Legendary winemaker Jean-Bernard Delmas, manager of Château Haut-Brion for over 40 years, once described the much-acclaimed 1982 vintage as his “armchair summer.”  Put another way (and invoking the oft-used cliché) “Some years anyone (almost) can make a great wine, while other years require great winemakers.”

The best wines are born of warm summer days, cool nights and mild rain. Wine Investment Magazine lists 2016, 2015, 2010, 2009 and 2005 as standout years. More recently, critics have labeled 2018, 2019 and 2020 as a “Holy Trinity” of great vintages.

But what about all the off-vintages and the ok-but-not-great vintages? Are they worth considering? If so, how do they fit within your collection? To help you assess the value of these many vintages, we’ve put together a few guidelines:

#1: Great estates always make quality wine.
Top properties are highly ranked because they have the best terroir, the most-talented staff and state-of-the-art equipment. These estates employ carefully honed production methods that consistently turn out good wines, even in poor years.

Picture perfect – Château Latour, with the Gironde River in the background. Photo by Marla Norman

By way of example, 2017 was characterized as  the “Snob Frost Vintage” because the Grands Crus Classés were not affected. Situated on the most optimal terroir, Left Bank estates on the Gironde and Garonne Rivers were essentially untouched. On the Right Bank, properties on the Pomerol gravel plateau and Saint-Émilion limestone plateau were also, for the most part, unharmed. As always, location, location, location….

Of course, top estates also employ large numbers of staff for vineyard maintenance — from pruning during regular growing season, sorting at harvest or lighting hundreds of extra candles when frost threatens. An ample budget can even procure helicopters to circulate the air and warm up temperatures.

Thousands of smudge pots light up the night to fight frost in Bordeaux vineyards. Photo courtesy of Bordeaux Wines Network.

New technological development has also provided tremendous assistance with wine production. Drones equipped with cameras and other sensors measure plant damage, water stress, vine health and ripeness levels. Laboratories analyze the evolution of the berries. At Vieux Château Certan, Guillaume Thienpont shared with us that he runs many of the tests himself, saying, “The lab takes out the guess work. We’re more accurate when picking the fruit. Additionally, we’ve developed remote sensing techniques in the vineyard, again, to improve the precision of our manual work. In the end, all of that extra information gives us more flexibility and precision for the good of the wine.”

#2: Great wines are produced in challenging vintages. 
In chronicling the 2013 vintage Decanter reported the following: “Yields were drastically down in many cases. Wine consultant Stephane Derenoncourt described producing the vintage from bud to barrel as a ‘war against nature’. However, some critics were pleasantly surprised with the results and rigorous selection at top estates – presumably at significant extra cost – leading to a number of successes, according to primeur tasters which included renowned critic Steven Spurrier.”

During the 2018 En Primeur, at Tertre-Rôteboeuf, owner François Mitjavile, concerned that his wine had been unfairly rated, asked us to sample his 2013. After tasting, we agreed with him — the wine was excellent and we were impressed with the quality.

With Alexandre and Guillaume Thienpont at Vieux Château Certan. Photo by Tom DeGeorgio

A year later, during our visit to Vieux Château Certan, Alexandre Thienpont presented his 2017 along with other vintages, claiming: “My 2017 is as good as my 100-point 2016, I fail to understand why its rating is lower?”

Interestingly, the 2017 VCC received five 98-point ratings — not too shabby in the least! But, the point again, is that many superb wines are available within these off-vintages.

#3: Off-Vintages offer affordable drinking pleasure.
Difficult-vintages are typically offered at a discount during En Primeur. For example, 2017 was almost 15% cheaper than 2016. And, a continued lack of demand can mean that prices remain low. Wine critic Lettie Teague from The Wall Street Journal notes that “Bordeaux from weaker years can cost 30% to 50% less than wines from a great vintage.”

According to a Vinfolio study, “Collectors who have invested in early 2000s vintages, when the weather was less than ideal, have seen many of their wines triple in value over the past 10 years. In a 2003 study, off-vintages sold for an initial cost of $272 per bottle, on average, compared to $445 per bottle for sought-after vintages. This means that collectors who took a chance on off-vintages from premium estates paid less up-front, and received a larger boost in resale value compared to their colleagues who only invested in the finest vintages.”

All to say that if you’re looking for a very good bottle to put on the table, an off-vintage may be your best option.

Baron Philippe de Rothschild with his daughter, Baroness Philippine. Photo courtesy of Château Mouton Rothschild

#4: Off-Vintages usually mature earlier than wines from better vintages.
Almost a decade ago, during a dinner hosted by Château Mouton Rothschild, none-other than the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild herself, shared with us this bit of wine wisdom, “The consolation for off-vintages is that they can be enjoyed so much earlier than wines from premium years.”

The Baroness, of course, knew what she was talking about. Frequently, wines from off-vintages are less concentrated, with slightly lower alcohol levels and, while they may not live as long as better vintages, they will be excellent to drink and enjoy earlier.

#5: Keep an open mind when selecting off-vintages versus premium-vintages.
Our final bit of advice is self-explanatory. Don’t judge a wine simply by its vintage. There are an endless number of great bottles out there to enjoy, many of which were produced by brilliant winemakers in less than optimal conditions — but that alone might just make these wines a more memorable and gratifying experience.

Below, a few of our picks for great wines from difficult vintages. All products can be ordered directly online. Write mthibaultwine@gmail.com or call 850-687-1370 for additional information.

1992 Clos René. Pomerol. $59.99. 6 bottles
1996 Château Bernadotte. Haut-Médoc. $49.99. 31 bottles
2001 Château Haut-Brion. Pessac-Léognan. DC-97. $559.99. 11 bottles
2001 Château Mouton Rothschild in Magnum. Pauillac. $1,689.99. 1 Magnum only
2004 Château Latour. Pauillac. WE-97. $629.99. 4 bottles
2004 Château Mouton Rothschild. Pauillac. WS-95. $589.99. 12 bottles

Château Haut-Brion. Pessac-Léognan. NM-96. $579.99. 12 bottles
Château Lafite Rothschild. Pauillac. WE-96. $919.99. 12 bottles
Château Mouton Rothschild in Magnum. Pauillac. WE-97. $1,489.99. 1 Magnum only.
Château Palmer. Margaux. DC-94. $265.99. 5 bottles
Château Pontet-Canet. Pauillac. DC-95. $129.99. 3 bottles

Château Margaux. Margaux. DC-95. $619.99. 1 bottle
Vieux Château Certan. Pomerol. $174.99. 13 bottles

Château Clinet. Pomerol. RP-94+ $110.99. 10 bottles
Château du Glana. Saint-Julien. $39.99. 3 bottles
Château Lafite Rothschild. Pauillac. RP-98. $939.99. 12 bottles
Château Latour. Pauillac. NM-96. $619.99. 8 bottles
Château Latour à Pomerol. $79.99. 8 bottles
Château Le Gay. Pomerol. RP-94+ $109.99. 6 bottles
Château Léoville Lascases in Magnum. Saint-Julien. NM-96. $429.99. 4 Magnums
Château Margaux. Margaux. JD-97. $527.99. 12 bottles
Château Mouton Rothschild. Pauillac. DC-96. $649.99. 12 bottles
Château Mouton Rothschild in Magnum. Pauillac. DC-96. $1,539.99. 1 Magnum only.
Château Pontet-Canet. Pauillac. JD-96. $129.99. 3 bottles

Château Haut-Bailly. Pessac-Léognan. JS-95. $85.99. 5 bottles
Château Haut-Bergey. Pessac-Léognan. $36.99. 5 bottles
Château Mouton Rothschild in Magnum. Pauillac. JS-96. $1,199.99. 1 Magnum only
Château Pontet-Canet in Magnum. Pauillac. WE-96. $259.99. 1 Magnum only
Château Smith Haut Lafitte. Pessac-Léognan. RP-94+ $88.99. 11 bottles
Vieux Château Certan. Pomerol. JS-96. $169.99. 6 bottles

Château Clinet. Pomerol. RP-95. $99.99. 12 bottles
Château Cos d’Estournel. Saint-Estèphe. $169.99. 6 bottles
Château Figeac in Magnum. Saint-Émilion. $269.99. 3 Magnums
Château Fleur de Gay. Pomerol. $79.99. 12 bottles
Château la Confession. Saint-Émilion. $42.99. 3 bottles
Château Léoville-Barton. Saint-Julien. $94.99. 43 bottles
Château Léoville-Poyferré. Saint-Julien. $75.99. 1 bottle only
Château Montrose. Saint-Estèphe. WE-95. $99.99. 10 bottles
Château Mouton Rothschild. Pauillac. WE-97. $519.99. 3 bottles
Château Mouton Rothschild in Magnum. Pauillac. WE-97. $1,369.99. 1 Magnum only
Château Pontet-Canet in Magnum. Pauillac. $259.99. 1 Magnum only

Château Branon. Pessac-Léognan. $64.99. 2 bottles
Château Clinet. Pomerol. $79.99. 7 bottles
Château Haut-Villet. Saint-Émilion. $19.99. 7 bottles
Vieux Château Certan. Pomerol. $164.99. 9 bottles

Château Clinet. Pomerol. $78.99. 4 bottles
Château d’Issan. Margaux. $69.99. 13 bottles
Château Haut-Brion. Pessac-Léognan. JS-97. $424.99. 9 bottles
Château La Mission Haut-Brion. Pessac-Léognan. NM-96. $212.99. 33 bottles
Château Larcis Ducasse. Saint-Émilion. JS-96. $52.99. 24 bottles
Château Margaux. JS-97. $508.99. 10 bottles
Château Mouton Rothschild. Pauillac. JS-99. $569.99. 14 bottles
Château Palmer. Margaux. WE-97. $244.99. 4 bottles
Château Palmer Historical. Margaux. $339.99. 3 bottles

Château Barde-Haut. Saint-Émilion. AG-94+ $39.99. 33 bottles
Château Bellefont-Belcier. Saint-Émilion. $45.99. 12 bottles
Château Beychevelle. Saint-Julien. $79.99. 8 bottles
Château Calon-Ségur. Saint-Estèphe. WE-96. $94.99. 6 bottles
Château Cantemerle. Haut-Médoc. $29.99. 24 bottles
Domaine Chevalier Rouge. Pessac-Léognan. JS-96. $62.99. 23 bottles
Château Clinet. Pomerol. WS-95. $82.99. 7 bottles
Château d’Issan. Margaux. DC-94. $62.99. 23 bottles
Château Feytit-Clinet. Pomerol. JD-95+ $64.99. 2 bottles
Château La Conseillante. Pomerol. RP-97. $169.99. 7 bottles
Château Lafite Rothschild. Pauillac. DC-98. $719.99. 12 bottles
Château Lafon-Rochet. Saint-Estèphe. $45.99. 48 bottles
Château Larcis Ducasse. Saint-Émilion. JS-96. $69.99. 12 bottles
Château Latour à Pomerol. $126.99. 4 bottles
Château Léoville-Barton. Saint-Julien. AG-96. $79.99. 6 bottles
Château Lilian Ladouys. Saint-Estèphe. $24.99. 24 bottles
Château Malartic-Lagravière. Pessac-Léognan. $49.99. 12 bottles
Château Pape Clément. Pessac-Léognan. AG-96. $89.99. 10 bottles
Château Rauzan-Ségla. Margaux. RP-96+ $76.99. 12 bottles
Château Smith Haut Lafitte. Pessac-Léognan. RP-97+ $99.99. 5 bottles
Tertre-Rôteboeuf. Saint-Émilion. JD-97. $149.99. 12 bottles
Château Tour Saint-Christophe. JD-95. $38.99. 48 bottles
Château Valandraud. Saint-Émilion. JD-97. $145.99. 6 bottles
Vieux Château Certan. Pomerol. JD-98. $219.99. 26 bottles.

Outside of Bordeaux
2011 Shafer Hillside Select in Magnum. Napa Valley. RP-96. $429.99. 1 Magnum only
2012 Hyde de Villaine Belle Cousine. Napa Valley. $73.99. 5 bottles
2017 Barruol Hermitage “La Pierrelle” Rouge. $88.99. 2 bottles
2017 Colgin Tychson Hills. Napa Valley. RP-98. $539.99. 3 bottles
2017 Colgin Cariad. Napa Valley. JS-98. $539.99. 1 bottle
2017 Domaine Henri Gouges 1er Cru “Les St-Geroges”. Nuits-St-Georges. $182.99. 5 bottles
2017 Masseto Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri. Super Tuscan. RP-97. $687.99. 1 bottle
2017 Nozzole Il Pareto. Tuscany. JS-94. $59.99. 12 bottles
2017 Realm the Bard. Napa Valley. JD-96. $139.99. 3 bottles