Statistically, the winter of 2001 was wet and warm. The following spring was largely uneventful save for some frost alerts in an unusually cool, overcast April. By the end of May, 2001, temperatures were high. In fact, according to Bill Blatch at Vintex, in his annual weather report, it was an "unusual violent heat wave." High temperatures occurred again in late June and early July, but then summer disappeared, as anyone who vacationed in Europe realized. Cloudy skies, cold temperatures, and a freakish succession of drizzly days made for an unusually cool, uncomfortable July, creating concerns about when the 2001 harvest might take place. August was irregular, experiencing periods of both high heat and below normal temperatures. When September arrived, it appeared the harvest would occur during the last week of the month for Merlot, and the beginning of October for the Cabernets.

I was in the Rhône Valley during the first two weeks of September, 2001, and even there it was cold, with fourteen straight days of intense Mistral winds howling through the Valley from the north. In Bordeaux, temperatures were five degrees below normal, a significant trend that lasted the entire month. However, Bordeaux was also extremely dry during this period. According to the statistics, rainfall in September was off by 66%, always a positive sign. The only rain was on September 22 and 23.

Pomerol and St.-Emilion's Merlot harvest did not begin in earnest until the end of September. It continued through the first week of October. In the Médoc, the Merlot harvest lasted from October 1 - 10. Cabernet Franc throughout Bordeaux was harvested during the same period. The Cabernet Sauvignon was picked unusually late, most coming in between October 7 - 12. A handful of estates waited even later. Rainfall in October was more problematic, with showers occurring on October 2, 3, 6, 7, and 8, but no inundations.

While official statistics are not yet in, it appears that production was enormous, although slightly below 2000. Vinifications were tricky, with malolactics far slower than in previous years.

The Style of the Wines

To no one's surprise, most claim this vintage is qualitatively superior to 1999, but in a classic style with fresh acidity, a cooler-climate taste, and more noticeable tannin. Comparisons along the lines of so-called "classic" vintages such as 1988, 1981, 1979, and 1955 are commonly heard. Yet much has changed in terms of lower crop yields, different vinification techniques, and more severe selections in both the vineyard and the cellars. For those reasons, older vintages are generally useless for comparison purposes. That being said, no appellation stands out as having succeeded more than another, at least for red wines. The Médoc appears to be more uneven than expected, particularly one of my favorite appellations, St.-Julien. With the later than normal malolactics, and the vintage's more austere tannin, producers hope that cask aging will flesh out many of the wines that appear hollow with deficient mid-palates. My gut instincts suggest Merlot, overall, has done better than Cabernet Sauvignon, and both have eclipsed Cabernet Franc. Pomerol has come through with consistently good wines, and St.-Emilion and its satellite appellations (especially the Côtes de Castillon) continue to provide many excellent wines, often from little known estates and terroirs.

My tastings suggest that 2001 has produced wines that are slightly denser than the 1999s (more concentrated), but also with higher levels of austere tannin. What I admire about the finest 1999s is their exceptional equilibrium, undeniable charm and finesse, and a balance that gives them immediate accessibility, yet suggests greater longevity than many might guess. Many 2001s look attenuated and skinny after the initial aromatic pleasures and attractive attack on the front of the palate. They also possess plenty of structure and tannin, but not much charm or succulence. However, given winemaking techniques in Bordeaux, it is not unforeseeable that the 2001s might also possess more flesh, charm, and mid-palates with another 6-12 months of cask aging. Undeniably, the style of the vintage is far lighter, less impressive, and less concentrated than 2000 ... with some notable exceptions to this general observation. For the red wines, one can safely say it is a good, sometimes very good, yet irregular vintage. In spite of the strong, tannic presence displayed by many 2001s, I am not persuaded that it will be a long-lived vintage because the density, fat, and intensity of many wines appears insufficient to balance out the tannin.

With respect to Bordeaux's sweet white wines, the onset of botrytis was ideal, and the higher than normal acidity (because of the cool temperatures) resulted in a sensational vintage for many Sauternes and Barsac producers. Clearly, 2001 is the finest year for this region since the outstanding trio of 1988, 1989, and 1990. Tasting these sweet wines early is always difficult, but there is no question 2001 is a vintage of great complexity, ripeness, richness, freshness, and delineation.

The Marketplace

Everyone for the châteaux owners, everyone from Bordeaux négociants to the importers, wholesalers, and retailers who purchase these wines, not to mention the consumers who had to spend enormous quantities of money for the great 2000s, believes prices must drop back to 1999 levels for this vintage to move through the marketplace. In January and March, 2002, there was little sentiment among the top Bordeaux châteaux for drastic price reductions. At the time of writing (early April), I am hoping the châteaux will break precedent with the immediate past, and price their wines before The Wine Advocate is released. Given my reviews, they would be smart to do so. This is not a vintage that will draw interest from speculators, and it is hard to imagine these wines will be significantly more expensive a year and a half from now when they are bottled and released.

Days of Future Passed

There are only four reasons why I feel Bordeaux wine futures should be purchased by wine consumers:

1) Are you buying wines from what will be considered an undeniably great vintage? The answer in 2001 is "no."

2) Are you buying wines that will appreciate significantly in price? The answer in 2001 is "no."

3) Are you buying wines because there are only limited quantities produced of exceptionally fine wines, and such wines are generally impossible to find once they are bottled? The answer depends on the property, but obviously the limited production Pomerols, St.-Emilions, garagistes, and some Graves wines are often best purchased as futures, even in merely good or excellent vintages. Why? For consumers who love a particular style, this guarantees they will be able to possess the wine. In such cases, some 2001s do merit interest.

4) Are you buying wines in order to guarantee the format you desire (i.e., half-bottles, magnums, double magnums, or larger formats)? Any wine, if purchased as a future, can be bottled to your command. For collectors who desire huge format bottles, or simply want a collection of half bottles, buying your favorite wines as futures makes sense, not only in great, but also very good vintages.

A Thumbnail Synopsis of Recent Vintages

2000: Readers should refer to issue #139 of The Wine Advocate ... this is the vintage. Tasting the 2000s again in March, 2002, proved that Bordeaux has never produced so many wines of such profoundly layered richness and consistent quality. Despite their shockingly high prices, the cost of admission will only go higher. Pay the price now ... or forget about owning these gems!

1999: The bottled 1999s are covered elsewhere in this issue. It is a vintage I continue to enjoy for its charm, balance, and lovely fruit. They are not powerful, blockbuster, massive efforts, and I suspect this vintage is destined to always be underrated. However, they are classic Bordeaux that can be drunk young or cellared for two decades. Moreover, prices look realistic.

1998: An undeniably great vintage in Pomerol, St.-Emilion, and Graves, with good results in the Médoc, 1998 will be overlooked because of the greatness of 2000. Nevertheless, fifteen years from now, I predict that many of the 1998 Pomerols and some St.-Emilions will be just as phenomenal as their 2000 counterparts.

1997: Will history repeat itself, with the Bordelais overpricing 2001 as they did the 1997s? This vintage could have made a lot of friends for Bordeaux as many of the wines were soft, fruity, light to medium-bodied, and attractive. Unfortunately, they were preposterously overpriced. The importers, wholesalers, and retailers who were forced to buy them in order to protect their future allocations have, over the last five years, been trying to dump this vintage, so good values can be found.

1996: This is a sensational vintage in the northern Médoc where Cabernet Sauvignon reached levels of intensity and ripeness that will keep them aging at a glacial pace for 2-3 decades. It can be a very great vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon-based northern Médocs, but elsewhere, it is average to above average in quality. It is a vintage that has not jumped significantly in price, so values can be found. The 1996s require many more years of cellaring, but they will blossom beautifully at age 10-12, and will last another 25+ years. The top Médocs are for connoisseurs with patience and cold cellars.

1995: This vintage looked a lot better before and right after bottling than it does today. These well-colored wines are stuffed, but the tannin is more astringent and severe than it was four or five years ago. I tend to think these wines are going through a dormant period, but I always get nervous when the tannin is so assertive, and the fruit seems to be well-hidden. The 1995s remain young, backward, and unforthcoming. They possess excellent weight and purity, but this vintage may turn out to be a modern day version of 1975, with far too many deceptions, but also a fair share of brilliant wines. As with 1996, 1995 requires patience.

—Robert Parker 

More articles from this author