2007 Bordeaux by Shaun Bishop

by Chuck Hayward

Bordeaux was closed. Not just because the ATMs were closed when we needed Euros, not just because the restaurants were closed when we wanted lunch, and not just because the gas stations were closed when our cars were running low. Because most of the red wines of 2007 lacked a mid palate and a memorable finish; because the prices will be too high after two strong vintages and a weak US dollar; we declare the 2007 vintage officially CLOSED. Yes, closed before it even opened.

One scene sums up the vintage. We were tasting at Chateau Mouton Rothschild and the Baronesse Philippine de Rothschild HERSELF was there - never before have we seen her mingling and tasting with the trade. She must have known 2007 would require all salesmanship she could muster.

While the Baronesse was holding a glass of 07 Clerc Milon, I distinctly recall her telling Philippe Dhalluin, the Director of all of the Rothschild Estates, "ça c’est très férmès?!", which translates to "It's very closed?!" She had it right! 

As it turned out, we found what the Baronesse said to be true and a recurring theme through our tasting of the 07 vintage - not so much that the wines were 'closed,' as that implies that they are merely in a stage where they are shut down and difficult to taste and one day will open up, but instead that many wines lacked much of the mid palate, texture and finish that may never come around. Indeed, many wines were closed and we mean closed, bolted, shut, out of business.

From Mar 24 to April 4, the JJ Buckley team was in Bordeaux to taste the 2007 vintage out of barrel. We sent 6 people - including our buying and sales staff. It was surprising how few other U.S. retailers were there this year. Even though the 2007 is expected to be a lesser vintage - to understand Bordeaux, you have to taste year in and out.

JJ Buckley is one of the largest buyers of Bordeaux in the United States, so we were greeted with open arms, tasted hundreds of wines, and visited with many Chateau owners and directors, negociants and other suppliers. It was a great trip for our whole team. Overall the 2007 vintage is exceptional for whites but weak for reds. In fact, what we tasted in many of the 2007 reds made us want to buy more of the 2005s and 2006s.

Of course, there were the exceptions:

        - some real value wines (under $30),

        - a handful of reds from Pomerol, Pessac Leognan, St Emilion, and St Julien,

        - the whites of Pessac and Sauternes that showed beautifully and certainly as good or as

           better than their 06 and 05 counterparts.

In general, we found four important highlights of the 2007 vintage:
1. Less is More
2. Tannins
3. The Whites and Stickies
4. Stèphane Derenoncourt

A quick note on the weather

The growing season can be wrapped up in a couple of sentences: After a relatively mild January-March caused early budding, the flowering came early and somewhat irregular. Then, the summer months were terrible and rainy and by the end of August many were ready to completely write off the vintage. Then, September came and 'saved' the vintage with consistent sunshine and dry cool breezes through October and the harvest. This definitely explains the lack of mid palate that we found in so many of the 2007 reds.The grapes may have had good color and sugar levels but they did not have phenolic maturity needed for making great wine.

1. Less is More

We found that the estates who focused on the fruit and produced a wine without too much oak, and especially new oak, made very nice and delicious wines that will be accessible early, albeit with a fairly short lifespan. Wineries that spent their efforts after the harvest didn't get any value. Wines in the sub $30 category, where the focus is on producing great, ripe fruit and less on spending extra dollars after the grapes are picked, were the real winners. In other words, the estates that took what the land and sun gave them, properly managed the vineyard throughout the growing season, picked physiologically mature grapes (not just based on sugar levels and color, but phenolic ripeness), and then made a wine without the intention of over-extracting, over-oaking, or over-manipulating in some way, came out ahead and produced very nice wines. These wines were balanced, had nice fruit, not too much oak, integrated tannins, and showed an inviting approachability.

On a side note, as dramatic as this may sound, I believe this sub $30 category continues to be the most overlooked and under appreciated category in Bordeaux - in fact, these may well be the best wine values you can find anywhere in the world. Even more amazing is that this category continues produce great values even with a worthless dollar - these estates aren't making much (if any) money and the beneficiary of their hard work and passion continues to be the consumer.

Indeed, 2007 was not a year to try to do something with fruit that really couldn't handle it to begin with. If the contact between the (under ripe) seeds and the juice was too long or the press was not smooth, the wines turned out slightly bitter, tannic, and/or acidic. Far too many wines that are made in the 'low-yield fashion' and sell in the $50+ range, turned out terrible in 2007. It's difficult to extract fruit that's not really 'there.'

2. Tannins

On the whole, many of the reds of 2007 lacked the phenolic maturity of the grapes and core structure to handle too much tannin. Time and time again we found ourselves tasting wines saying "too tannic, too little fruit." Tannins come mostly from grape skins, stems, and seeds, but can also come from oak barrels, especially new ones. Those estates that did not add tannins through excessive new oak and properly managed the skin and seed contact with the juice, had a better chance of making a good wine in 2007. A good wine doesn't necessarily mean a wine you will age but at least it's enjoyable in the near term. The better 2007's are a softer, friendlier effort accompanied by nice fruit. They may not turn out to be a blockbuster, but will be enjoyable soon after bottling. In contrast, 2005s could easily handle the new oak, extraction, etc as there was simply much more fruit to work with.

3. The Whites and Stickies

2007 is a great year for the dry white wines of Pessac Leognan and the sweet wines of Sauternes.
Sweet wines are very difficult wines to taste this early in their development, but it is quite obvious that the 2007's possess great acidity, richness and complexity. In Sauternes, fall is by far the most important season of the year, and in 2007 September was dry but October and November were fairly warm and damp which was great for the botrytis. It was also a long harvest which is great for these wines, as it adds to their complexity. There is plenty of sweetness without the high alcohol of 03s and 05s and great, crisp acidity.

We believe these 07s are on par with the 01s - they are that good!

The dry white wines of Pessac Leognon also turned out fantastic. They are pure with beautiful complexity, balance, and fresh acidity. This may be the year that the American consumer takes notice of the white wines of Bordeaux, in particular Pessac Leognan. These wines are just so balanced, versatile, and age worthy. Pessac Leognon is producing not just great white wines but also beautifully balanced reds - in fact some of the best reds of the 07 vintage come from this region. This may very well be the start of a trend in overall quality of the appellation.

4. Stèphane Derenoncourt

Why in the world would I want to talk about Stèphane you may ask? We have been fans of Stèphane's work for some time, and have admired his ability to make great wines from different terroir and different vintages. Mr. Derenoncourt is a wine maker who consults for 70 different estates in Bordeaux and around the world (including Syria!). It really wasn't until our last day in Bordeaux this year, with tastings of several hundred 07 barrel samples behind us, however, that we realized exactly how good this guy and his passionate young team really are. It was clear that Stèphane's natural wine making inclinations would complement the 2007 vintage perfectly - his focus was on the fruit, not using post crush techniques to change the wine into something that it was not meant to be.

On April 3, we attended a tasting at Chateau La Gaffeliere that included all 2007 wines that Stèphane is responsible for making - about 70 different properties! Stèphane has told us time and time again, that he likes to adapt the winemaking to express the terroir of any one particular vineyard. His philosophy is based upon a profound respect of nature and the singular identity of each wine that he crafts. He works with the vineyard's ecosystem, looking to plant trees, bushes, or cover crops that will attract the insects that will be beneficial to vine growing with a minimum of pesticides. The ultimate goal is to achieve a natural balance without the human and/or chemical intervention. Stèphane says "When faced by the terroir, the more discrete a man's work, the better the wine."

Needless to say, the most impressive wines of 2007, tasted as a group in one setting, were the wines of Stèphane Derenoncourt. I almost thought we tasted a different vintage! Unlike so many other 07s we had previously tasted, many of Stèphane's wines were complete - seamless tannins, less 'manipulated' and simply delicious fruit. Obviously, these aren't first growths but they are very inexpensive - for the value that they deliver, they are very impressive. Some of the most impressive were: Pavie Macquin, Bellevue, Tertre Daugay, La Gaffeliere, Lucia, Domaine de l'A, Villemaurine, La Bienfaisance, des Fougeres La Folie, Beausejour, and Beausejour 1901.

In a difficult year like 2007, much comes down to the vineyard management and winemaking and it is years like this that a winemaking guru like Stèphane Derenoncourt and his wines really shine.

Our recommended buying strategy for the 2007 Campaign:

- Seek out the whites of Pessac and Sauternes - these are great
- Keep 'collectible' buys to a focused group of wines - no reason to buy broadly
- Try the $10-$30 category of reds for early drinkers - great values here, but you can wait to buy these once they land in the US.
- Think about value and why you're buying the wines - if the wine seems too expensive, move on. There is no reason you should pay more just because the dollar is weak and the prices ex-Chateau are higher. Plenty of older stock in the marketplace that are great drinkers now (1999, 2001, 2002, 2004).
- In general, if you're debating between 06 and 07, go with 06.
- If you can afford to pay a bit more, absolutely buy 05s - they are simply great - night and day compared to the 07s or any other vintage for that matter, without a doubt.
- Keep in mind that Bordeaux (in general) remains one of the best values in the world of fine wine - especially under $30 but even up to $100.
- The appellations of Pomerol, Pessac, Sauternes, and parts of St Emilion and St Julien excelled for the vintage
- Many red wines, especially from Margaux, had very nice aromatics, but lacked stuffing and finish
- Stay away from the wineries that have a history of pushing the limits and over extracting, as the fruit simply was not ripe enough in 07. Instead these wines turned out austere and hollow.
- Don't shy away from the vintage as a whole - many of these wines will be early drinkers while you wait for the 05s to mature. That said, stick to the value wines under $30. No reason to spend more than you have to.
- Biggest disappointment of 2007 - Chateau Margaux
- Biggest surprise of 2007 - Chateau le Gay