The Perils of Tasting: Auctions and Condition

I have been brought up short more than once at tastings by wines that display an unexpected character, but I was led to wonder about the whole question of assessing wines or vintages on the basis of tastings by a tasting of 1989 Bordeaux organized by a wine store in New York. The wines as a group showed a flat profile rather suggesting that the vintage is not aging well and might have been over rated. Thinking that I might need to put my 1989 Bordeaux up at an auction, I pulled a bottle out of the cellar to check. It was quite different from the bottles we had had at the tasting, and I realized that I might have been completely misled. I don’t know the detailed provenance of the bottles at the tasting, but I suspect that they came from recent auctions: caveat emptor, indeed.

Suspicious as to how often I might be misled by bottles in less than perfect condition, I have been making some more comparisons after going to tastings, pulling the same wines from my cellar that I had bought en primeur, and which have been kept under temperature and humidity control ever since. I regard these as equivalent to tasting wine at the chateau. And sometimes I have also been able to taste wine at the chateau of the same vintage to compare with a tasting elsewhere. In several such comparisons, always made within a short time period, there was only one case in which the wine at the chateau or from my cellar was not distinctly superior. That was a comparison of Palmer 1996, where the wine at the chateau showed austerity, and the wine at the tasting was more forward and delicious: perhaps in this case the wine has simply developed more rapidly outside the chateau.

The most striking comparison was between two bottles of Ducru Beaucaillou 1996, both tasted last week. One at a tasting organized by a store in New York had such a curious nose of over-ripe fruit that I even wondered whether it was authentic. (I’m not sure I would have placed it in Bordeaux if I had tasted it completely blind.) I found it impossible to believe it was the same wine as a bottle from my cellar, which showed a completely classic development, a bit of a surprise in the post-1982 era, but a happy one. Indeed, I wonder whether I should revise my opinion of the 1996 vintage, which based on this tasting I had put down as only somewhat better than average (Bordeaux 1996: the Throwback Vintage).

In the present market, most of the wines at tastings of old vintages have probably passed through the auctions at some point. I am sure that the auction houses do their best to check provenance and condition, but whenever I see in an auction catalog “removed from temperature controlled storage,” the question that leaps into my mind is: “yes, but where was it for the twenty years before it went into the storage?” The moral is that you are safe at auction only if the catalog specifically guarantees that the wine was stored ever since the vintage in the same cellar under controlled conditions. Given the way wines are circulating around the auctions these days, that is becoming an increasingly difficult standard to meet.

Léoville Barton, 1989

From my cellar

Quite undeveloped appearance with ruby hue. Nose shows black fruits dominated by blackcurrants and blackberries with some faintly musty overtones that intensify retronasally There’s lots of black fruit on the palate, supported by soft, plump tannins. The intensity of the fruits combined with that faintly musty note give this a more modern impression than is usual for the chateau. No signs of tiring yet, good for years.   92  Drink -2021.

At tasting in New York

Medium garnet color with some paling orange at the rim. Red fruits in mid development with a soft impression on the nose. Balanced acidity supports the soft fruits on the palate,  fruits are red rather than black, there’s a touch of heat on the finish, well balanced and the acidity may keep it going longer than the average 1989, but there’s not a great deal of flavor variety. Not quite up to the usual precise standard of Léoville Barton.

Pichon Lalande, 1996   

Direct from the chateau   

Medium garnet color. Classic nose, with fruits turning savory, although no tertiary development yet. Completely classic on the palate, a throwback to the seventies in style, dominated by the Cabernet Sauvignon. Savory black fruits have a touch of herbaceousness, with the sense of bell peppers carrying through the long finish. The acidity is less pressing here than in some wines of the vintage. This should continue to mature in the classic style – which is to say savory with vegetal overtones rather than overtly fruity – until the tannins overtake the fruits.   89 Drink -2020.

At tasting in New York

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.

Palmer, 1996

At the chateau

First touch of garnet color showing. Restrained nose has more red than black fruits. Faint savory touch is not quite as developed as 1999. There is a typically smooth impression on the palate, with relatively delicate fruit; the tannins are receding into the background, although there’s a faint touch of medicinal austerity. It may be that being a high Cabernet wine does not suit Palmer very well.  90 Drink -2018

At tasting in New York

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.

Ducru Beaucaillou, 1996

From my cellar

Quintessential St. Julien, claret in the old style. Herbaceousness of Cabernet Sauvignon is tamed by the fruits (or vice versa). This is slowly maturing, full-throated Ducru, with a slowly maturing core of dense fruits turning savory, a distinct touch of herbaceousness on nose and palate, but making a delicious counterpoise to the sweet fruits. There’s the elegance and precision of St. Julien, more than a touch of austerity reflecting the character of the vintage, but this is as good as the vintage gets.   92 Drink -2019.

At tasting in New York

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.

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