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Vintages and Ageing

Bordeaux is the one wine region in the world (apart from Champagne) where the weather can make news-paper headlines. The Bordeaux wine trade has become adept, after centuries of practice, at proclaiming "vintages of the century" at least twice in each decade. It has an audi-ence for its claims, and for its laments about poor weather, because Bordeaux is such a domi-nant name on the fine wine scene.

The location of the region, bor-dered by the Atlantic, gives it a mar-itime climate: There is the constant danger of late winter frosts, a cool, wet spring, a damp summer, rain at harvest-time, hail at any time, all of which can affect the size and quality of the grape crop.

Vintages can thus differ markedly. The run of good years in the 1980s raised hopes that new techniques in vineyard and chai might have com-bated the effects of the weather and evened out the annual variations, and that the climate might have altered for the better. But 1991, with a dam-aging April frost and then September rains, quieted the optimists. The next year was mediocre, and it seemed that Bordeaux's unpredictable cli-mate had reasserted itself. Modern techniques, plus rigorous selection, have raised the quality of the wines of poor vintages from downright undrinkable to moderate, but nature alone can create the conditions needed for a great vintage.

Bordeaux's top red wines can age for 20 to 30 years and even longer. Great bottles from the 19th century are occasionally opened with rever-ence and sampled in silence: the wine can be miraculously good. However, not every red bordeaux is designed to be aged, and it is unclear whether even the top wines as made today will age for as long as their predecessors. Yields are higher than they were, and techniques are different. Working up the quality scale, few AOC Bordeaux or Bordeaux Sup-erieur wines gain from bottle-ageing beyond three years. Wine merchants will point out exceptions, and some properties in lesser regions make wine to higher standards, but these wines normally get no oak ageing and are designed for drinking while young and fresh. Wines from petits chateaux from more noted regions, such as St-Emilion and Medoc, may gain in character and complexity for three to five years in bottle. Classed growths from the Graves, the Medoc and St-Emilion may improve for longer, depending on the vintage. Only the classed growths of the top appellations, such as Margaux, Pauil-lac and St-Julien, will stand decades of ageing.

In general, and it is a generaliza-tion set about with exceptions, red wines from the Left Bank (Medoc and Graves) age for longer than those from the Right Bank (St-Emilion and Pomerol). Of course, vintage varia-tion matters too: the 1975 and 1976 wines, both hailed as successes at the time of their birth, have evolved very differently, with the 76s mostly well past their best within 15 years and the 75s taking a long time to emerge from their tannic, heavy shells.

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