achieved. This advice is 30-40 years old.
Along with these changes, modern-day sprays and treatments aimed at preventing rot in the vineyard were begun in the 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s. Recent good vintages such as 1999, 1994, 1983, 1979, and 1978 would undoubtedly have been destroyed by mildew in the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, there was a growth in the philosophy of going back to the vineyard (where most serious wine producers believe 90% of the quality emerges) to promote more organic techniques to encourage the health of the vines. There was also a movement toward developing a better understanding of viticulture. New techniques (called "extreme" or "radical" viticulture) became standard practice in the late 1980s and 1990s. This included the curtailing of yields by aggressive pruning in the winter and spring and crop thinning (cutting off bunches of grapes) in summer to encourage lower yields. With extremely healthy vines, yields would be expected to rise, but the opposite is actually the case as yields have dropped significantly for the top estates, from highs of 60-100 hectoliters per hectare in the mid-1980s, to 25-50 hectoliters per hectare in recent vintages. At the same time, other more radical viticulture techniques have been implemented. These include leaf pulling (to encourage air flow as well as allowing more contact with the sun), shoot positioning (to enhance sun exposure), and the ongoing research with clones and root stocks designed to eliminate those root stocks and clones that produce overly prolific crops of large-size berries. The movement of harvested grapes is also done with much more care and, in smaller containers, is designed to prevent bruising and skin breakage.
In 2003, the Bordeaux vineyards are healthier, have lower vigor, and are producing smaller and smaller berries and crops of higher and higher quality fruit. All of this is designed to produce the essence of the terroir, enhance the character of the vintage, and reveal the personality of the varietal or blend.
Techniques and modern methods that take place in the wine cellars
The famed first-growths Haut-Brion and Latour were two of the earliest estates to invest in temperature-controlled stainless-steel fermenters: Haut-Brion in the early 1960s and Latour in 1964. The advantage of temperature-controlled fermenters, which are now being replaced by some avant garde producers with open-top temperature-controlled wood fermenters (a new wrinkle on the old wooden vats used prior to the advent of temperature-controlled steel), is that it allows a producer to harvest as late as possible, picking grapes at full phenolic maturity and with high sugars. In the old days, this often happened by accident. In fact, it was often both feared and discouraged, as fully ripe grapes were tricky to vinify without temperature control. Many of the Medoc 1947s, not to mention some of the 1929s, were ruined by excessive volatile acidity because producers did not have the ability to control fermentation temperatures. If temperatures soar to dangerously high levels, the yeasts that convert the sugar into alcohol are killed, setting off a chain reaction that results in spoiled wines with excessive levels of volatile acidity. This was frequently a problem when harvests occurred during hot weather. Stories of producers throwing in blocks of ice to cool down their fermentations is not just another vineyard legend. It actually happened in 1959, 1949, and 1947. Certainly the advent of temperature-controlled fermenters, whether steel or wood, has been a remarkable technological step for the advancement of wine quality. It allows producers to harvest (assuming weather permits) at their leisure and bring in fully mature grapes knowing that at the push of a button they can control the temperature of each of their fermentation vats. This has resulted in significantly better wines with fewer defects, sweeter fruit, as well as riper tannin in addition to lower acidity.
Moreover, all of the top properties do an extraordinary selection (or culling out damaged or vegetal material) on what they call the table de tri. This is essentially a labor force that inspects the grapes as they come in to the cellars, discarding any that appear rotten, unripe, unhealthy, or blemished. The degree of this inspection varies from property to property, but it is safe to assume that those properties producing the finest wines practice the most severe selection. Some perfectionist estates have a second table de tri after the grapes are destemmed. This means another sorting team searches through the destemmed grape bunches to further pull out any vegetal material, stems, leaves, or questionable looking berries.
Cold soaks, or pre-fermentation macerations, have become increasingly a la mode. They have been used in the past in some of the colder northern viticulture areas (Burgundy and the northern Rhone) because fermentations often did not kick off for four or five days simply because the cellars were so cold. In Bordeaux, cold soaks have been gathering support, with some avant garde producers utilizing 4-8 day cold soaks hoping to extract more phenolic material, greater aromatics, and darker colors.
Fermentations, which used to be 10-15 days, are now often extended, the theory being that the molecular chain that forms the tannin structure will become sweeter and riper with prolonged fermentations of 21-30 or more days.
The bottom line is that every top Bordeaux property has invested in state-of-the-art temperature-controlled fermenters, whether they be stainless-steel or the smaller open-top wood type (which have become the rage in St.-Emilion over the last decade). All the top properties do a severe triage before and sometimes after destemming. More and more properties use cold soaks and some use extended macerations, but overall, the vinification of modern-day Bordeaux is done under strictly supervised, temperature-controlled conditions in a far more sanitary, healthy environment than 30-50 years ago. It is a far cry from the seat-of-your-pants fermentations of the past that could become stuck or troubled, thus causing the development of unwanted organisms and/or volatile acidity.
Lastly, the most controversial technique in the wine cellar today is the use of reverse osmosis and entrophy (the removal of water under a vacuum system to concentrate the grape must). In the past, the technique generally employed was called saignee, which consisted of siphoning off a portion of the juice in the fermentation tank to increase the percentage of skins to grape must. That worked reasonably well, but in the early 1980s some top chateaux (Leoville-Las Cases was one of the first) discreetly began using reverse osmosis. This technique involved pushing the grape must through an apparatus to remove the water. The practice called entrophy was also developed. These concentration techniques have now been in use for 20 years, and while I was initially skeptical, the fact is Leoville-Las Cases has been producing wines of first-growth quality. In years where there is good ripeness but dilution from harvest rains, these machines, when used with discretion, can increase the quality of the wine with apparently no damage. Twenty years after Las Cases first used reverse osmosis, the results are impressive. At many top chateaux, reverse osmosis is now standard operating procedure in years where there is some dilution from harvest rain. It is not without some risks. The danger is that you not only concentrate the wine, you concentrate the defects as well. That is why such practices must still be approached with caution. However, in the hands of talented, capable operators who use them prudently as well as selectively, it is hard to argue that they are actually changing the character of the wine other than to improve the quality of the final wine by removing water that would dilute the wine's character. After being skeptical, even critical of these machines, I have come to believe they work well when used properly.
Changes in the wine's upbringing and bottling
Perhaps the primary reason for improved quality as well as uniformity of Bordeaux wines has been the movement, encouraged by Dr. Emile Peynaud and Dr. Pascal Ribeau-Gayon (and their proteges), to bottle wines over a much shorter period of time (1-2 weeks) as opposed to bottling on demand, or over a 6-9 month period (often the case 30-50 years ago). Prior to 1970, many chateaux sold barrels of their wines to brokers, even shipping them to merchants in England or Belgium who then bottled the wines at their leisure. Thankfully, that practice came to a halt nearly 30 years ago. Today, the shorter time in barrel has resulted in wines that are more primary, richer in fruit, and have far greater potential to develop in the bottle.
In addition, sanitation in the cellars has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. Many critics claim the percentage of new oak has jumped significantly, and there is no doubting that far more new oak is seen in Bordeaux than 20-30 years ago. One Burgundian (actually a Belgian) put the issue of new oak in perspective saying, "Never has a wine been over-oaked...it's been under-wined." While new oak is an ingredient that works well with Bordeaux's Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, it should be utilized prudently, as a great chef approaches the use of salt, pepper, or garlic. New oak can improve Bordeaux, but excessive use will destroy the flavors and obliterate varietal character, vintage personality, and terroir characteristics. A great advantage in working with new oak is that it is sanitary. Part of the problem when working with old oak is that it is a fertile home for unwanted bacteria, resulting in off flavors and potential spoilage problems. New oak does not have that problem. However, if the wine does not have sufficient concentration and depth to stand up to new oak, the producer would be wiser to use a neutral vessel for aging.
A controversial (actually it's not, but it is perceived as such by uninformed observers) practice initiated by some of Bordeaux's smaller estates is malolactic fermentation in barrel, a technique employed for decades in Burgundy. Every red Bordeaux goes through malolactic fermentation, which, in short, is the conversion of the sharp, tart malic acids in the grape must into softer, creamier, lower lactic acids. For the most part, the largest estates continue to do malolactic in tank, and then move the wine into barrels for 16-20 months of aging. Small estates prefer to do malolactic in barrel because they believe it integrates the wood better and gives the wine a more forward sweetness early in life, making the young, grapy wine more appealing to that predatory, freeloading, insufferably arrogant species known as wine journalists/critics that descend on Bordeaux every spring to taste the newest vintage. Malolactic in barrel is not new. To reiterate, it has been practiced in Burgundy for decades and was often utilized in Bordeaux a century ago. It fell out of favor when large fermentation vats were developed. Malolactic in barrel gives a wine a certain seductiveness/sexiness early in its life, but at the end of a 12-month period, there is virtually no difference between a red Bordeaux given malolactic in barrel and one where malolactic occurs in tank and is subsequently moved to barrel. The latter wines often start life more slowly, but at the end of a year they have absorbed their wood just as well as those that have had malolactic in barrel.
Significant changes in the selection process for the grand vin have resulted in tremendous improvements in many Bordeaux wines. The development of second wines is also not new. Leoville-Las Cases instituted a second wine more than 100 years ago, and Chateau Margaux has been producing one nearly as long. However, in the 1980s and 1990s the selection process for top estates became increasingly draconian. It is not unusual for a high-quality estate to declassify 35% to as much as 70% of their production in order to put only the finest essence of their vineyard into the top wine. Such selections, although less brutal, also exist in the right bank appellations of St.-Emilion and Pomerol, where 30-50% of the crop is often eliminated from the final blend. Much of it goes into the second wine, but the most serious properties also produce a third wine or sell it in bulk. Keep in mind that in a great vintage like 1961 or 1982, there was little selection made by most great Bordeaux estates. Contrast that to 2000, when nearly every estate produced a second wine and sometimes a third. To reiterate, this has resulted in significantly better quality at the top echelon.
Other changes in the elevage include less racking and brutal movement of the wines. Today, many wines are moved under gas, and the racking process (often done 3-4 times during the first year) has been modified as many progressive wine-makers believe it bruises the wine and causes accelerated development as well as fruit desiccation. This has also encouraged a small group of producers to begin aging their wines on the lees. Lees are sedimentary materials consisting of yeasts and solid particles that often separate after fermentation and after the wine has been pressed into tank and barrel. These progressives feel that aging on the lees, assuming they are healthy lees, adds more texture, richness, vineyard character, and varietal personality. I tend to agree with them. However, there is no doubting that many a great Bordeaux has been produced that was never aged on any significant lees. Lees aging, which is done routinely in Burgundy, remains controversial in Bordeaux, where it is regarded as an avant garde technique.
Another new development has been micro-bullage, which originated in France's appellation of Madiran (to sweeten and soften the notoriously hard tannin of those wines) and quickly caught on in Cahors and, to a certain extent, St.-Emilion. This technique involves the diffusion of tiny amounts of oxygen through a tube into fermentation vats post fermentation, or into the actual barrels during the upbringing of the wines. In St.-Emilion, the talented Stephane Derenoncourt has made this a popular technique for the wines he oversees. The philosophy behind micro-bullage (or micro-oxygenation) is sound. The idea is to avoid labor-intensive and sometimes brutal/traumatic racking, and feed the wine oxygen in a reductive state while it is aging in the barrel. It is believed that this measured, oxidative process preserves more of the terroir and fruit character than a harsher racking process. A variation of this technique is called clicage. It is essentially the same thing, but the term is only applied to those who use micro-oxygenation in barrel, not tank. Early results from those producers who practice this technique have been positive. The wines have not fallen apart (as their critics charged) and in truth, there is no reason they should since the technique itself, if not abused, is far more gentle than traditional racking.
The addition of tannic, highly pigmented press wine to the higher-quality "free-run juice," was often applied in ancient times without any regard for balance or harmony. Today, it is done judiciously or not at all depending on whether or not the wine needs it. Small, measured dosages are frequently added incrementally to be sure the wine does not end up with an excess of tannin.
Lastly, perhaps the single most important factor after the selection process is the decision of whether to fine and/or filter, and the degree to which this is done. Both procedures can eviscerate a wine, destroying texture as well as removing aromatics, fruit, and mid-palate flesh. In the old days, a wine was rarely filtered, but egg white fining was often done in order to soften the harsh tannin. Moreover, years ago, grapes were often unripe and not destemmed, so the tannin was extremely aggressive, even vegetal. Fining helped soften this astringency. Today, with later harvests and for the other reasons already expressed, the tannin is sweeter, and unless the wine has a bacterial problem (suspended proteins or other matter that make the wine unattractive aesthetically), there is no need to fine.
In summary, less fining and filtering are practiced today, resulting in wines with more intense flavors, textures, aromatics, and terroir characters. Most of the finest estates tend to look at fining and filtering not in black and white terms, but on a vintage-by-vintage basis. The good news, and one of the reasons why Bordeaux is so much better today, is that wineries actually make a conscious decision whether they really need to fine or filter as opposed to doing it automatically (which was the situation during the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s). Presently, producers who are trying to capture the essence of their vineyards do not fine or filter unless mandatory. This has significantly raised the overall quality of Bordeaux.
The competition that exists in the modern world and the role of the informed consumer, as well as the influence of wine critics
Unquestionably, there has been a revolution in terms of the amount of information available to wine consumers. The old role, dominated by the British, of never writing a negative thing about wine, has long been replaced, largely by America's pro-consumer standards of wine writing. The quality of wine writing has never been better. Add to that the proliferation of wine information in newspapers, wine magazines, and on the Internet. There can be no doubt that consumers, as well as the wine trade, are better informed, more selective, and more knowledgeable when it comes to buying fine wine.
Bordeaux's wine trade and producers are well aware of the impact this has on their products. The idea of making mediocre wine from a great terroir and selling it at a high price has not been an intelligent option for more than 20 years. This has helped increase the competitive nature of the Bordeaux estates and resulted in better and better quality wines. The negative aspect of influential wine critics is that when they give a wine a complimentary review, it results in high demand and thus higher prices. That seems to be a small (pardon the pun) price to pay for increasingly high-quality wines at all levels.
Miscellaneous changes such as improved methods for weather forecasting
Believe it or not, 20 years ago it was impossible to receive weather forecasts longer than 24-48 hours in advance. Today, because of satellites and climate specialists, in most years the weather forecast for a viticultural area can be predicted with 90-100% accuracy 5-7 days in advance. This has been an immense help for producers in developing their harvest strategies based on a seven-day forecast that in most cases will be highly accurate. This advantage was not available 20 or 30 years ago. Additionally, there are multiple services available today from experts designed to help vignerons plant and manage vineyards, adding to the extraordinary amount of expertise available to a grape grower/wine-maker.
In conclusion, I would strongly argue that the finest wines of Bordeaux today are far superior to the great Bordeaux wines of 50-100 years ago. Today, one sees more of the terroir essence and vintage character in a bottle of great Bordeaux than they did 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Not only are the wines more accessible young, but the aging curve of top Bordeaux wines has been both broadened and expanded. Contrary to the doom and gloom kindergarten critics, most Bordeaux vintages of today will live longer and drink better during the entire course of their lives than their predecessors. However, there are some negatives to consider. For example, some of the prodigious 1947 Bordeaux (Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Latour a Pomerol, L'Evangile, Lafleur, and most notably Cheval Blanc), had residual sugar, elevated volatile acidity, extremely high alcohol, and pH levels that would cause most modern-day oenologists to faint. Sadly, despite all the improvements that have been made, few modern-day oenologists would permit a wine such as the 1947 Cheval Blanc to get into the bottle under the name Cheval Blanc. Anyone who has tasted a pristine bottle of this wine recognizes why most competent observers feel this is one of the most legendary wines ever produced in Bordeaux. All of its defects are outweighed by its extraordinary positive attributes. It is also these defects that often give the wine its singular individuality and character. So, a word of warning...despite all the techniques designed to make higher-quality wine, there is still a place for wines with a handful of defects that give a wine its undeniable character as well as greatness. Somehow, all these new techniques need to make an allowance for wines such as these 1947s.
That being said, there is no question that 1. the increased knowledge of viticulture, vinification, and weather that exists today has resulted in greater wines, 2. the improved health of the vineyards has resulted in higher-quality grapes, 3. the movement toward more natural winemaking has led to less traumatic bruising of the fruit and wine, 4. the preservation of the fruit, vintage, and terroir characteristics has reached a pinnacle because of these soft handling techniques, and 5. the bottling process today is aimed at putting the essence of the vineyard into the bottle in a less oxidized and evolved condition. Logically, it makes sense that these wines will have the ability to age better and longer than their predecessors.
It cannot be underscored strongly enough: The ignorant belief that the Bordeaux wines of today are more forward, and therefore shorter lived, is a myth. Wines today are produced from healthier, riper fruit, and thus they possess lower acidity as well as sweeter tannin. Analytically, great modern-day vintages have indices of tannin and dry extract as high or higher than the legendary vintages of the past. However, because their tannin is sweeter and the acidity lower, they can be enjoyed at an earlier age. This does not compromise their aging potential. An example would be 1959, which was considered entirely too low in acidity to age (most of the great 1959s are still in pristine condition), and 1982, which many uninformed observers claimed would have to be drunk by 1990 for fear the wine would turn into vinegar. The finest 1982s are still evolving, with the best wines possessing another 20-30 years of life.
Think it over: Does anyone want to return to the Bordeaux of 30-40 years ago when 1. less than one-fourth of the most renowned estates made wines proportional to their official pedigree, 2. dirty, unclean aromas were justified as part of the terroir character, 3. disappointingly emaciated, austere, excessively tannic wines from classified growths were labeled "classic" by a subservient wine press that existed at the largesse of the wine industry, and 4. wines were made from underripe grapes that were too high in acidity and tannin to ever fully become harmonious?
Anyone who has taken a history class has heard the famous expression: Those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it. The Bordelais know their history well and have worked enthusiastically and progressively to increase the quality of their wines. Consequently, in 2003, Bordeaux quality has never been better.
Copyright 1985, 1991, 1998, 2003 by Robert M. Parker, Jr.
Excerpted from Bordeaux by Robert M. Parker Copyright © 2003 by Robert M. Parker.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Preface to the 2003 edition
Chapter 1: USING THIS BOOK
Chapter 2: A SUMMARY OF BORDEAUX VINTAGES: 1945-2001
Chapter 3: EVALUATING THE WINES OF BORDEAUX
Margaux and the Southern Médoc
The Lesser-Known Appellations: Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, and Moulis
The Red and White Wines of Pessac-Léognan and Graves
Barsac and Sauternes
The Satellite Appellations of Bordeaux
Chapter 4: THE BORDEAUX WINE CLASSIFICATIONS
Chapter 5: THE ELEMENTS FOR MAKING GREAT BORDEAUX WINE
Chapter 6: A USER'S GUIDE TO BORDEAUX
Chapter 7: A VISITOR'S GUIDE TO BORDEAUX
Chapter 8: A GLOSSARY OF WINE TERMS
Posted July 14, 2004
I found Parkers' mention of vine age and references to the use of steel vats or oak in the making of wine by the chateau of bordeaux helpful in selecting better bottles of bordeaux for my collection. A reference every bordeaux lover should have.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.