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Bordeaux Wines (was Aerating Wine)

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Bordeaux Wines (was Aerating Wine)

Melanie Wong | Oct 7, 2000 12:44 AM

Jason, your comments are especially timely as I have claret on the brain these days. I’m putting on a Bordeaux dinner next weekend and will look at nearly all the vintages you mention. We’ll be tasting a vertical of Ch. Gruaud-Larose, a super second St. Julien (70, 78, 79, 82, 83, 84, 89 & 90), followed by dinner with more Medocs from 1990-1994. Wish you were closer to Sonoma, I’m trying to fill 4 more seats!

Before I respond to your inquiry about vintages, let me first state my feelings about Bordeaux wines. These were the first fine wines that I started to collect. After all what else rewards patience as much as fine claret. I’ve experienced first hand what are called the three stages of Bordeaux enjoyment: 1) waiting for your futures to arrive; 2) waiting for your wines to be ready to drink; and 3) over the hill and well into decline. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m not all that enamoured with Cabernet Sauvignon and even less with the blending varieties. So, they’ve been piling up and I use the 82s through 90s for trading stock and to finance my educational expenses. I do continue to take advantage of opportunities to taste older and new vintages whenever I can for intellectual curiosity. Recently I had the chance to blind-taste several of the top 96s and can provide complete tasting notes if you’re interested – the Haut-Brion was just lovely with all the Graves subtlety you mention.

Both 1989 and 1990 came from hot, drought-stressed years that produced surmaturité (overripeness) that the French so lust for. The early word was that while both were very good to excellent vintages, the 1990s were judged superior due to better balance and harmony. Many felt that despite very ripe fruit, the tannins of the 89s were somewhat underripe and astringent, not unlike 1975. The remarkable thing about the 90s is that they have stayed open and accessible with a plush, low acid, almost California demeanor most of their lives instead of going into a dumb state as typical clarets do. But today, the early development of the 90s has raised some concerns about their long-term potential and the 89s are starting to get the nod as the superior vintage. Recently I put the 90 Pichon-Lalande and the 90 Gruaud-Larose into a single-blind tasting and was surprised at how evolved both wines are. It was also interesting to look back at both Clive Coates and Robert Parker’s early assessments of these two wines. CC loved the Lalande and panned the Gruaud; whereas RP panned the Lalande and declared the Gruaud one of the greatest ever. Today they’re pretty evenly matched, easy to drink with velvety ripe tannins, and I question whether they’ll improve much more although they should hold for a long time. On the other hand, this is what was said about the 82s at the same stage. (g) I’ll be very interested in hearing how your l’Evangile shows.

Push your 86s to the back of the cellar. As you say, they’re very backward and indeed shut down now. The 85s, which were overshadowed by the greatness of the 86 vintage, are drinking very well now. Not as complex as 82s, but a good deal less expensive. The 85 Lynch Bages is glorious.

I’m probably most familiar with the relative rankings and progress of the 82s as that’s the first (and only) vintage that I bought en primeur. I had cases and cases of cru bourgeois that I took to parties to years. I remember reading over and over everything I could get my hands on and obsessing about relative pricing and storage conditions at different retailers. I had the chance to taste many of them when they were first released. The 82 Pichon-Lalande is a phenomenal wine today, but don’t you find it rather California-like? I’ve not had the 82 Leoville Las Cases that I can recall. The best of the 82s are still evolving, despite the nay-sayers that said they wouldn’t make it past 10 years. The right banks, in most cases, do need drinking up.

From your personal favorites, the commune of Margaux seems to call to you. An inconsistent place if there is one, but when they hit it, nothing is better. I’ve not had the 78 Margaux but discovered a couple bottles in a friend’s cellar last week. I did a price search --- $180-$420 at auction in the last year, depending on label condition and fill levels. I did make a special request to be present when he pulls the cork!

1978 produced ripe and clean wines but not much finesse in general. The Margaux is about the best of the bunch. I bought many of them with my student loan money when I was in grad school. The franc was so low and the $10-15 prices for super seconds was less than the best California Cabernets. Most of them were consumed before their 15th birthday.

The 1970 Palmer is wonderfully subtle with floral and mineral essences weaving through rich fruit. I’ve only known this wine in the last 10 years. The bottle tasted a year ago seemed to be losing some fruit and developing a bitter edge in the finish, so perhaps it’s great run is coming to an end.

You’ve certainly given me a work-out here, Jason! But one question, if Margaux wines are your favorite, why aren’t you drinking red Burgundy? (g,d,r)

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