Is Bordeaux 1990 Finally Starting to Come Around?

My question does not reflect concern as to whether 1990 Bordeaux is ready to drink, as the vintage has been drinking well for quite some years now (and to my mind is distinctly more reliable than 1989, with which it is often compared). It addresses the deeper question of whether this vintage will end up true to the old traditions of Bordeaux or will more reflect the modern era.

The driving force for this question in my mind is the history of the 1982 vintage, which showed an unprecedented drinkability on release. For the first two decades, the wines were lovely, but with a distinctly richer and more overtly fruit-driven spectrum than previous top vintages. Then around year 2000, they began to revert to type, with the left bank wines beginning to show traces of delicious herbaceousness to offset the fruits. Since then they have developed along the lines of classic Bordeaux.

My question is whether vintages that have been successively richer than 1982, such as 1990, 2000, 2005, and others, will show that same quality of reversion to type or whether they are so much richer, with higher tannins, greater dry extract, and greater alcohol, that they will follow a different path, more New World-ish you might say. Until now I have been concerned that they might fail to develop that delicious savory counterpart to the fruits that to me is the quintessence of Bordeaux as it ages. At a splendid gala dinner held by the Commanderie de Bordeaux of New York, which focused on the 1990 vintage, I got my first sense that these wines may now be moving in a savory direction.

Chateau  Figeac now shows its structural bones more clearly than a few years back. Herbaceousness is evident to the point at which it seems much more dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon than its actual one third, and I might well have placed it on the left bank in a blind tasting. This now seems classic to the point at which I am worried whether herbaceousness will overtake the fruits as they decline.

Lynch Bages is at its peak, and little altered from two or three years ago. Here Cabernet Sauvignon shows more as a subtle touch of cigar box than herbaceousness; this is completely classic in offering a faint counterpoise to the black fruit spectrum of the palate. That refreshing uplift is what I love about Bordeaux. (I see a direct line from the 1985, where cigar box dominates the fruits, delicious but not as subtle as the perfection of the 1990.)

Chateaux Palmer and Latour are still dominated by the richness of the vintage; in fact they seem to have put on weight and to be richer than they were three or four years ago. Palmer has gone from the traditional delicacy of Margaux with violets on the palate three years ago to a palate that is now dominated by rich, round black fruits. This is rather plump for a traditional Margaux, although as refined as always, but the signs of potential reversion to type were there in the past, and I expect them to return .

It’s not exactly vinicide to drink the Latour now, but it would be missing the point. The wine shows impressive richness and power, with deep black fruits where the first faint signs of development are beginning to show. There are plenty of precedents for Latour requiring decades to come around—the 1928 wasn’t drinkable until the late 1970s—but this wine is certainly enjoyable now. It’s not unready because of a tannic presence, but because the fruits have yet to develop the flavor variety and complexity that will come over the next decade. In the context of my basic question, this is classic.

So there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the 1990 Bordeaux is now beginning to develop in a way that I think of as reverting to type. The bad news is that it has taken 25 years. The 1982s took 18 years to reach a comparable point. If we fast forward and try to predict the path for the 2005s or 2009s, we may be looking at 30 years.

 

 

The Chameleon Grape: A Tale of Two Chardonnays

I call Chardonnay the Chameleon grape because its character is so much more dependent on winemaking than place. Vinify Chardonnay at low temperature and you get tropical fruits; go to higher temperatures for a more classic repertoire. Mature in new oak for smoky overtones or a full-fledged rush of vanillin; use stainless steel for a crisper finish. Push malolactic fermentation for those buttery notes of popcorn; avoid it for sharp, citrus flavors. (Yes, I know that Chardonnay shows wonderful nuances of place in Burgundy, most notably in Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault, but that does not counter my argument, since there is a commonality to winemaking in Burgundy.)

Dependence on winemaking becomes even more evident at lower price levels, where yields are higher, and vineyard origins rarely feature as determinants of style. The significant impact of the hand of the winemaker was brought forcefully home to me by two mid-priced Chardonnay’s consumed on successive days. The first was the L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State, enjoyed (if that is the right word) on American Airlines between New York and London (The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet). The second was Domaine Mont d’Hortes from the Languedoc, enjoyed with dinner at Galvins Bistro in London (Review of Galvin Bistrot de Luxe), the day after. American Airlines did not think vintage was important enough to state, but the Mont d’Hortes was the recent 2010 vintage. The American wine retails around $17 per bottle; the Languedoc Chardonnay is about half that price.

The L’Ecole No. 41 comes from Washington’s Columbia Valley. According to the producer, it comes from two vineyards, Schmitt Vineyard in Yakima Valley, “which provides tropical fruit,” and Evergreen Vineyard, “which contributes crisp acidity and minerality.” I buy the producer’s claim that these are cooler vineyards, because I could taste slightly herbaceous flavors in the wine, which I took to represent unripe grapes, although the harvest Brix of almost 26 (producing more than 14% alcohol) might rather suggest over ripe grapes. I can’t say that I could see the wine as “finely balanced between richness and minerality,” because for me it seems more to have a phenolic brutality to the finish, which did not exactly complement the food.

The Mont d’Hortes Chardonnay comes from the Vin de Pays des Côtes de Thongue, a minor Vin de Pays in the Languedoc, not far north of the Pyrenees. This is a somewhat warmer region, but the nose shows a tang of citrus, quite fresh with just a touch of phenolics on the finish. The palate is quite full, with a fairly rich impression. There is not a huge amount of flavor interest, and once again I found the phenolics to be a little too evident, but a decent balance allowed the wine to complement the food quite well. As evident from the price, this wine sees no oak aging, in contrast with the l’Ecole No. 41 which apparently was matured in two- and three-year old barriques.

I suspect the oak is the culprit! For a wine to carry any significant exposure to oak, the fruit has to have a certain concentration and intensity; otherwise the oak just sits on the surface in a disjointed way. Given the coast of oak barriques, it is awfully hard to justify their use on wines around the $15 level (the cost of a new barrique would amount to around 20% of the retail price, which is to say close to half of cost). I suspect my problem with the L’Ecole #41 was just too much strength coming from the oak relative to the fruit. My issue with the Mont d’Hortes was a bit different: there just didn’t seem to be any character to it that said “Chardonnay.” It is a perfectly reasonable quaffing wine, well made for the price, but I had the feeling the same wine could have been produced from any number of grape varieties with very little difference in the results. Southern heat did not show directly in high alcohol (which was stated as a moderate 13%), but it might be fair to say that it muddied the flavor spectrum. I am not sure that in the case of either wine I really see the point of growing Chardonnay just so you can stick the varietal name on the label, although the wine bears little relationship to those that made the variety famous. Has Chardonnay become a brand or even a commodity rather than a variety?