‘Vintages and their sunshine are everything in Bordeaux’
Wine as liquid sunshine? The idea appeals, especially in the pit of a high-latitude winter. How, though, might we ‘taste’ sunshine? isn’t it just a fancy way of describing the warming effect of alcohol on the tongue?
We don’t talk about ‘liquid sunshine’ in a glass of chilled vodka or Trappist ale, nor in sancerre or Chablis, though alcohol is present in each; ‘liquid sunshine’ tends to mean red wine served after dusk in firelit rooms by candlelight. Blood-like wine, in other words; wine to warm artery and vein.
The comfort of this notion is psychological and metaphorical. it’s a way of mentally appropriating the ease of summer amid the rigours of winter – or respite amid difficulties of all sorts.
is it a feature of all red wines? Hardly. Those reds best served chilled disqualify themselves, as do reds of the paler sort, or those from pinched vintages. The last point is an important one, bearing on balance. liquid sunshine implies palpable ripeness in a red: that’s how the metaphor is gauged.
all of this has been on my mind over the course of the last week, as i’ve been travelling in that region where the ripeness of any particular vintage is measured more minutely and more intricately in the grain of a wine than in any other: Bordeaux.
Vintages and their sunshine are everything in Bordeaux: just look at the mountainous price differences between a single property’s 2010 and 2013 wines. That’s a stark example, but between any two vintages in Bordeaux there is a play of difference, a pulse of palpable ripeness, rarely matched elsewhere.
Over the last week, i have tasted and drunk Bordeaux reds from 1998, 2002, 2004 and then every vintage up to and including 2017. Yes, differences between properties, sites and levels of selectivity and ambition are primordial, but on this occasion i have honestly enjoyed comparing the differences between vintage styles almost as much.
What i’m looking for on each occasion is a core of assured ripeness in conjunction with structure and fruit presence, appropriately modulated (something else Bordeaux does better than any other region) by the wine’s evolution since bottling: historical sunshine, if you like, dancing inside the bottle.
it’s there, of course, in the very good or great vintages: 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016. That goes without saying – but it is also true that, just now, the best wines of all of these vintages need longer in order to reach full expression.
More interesting, perhaps, are the bargain buys: those vintages whose liquid sunshine was overlooked in their youth. Maybe the greatest example of such a vintage in this century so far was 2006 (both July and early september were warm and sunny): the source of much delicious drinking. it hasn’t gone unnoticed, and the vintage is less common on local restaurant wine lists than it once was.
another vintage of this sort is the widely undervalued 2011 which, like 2006, was the product of a warm summer on aggregate. The sometimes stern tannins are easing, and there is now huge pleasure on offer from the best.
i also realise that i had underestimated the best Bordeaux 2004s (Château Margaux was subtly gorgeous – the sun at sunset rather than midday – and Pichon Baron from magnum full of exuberant charm) and 2007s (Châteaux l’eglise Clinet and Haut-Bailly were both totally convincing and amply ripe).
You can find sunshine in 2008, too, though its style is often sterner than the easygoing 2004s and 2007s. an intensive look at wines from 2014, by contrast, left me struggling with green shades and acidities, while clouds often occlude the sunshine inside 2012, too. and 2013? don’t bother. This is sparse winter light at best.
By the way, start stocking your war chest: it looks as if the 2018 vintage could flood cellars with liquid sunshine when eventually bottled in a couple of years’ time. ‘even the trellis posts,’ one producer told me, ‘will produce good wine this year.’