The Tipping Point in Bordeaux

I’ve always thought that the tipping point when Bordeaux changed from its traditional herbaceous style to the modern fruit-driven style was 1982. A series of vintages of Lynch Bages has caused me to revise that conclusion and move the tipping point forward at least to 1990.

Considered by many at the time to have an unprecedented richness that would preclude aging, the 1982 was certainly the first vintage to be instantly delicious on release. It continued to be eminently drinkable in the same style for twenty years, but around 2000 showed the first signs of reversion to type, which is to say showing a delicious touch of herbaceousness to counterpoise the fruits.

My recent experiences with Lynch Bages 1982 show significant bottle variation, with the best bottles showing a generous softness that recalls the original character of the vintage, but others showing an extreme cigar-box like dryness that more resembles the 1975 vintage and suggests the fruits are drying out. At least for the last ten years, it’s been reverting to type, which is say to the pre-1982 tradition, so the change in character was more a matter of style for the first decade than a permanent tipping point.

The lush, rich character of the 1990 far out shadows the 1982, although it also now shows significant bottle variation. The range recently has varied from a bottle showing a touch of classic cigar box to cut the fruit to one that was completely undeveloped, rich and aromatic to the point at which first thoughts might turn to the New World. The latter seems to be the more common experience, and the sheer power of the aromatics makes me feel this may be a Cheshire Cat wine, with nothing left behind as the structure resolves. It seems so completely different in character from traditional Bordeaux as to represent a permanent break with tradition.

In terms of pinning down a tipping point, the 1988 is definitely old school; pleasant enough, losing some fruit now, but in the tradition of restraint rather than extroversion. By comparison with the 1990, the 1989 seems to offer reminiscences of traditional Bordeaux; faintly animal notes might suggest a touch of Brett (a big problem in Bordeaux at the time), making it difficult to judge the force of the fruits, but although they are deep and black, in the end the sense of tannic structure brings a restraint that is lacking from the 1990.LB

Along with these recent vintages, I have also had the 1961. To my palate, this is unmistakably the real thing: elegant fruits, lacy acidity, a touch of cigar box. A tribute to Bordeaux’s traditional longevity, it seems hardly to have changed in character since I first tasted it in 1982. For all the technical advances in viticulture and vinification, I don’t think any vintage since 1961 has produced its equal. I will accept that there have been great advances, especially in turning vintages that would have been write-offs into good wines, but why can’t we produce anything of the like of 1961 any more?

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