Sunday, 15 June 2003

Clarets with three noughts

The reporting season for the 2002 vintage has been relatively muted so far, with sad squelching sounds all we hear from the sunny south. So with fresh memories of a pretty dire summer at home I am delighted to find growers in northern Europe sounding so chipper: satisfaction along the Loire, in Champagne maybe even a vintage, delirium in Germany, with the highest sugar content ever recorded in Riesling (256 Oechsle degrees at Lieser on the Moselle, by Sybille Kuntz), Burgundy pretty content, and Bordeaux rubbing its eyes in near disbelief.

At the end of August we were getting gallows humour: 'Perhaps I'll make white wine this year' said Anthony Barton of the great claret châteaux Léoville and Langoa; 'the grapes were supposed to have turned red by now'.

In September they did, far faster than anyone expected. The sun shone, the Merlot sprinted to ripeness and the Cabernets came puffing along in pursuit. By October an uneven crop was more sweet and flavoury than anyone believed possible. The last time the fat was pulled out of the fire so spectacularly was by a late change of weather in 1978.

There is a good deal of sage head-wagging going on: 'It sorted out the men from the boys; the serieux from the paresseux'. It was the sort of crop that needed hands-on attention right through from the uneven flowering to the laborious vintage triage when undersized and unripe grapes had to be thrown out. So expect mixed reports, but don't discount enthusiastic ones.

Bordeaux 2001 is a mixed-message vintage too. However good its best wines they will always be compared to the 2000s, usually to the advantage of the latter. How is the latter? The Union des Grand Crus did itself a favour the other day ('high time', said many) hiring the splendid Floral Hall at Covent Garden and giving the celebrated vintage its first big public (or at least press and trade) airing since it was bottled. Deliveries to those who bought en primeur (and are still paying off the overdraft) will start in the spring. Are the wines living up to their colossal billing?

Perhaps not for those who are expecting the vintage of a lifetime, powered to run for a hundred years. I found the reds more accessible than I expected - in some cases so pretty and plausible that I had doubts about their durability. But great vintages are good to taste from birth. That's the folklore. Should we complain?

What I love about these wines is their sheer joyful sappiness. They smell and taste of ripe grapes, sweet - savoury too - with clean fruity acidity and tannins that support the instep without pinching the toes. There are a lot of class acts; the best openly and sweetly fragrant on the palate and at the same time cool, tight and firmly packaged in the flavour department. Examples; from a run of the Graves Chateaux I love and follow, satisfaction ranging from moderate (Chateau Carbonnieux, 'perfumed, floral, even ready to drink') to ecstatic: (Chateau Haut-Bailly; 'Nose fresh and sweet but restrained. Opens smoothly, velvet tannins, then builds intensity to a potent sting. Savoury, coats palate with perfume. Great style, fruit goes on and on. Top wine'.

I thought the Margaux and St Julien tables were extra good; some of the Pauillac and St Estephe wines less obviously, at least at present. St Emilion and Pomerol (generalizing from a scattered sampling) were everything one could expect, short of a thunderous acclamation of greatness. The First Growths were not present.

What we have on the present showing, then, is an extremely attractive and very ripe vintage, a vintage everyone will enjoy and feel confident about ordering for at least a decade. No, two. Its greatness and long-term worth, though, let alone its value for the highest prices ever, have yet to be proved. Have another look at the '01s. And be open-minded about the '02s.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President