Bordeaux' Dragon Years

20 January 2012
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


The only time I look at the Chinese zodiac forecasts is when I am waiting in my dentist’s office and there is nothing else new to read in the newspaper. This year, commentary about the upcoming Year of the Water Dragon seem to have crept closer to the front sections of the newspaper, even inviting international observations about the ferocious looking dragon stamps released in China in early January. It is a dramatic shift from the cute, red-eyed, gentle, bunny rabbit stamps issued to commemorate the Year of the Rabbit in 2011.


Much of the interest, and the immense popularity of dragon stamps being released throughout many Asian countries, arises from the long-held belief in the auspiciousness of the dragon year. It is widely believed to be a great year for marriage, for giving birth and a year when great success can be achieved. Many couples are planning to marry in 2012 and many will try to have children. However, those that believe in the Chinese horoscope will favour boys – not only because of the normal gender preference in Asia but because of the belief that dragon girls can have such strong personalities that they will have difficulty settling down and finding spouses. 
Dragons have long been associated with the imperial court and this sole mythical creature among the twelve zodiac animals is believed to be the most powerful and luckiest, especially for new ventures. However, the year of the dragon also has its dark side, such as dramatic changes that are not necessarily positive, devastating experiences and huge disappointments. 
What does the year of the dragon mean for wine? Looking back at the past five dragon years in Bordeaux, where vintage variation varies substantially, a pattern does emerge. 1952 was a very good but uneven year with great wines produced on the right bank in regions like Pomerol and St Emilion, but only moderately good wines from the Medoc appellations. 
For top Pomerols, 1952 is one of their best vintages of the decade. One of my favourite all time wines is 1952 Chateau Lafleur which I have tried twice, once in magnum and once in single bottle format. Each time, I was in awe at the depth, complexity and lingering flavours it offered. I had a slight preference for the magnum but that is like quibbling about the lack of eyebrows on Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa.
1964 was a fairly good year but again, uneven. Some of the first growths didn’t fare as well as others and with the harvest rain, much of the quality depended on when the grapes were picked, before or after the rain. Wines like Chateau Latour were fantastic but others like Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Lafite fared less well. As in 1952, the wines from Pomerol and St Emilion were better overall.
1976 initially looked like a very good year with warm dry conditions but was marred by rain starting the 11th of September. Some who picked early in September made good wines while those who waited faced a week of rain. While these days rain and dilution is still a concern during harvest, there are now technological means to ensure that dilute or rotten berries are sorted and left out of the wine, resulting in very good wines. This is a charming vintage that has never been powerful or intense. I enjoyed this vintage over the years and in particular Chateau Leoville-Las Cases and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion.
The 1988 vintage in Bordeaux was almost the opposite of the 1976 vintage – the year didn’t look so good in the beginning, with above average rainfall all through spring, but the weather turned during the summer months. Starting in June, the weather was much drier and this held throughout the summer and moved into a warm October. However, because of the wet spring and uneven flowering, the berries and bunches were not consistent in their maturity. Overall, those who waited to harvest so the grapes could bask in the warm Indian summer in 1988 made gorgeous wine. 1988 marked the first of a trio of wonderful vintages with this vintage being the lightest among the three.
Of all the past five dragon vintages, it is 2000 that had the greatest consistency across all appellations. This was a vintage that many producers considered a “lazy vintage” where the wines virtually “made themselves”. At 12 years of age, many of the top wines are far too young to enjoy. As a commemorative year heralding in the new millennium, prices for Bordeaux when this vintage was first released broke all previous records. It was not only a high quality vintage, but also one that enjoyed enormous commercial success. 
None of the dragon years over the past 60 years was a disastrous vintage. All the wines were good to excellent though there was some inconsistency, except for 2000. Even prior to 1952, none of the dragon year vintages were that disappointing: 1940 and 1916 were considered modest, light vintages but far better than unfortunate vintages such as 1913 or 1930. Other dragon years like 1928 and 1904 were among the very best vintages of their decades. 
If I were to make a prediction for 2012 and believed in the Chinese zodiac signs, I would predict that this vintage will be a good to very good year (better than 2011) in Bordeaux. However, as in 1952, it will be much better in the right bank in Pomerol and St Emilion than in the Medoc. If the year unfolds as I predict, I will be among the first in line for Chateau Lafleur allocations.

Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post