Bordeaux 1996: the Throwback Vintage

A tasting of 1996 Bordeaux gave me pause for thought about the quality and longevity of the vintage. Hailed at the time as a great vintage, 1996 had a promising start to the season, but rain around harvest time created problems. The wines have always had high acidity and tannins, but the promise was that they would come around to be classics. Certainly the vintage seemed likely to be throwback to the vintages that preceded the transition to the modern era in 1982, except that one might expect more concentration from improvements in viticulture and vinification (especially the introduction of sorting). But I am inclined to a revisionist view after this tasting, which suggested to me that the wines are better than average, but this is far from a great vintage. It is not the vintage of the century, it is not even the vintage of the decade (that award goes to 1990, which although not completely even is wearing better). Yes, there are some excellent wines, and some that will continue to mature in classic style, but many have already reached the end of the road. The most common problem is a sort of flat flavor profile: the wines have survived and aged, but have not matured.  The fruits have never reached a savory apogee, and the tannins lack generosity, so I expect the fruits to dry out along the lines of 1975 before the tannins resolve.

The awards from this tasting go to:

Grand Puy Lacoste – the most terroir-driven wine, the quintessence of Pauillac.

Palmer – the most overtly delicious wine to drink for dinner tonight.

Margaux – the most elegant, although still yet to reach its apogee.

Latour – the longest lived, life expectancy to be measured in decades rather than years.

Tasting Notes

Château Pape Clément, 1996

“It’s the quality of Merlot that makes Pape-Clément what it is, so why is it that all the great vintages are Cabernet years? It’s the Cabernet tannins that give the real quality when they are ripe,” according to Bill Blatch. Although 1996 was a Cabernet year, however, I’ve had equivocal experiences with Pape-Clement from this vintage. In this case, the wine showed a bright garnet color with an orange rim. The Cabernet nose is quite restrained, with just a touch of cedar in typical Graves fashion. This shows as an elegant wine with a nice balance, the fruits on the finish on the verge of austerity, with good supporting acidity, and tannins drying the finish. But it seems to be aging rather than maturing, and  the Cabernet is not as dominant on the palate as you might expect from this year; the wine is not developing flavor variety or tertiary notes and seems somewhat four square;  88 Drink-2016.

Château Palmer, 1996

Medium garnet color still with some ruby hues. Restrained nose with suggestion of black fruits, soft and perfumed. Developing slowly, this is elegant and soft on the palate, with just a faint herbaceous touch coming out on the finish where there is an impression of a slight tannic bite. Perhaps the concentration falls off a bit on the finish; the wine may be at its peak right now. It is one of the most openly delicious of the vintage.  90 Drink-2019.

Château Ducru Beaucaillou, 1996

This wine showed such a surprising aroma and flavor spectrum that I wondered whether it was in fact the 96 vintage, but that was what the label said. The first oddity was the curious character of the nose, which showed a touch of over ripe, even rotten fruit. This followed through to the rich and soft palate, which seemed more like the 95 than 96 vintage or a right bank rather than left bank. Average acidity supports the fruits and makes this a pleasant enough wine in its own right, but I just could not find the typicity of St. Julien or the usual elegance of Ducru. Judgment reserved until I taste another bottle.  86 Drink-2014.

Château Léoville-Poyferré, 1996

Although Michel Rolland started consulting at Léoville Poyferré in 1994, this wine gives the impression that he hadn’t yet had time to make much impression. It still shows some of the quality that used to cause the wine to be called Léoville Voie-ferré (after the railway, and referring to a somewhat metallic tinge to the tannins). It’s a medium garnet color but still has some ruby hues. There just a faint touch of perfume on the nose with a touch of cedar, and a faintly herbaceous hint, but not much evident fruit. The palate is rather dumb, there’s an absence of concentration on the mid palate, the fruits seem a bit monotonic and lifeless, and the finish is a bit short. Evidently Michel Rolland had his work cut out to turn this around.  87 Drink-2015.

Château Léoville-Barton, 1996

Medium garnet color. The nose hints more of red fruits than black, with a faintly herbaceous note, but is somewhat subdued. The ripe quality of the fruits on the palate is evident, but even so, there is a slightly hard touch to the finish, characteristic of the vintage, with bell peppers slowly developing on the finish. This was a lovely wine, but the fruits now seem to be beginning to fade, and it is time to drink up.  87 Drink-2014.

Château Léoville Lascases, 1996

Medium garnet color. Restrained nose but gives impression of a wall of fruit, with a touch of herbaceousness. Classic palate, but seems more Pauillac than St. Julien (not that unusual for this chateau), with savory black fruits showing a herbaceous edge. Good concentration, but developing slowly. Even though it softens a bit in the glass, the overall solidity of the structure is what comes through. Tannins dry the finish, a bit ungiving in Lascases’ usual style. Should mature for many years yet.  90 Drink-2017.

Château Pichon Baron, 1996

Medium ruby color with orange at rim. Restrained nose has a touch of perfume with the faintly nutty black fruits. Ripe rich fruits show on the palate, a full style in characteristic Pauillac fashion, with just a slight tannic bite to the finish, which seems to come up a fraction short. Development here is much slower than many others in this vintage, hard to assess the future, but the overall impression is a bit chunky, and the wine is more likely to continue in that vein than to become elegant.  89 Drink-2021.

Château Pichon Lalande, 1996

Medium to deep garnet color. Restrained nose with faint black fruits, just a touch of herbaceousness coming out slowly on the finish. Ripe fruits show that herbaceous edge on the palate, with bell peppers strengthening on the finish, the sweetness of the fruits is evident, but the tannic touch strengthens on the finish, giving the impression that tannins may overtake the fruits.  89 Drink-2018.

Château Pontet-Canet, 1996

Medium garnet color. Restrained nose with subdued black fruits, just a faint hint of Cabernet Sauvignon followed by a suggestion of perfume. Sweet ripe fruits on the palate show the high proportion of Merlot (almost 40%), but the overall impression is a bit four square. There’s a touch of heat on the finish and the tannins don’t seem very generous. Medium fruit concentration, but not much development; in fact this bottle seems a fraction less developed than the last tasting, two years ago. It’s not obvious what will provide the basis for further development.  88 Drink-2017.

Château Grand Puy Lacoste, 1996

A very upright and proper claret, a great success for Grand Puy Lacoste and for the vintage. Appearance shows almost deep garnet color. Some savory and tertiary development comes on the nose, with a faint touch of bell peppers and sous bois. Black savory fruits follow on the palate, accompanied by a touch of bell peppers and cedar, with good flavor variety and development. Elegant in style, it should become more tertiary over the next decade. This is quintessential Pauillac. and shows every sign of continuing to develop along classic claret lines.  90 Drink-2021.

Château Lynch Bages, 1996

Medium garnet color. restrained nose shows faint black fruits and a barely detectable herbaceous touch. Nice solid black fruits are slowly developing on the palate, cut by faint herbaceous notes on the finish, with a touch of chocolate. There is (just) enough flavor variety to be interesting. This is very characteristic of the chateau and a good result for the vintage: it should continue to develop but a touch of bitterness on the finish needs to soften to make this completely successful.  90 Drink-2019.

Château Calon Ségur, 1996

This wine peaked about three years ago, when it showed its characteristic absolutely traditional lines of savory fruits balanced by a herbaceous finish. But now it seems to be in decline. It shows a medium to dark garnet color. There is still a classic Cabernet nose (the wine included 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc this year), savory to herbaceous, with bell peppers evident. It comes over as a fairly tough wine on the palate, a little hard on the mid palate, with herbaceousness dominating the finish. The overall flavor profile seems a little flat as the fruits perhaps are beginning to dry out, and I get the impression that now the tannins will take over and outlive the fruits.  87 Drink-2016.

Château Cos d’Estournel, 1996

This wine has been up and down in tastings, perhaps due to condition problems. This was one of the better bottles. Appearance shows medium garnet color. Attractive nose has a touch of exotic perfume, turning to nutty black fruits. The palate has rich, ripe fruits cut by a touch of bell peppers. The nature of the vintage shows itself in the tannins, which bring a bitter touch to the finish. But the rich opulent style of the chateau served the wine well in this vintage by countering what became a medicinal quality in some wines. Overall impression is rich and spicy, relatively soft for St. Estèphe, as Cos now so often is, but cut by a touch of bell peppers to give complexity.  90 Drink-2019.

Château Margaux, 1996

Medium garnet color. The nose gives up a faint impression of black fruits with a tertiary edge. First growth quality is unmistakable on the palate, with that smooth, seamless elegance of black fruits, Cabernet-driven, beautifully cut by a faint touch of herbaceous bell peppers and some notes of chocolate. Aging seems quite slow, with flavor variety and complexity emerging gradually, but expect savory and tertiary development over the next decade. Still too young really.  92 Drink-2025.

Château Latour, 1996

Dark garnet color. Fairly closed nose of black fruits with some bell peppers just showing its Cabernet Sauvignon origins. Dense black fruits on the palate are developing extremely slowly, just cut by a touch of bell peppers on the finish, but what strikes one above all else is the sheer density of the fruits. A touch of the typical acidity of the vintage shows on the finish, This is one of those massive Latours that takes decades rather than years to develop.  92 Drink-2030.