Playing Russian Roulette with the First Growths

At a wine dinner with Bordeaux first growths from 1985 to 1996, the big surprise was not the quality of the wines, but the huge variation between different bottles of the same wine. Although in each case the wines had been acquired from the same source and stored together, there was not a single instance in which two bottles of the same wine tasted the same.

The 1985 Haut Brion was the greatest puzzle. The first bottle showed a funky, quasi-medicinal nose, which seemed to suggest the possibility of Brett (unlikely though that might seem for this château), although the palate cleared a bit in the glass. It was actually subtle enough that I quite liked it. The second bottle went completely in the opposite direction, showing elegant fruits, but a squeaky-clean character with  that came close to eviscerating the character of Haut Brion.

Next came Angelus 2003. (Yes, I know this was not a first growth at the time, but the organizers evidently took a broad view of the term. Anyway, you wouldn’t balk at including Mouton Rothschild pre-1973 in a first growth tasting.) First bottle was fairly restrained, with rather flat aromatics, and the character of Cabernet Franc pushed a bit into the background. It never came to life. A second bottle showed more aromatic lift with a greater sense of structure at the end. A third bottle showed a more exotic impression, more sense of the precision of Cabernet Franc, with heightened sense of elegance; the very antithesis of any thought that the heat of 2003 might have given a jammy wine, it was one of the more elegant wines of the evening, while the first bottle was one of the most disappointing.On to Mission Haut Brion 1990, where the first bottle was absolutely true to the typicity of the chateau and appellation, with elegant fruits and faint sense of cigar box in the background. The next bottle showed flattened aromatics to the point at which all the life seemed to go out of the wine. While the first bottle was fabulous, the second was merely ordinary.

We went into high gear with Ausone 1996, where the aromatics of the first bottle seemed to point more to the elegance of the left bank than the richness of the right bank. Beautifully integrated, with a sense of seamless layers of flavor, the wine showed something of the ethereal quality of a great vintage of Lafite. A second bottle had a slightly sweaty nose, a faint sense of gunflint, and gave an overall impression of reduction. A third bottle was between the first two, with a flattened profile but not obviously reduced, and a fourth was almost as good as the first.

The first bottle of Lafite 1986 was a bit flat aromatically; although showing the precision and elegance of Lafite, a sense of austerity on the finish made it seem almost stern. I took the sense of a somewhat hard edge to the wine to be the character of the vintage and was uncertain whether it would dissipate with further aging. But a second example showed that this was the character of the bottle rather than the vintage: it really sung, with that ethereal quality of Lafite showing as a seamless impression of precise, elegant fruits, all lightness of being.

With Mouton Rothschild 1989 there was another sort of surprise. The first pour (from a decanter) showed the plush power of Pauillac, very much Cabernet-driven, with black, plumy fruits. A second pour (from another decanter) showed just a little more aromatic lift. The difference between these two was much slighter than between any of the preceding pairs. Here’s the rub: the Mouton came from a single Imperial. The fact that there was any difference at all is surprising, although I have had this experience before, when some pours from an Imperial seemed to be corked while others were pure (I Want My Glass From the Bottom of the Imperial). Interestingly this was also from a Mouton 1989.

The notion there can be differences within a single (large) bottle is disturbing. I think this warrants a proper investigation. I will undertake a thorough experiment if given a supply of Imperials of first growth claret (Mouton from 1989 would be preferred). We will extract the cork and take samples from the top and bottom using a very long pipette, without stirring up the wine at all. Then we will know if proximity to the cork and oxygen on the one hand, or to the sediment on the other, makes any difference within the bottle.

It is not so surprising there should be differences between bottles. After all, if you buy a case of wine and store it for ten or twenty years, you can see at a glance that every bottle has a different level. Differences in ullage imply differences in exposure to oxygen that might well affect the flavor spectrum. But the comparisons in this tasting went well beyond minor differences, to the point at which in each flight there was one bottle that was unquestionably first growth, and one bottle that was disappointing enough to cast doubt on that status.

One moral is that if you are at a tasting where there are second pours from a different bottle, always get a fresh glass for the second pour. Another is to ask whether there is really any point at all in tasting notes, projections of aging, or recommendations, if every single bottle is going to be different. Certainly this is not what the punter expects when he buys a bottle. The culprit must be the cork (inter alia, the sommelier reported that he had never rejected so many corked bottles in preparing for a tasting, so the worst cases had already been removed).

Is there any alternative? Experience with New World wines suggests that using screwcaps might cause the wines to age more slowly and a little differently, but with greater consistency. I’m sure the argument in Bordeaux would be that it’s a bad idea to risk damaging the product of one of the most successful wine regions in the world, but is it so successful if there is no predictability after twenty years?

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The Improvement in Second Wines

When I investigated the second wines of Bordeaux in detail about five years ago for my book What Price Bordeaux?, I was not very impressed. The impression given by the chateaux was that the second wines provided an opportunity to experience their expertise in the form of wines that were ready to drink sooner than the grand vins, in the same general style, but of course at lower cost. Declassified from the grand vin, these wines would come from vines that in another year might have gone into the grand vin. But this did not entirely accord with reality. Only a minority of second wines were in fact principally derived by declassification (usually from vines that were considered too young to contribute to the grand vin); most had become separate products coming from vineyards that rarely contributed to the grand vin. And most second wines on the left bank had a much greater proportion of Merlot than the corresponding grand vins, certainly making them ready to drink sooner, but also much reducing the resemblance with the style of the grand vin. When I held some tastings specifically to compare second wines with other wines available at similar price points, the consensus of both professional and amateur tasters was that they preferred the other wines. Rather than representing special value because of economies of scale or expertise coming from the grand vin, the second wines seemed to have prices that were inflated by the reputation of the grand vin.

On a recent visit to Bordeaux, I gained an entirely different impression and it seemed generally that there had been a great improvement in the quality of second wines. Possibly a contributory factor was that many of the wines I tasted were from the recent excellent 2009 vintage, but beyond quality per se, it seemed that the second wines showed better representations of communal typicity and genuine resemblance with the styles of the grand vins. As I was tasting at chateaux, I did not have the opportunity to compare second wines with other wines at similar price points; perhaps they too have improved equally. One factor that may have contributed to an improvement in the relative quality of the second wines is that now they too are subject to selection; the rejected lots may go into a third wine or be sold off. “The second wine used to be a dumping ground – everything was put in it – but now it’s much more an independent brand, and there is selection for it,” says Bruno Eynard at Chateau Lagrange. John Kolasa at Chateau Rauzan Ségla sees it also as a spin-off from the recent swingeing increase in prices. “The improvement in second wines is due to the increase in pricing, which drove people away from the grand vins to the second wines.”

My tastings may also have been biased by the fact that they included some of what are always the very best second wines, those of the Premier Grand Cru Classés, which usually sell at prices around those of second growths. Although their second wines will be ready to drink sooner than the grand vins, I’m not sure there’s going to be so much difference as to justify the old description of second wines: certainly these at least are not for instant gratification. It remains true that most second wines still have more Merlot than the corresponding grand vins, but the reasons may have shifted a bit. Problems with Merlot becoming too ripe limited the amount that could be used in some grand vins in 2009 and 2010. An incidental consequence is that some second wines have higher alcohol levels than the grand vins, a real inverse of the traditional situation that the best wines came from the ripest grapes.

Are second wines good value? That’s the crux of the matter and I’m not sure I have a clear answer yet. When they did not seem to represent the style of the chateau, I felt that they could never be good value, no matter how much less in price than the grand vin, because they could not aspire to be the real thing. Now it seems that the quality and style are there; but lifted up by the huge increase in prices in 2009 and 2010, and the failure to reduce prices sufficiently in 2011, the wines seem expensive.

Tasting notes

Carruades de Lafite, 2011

Dark purple color. Fresh black fruits on nose with just a whiff of blackcurrants. Quite tight and constrained on the palate, showing elegant but tight fruits with firm tannins. At this moment it gives an impression of coming from somewhere between Pauillac and St. Julien, with the tautness of St. Julien but also the power of Pauillac. Slowly fruits of red and black cherries release in the glass. There’s a touch of heat on the finish. Very fine.   12.7% 90 Drink 2016-2026.

Château Lafite Rothschild, 2011

Dark purple color, almost inky. Sight impression of nuts as well as black fruits on the nose. Fruits are more rounded, deeper, concentrated than on the Carruades, in fact more Pauillac-ish. Tight and reserved with fine tannins evident on finish. A very fine, classic structure for aging.   12.7% 92 Drink 2017-2032.

Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux, 2011

Rather stern, brooding, black impression on nose. Dense fruits on palate with slightly nutty aftertaste. Insofar as you can tell at this early stage, this is more approachable than the grand vin because the structure isn’t so apparent, but it is pretty dense for a second wine. The style is somewhat similar to the grand vin, but with less roundness.   13.0% 90 Drink 2016-2026.

Château Margaux, 2011

Even sterner and more brooding than the Pavillon Rouge. Great fruit density hides the structure more than in the second wine, but then the austerity kicks in on the finish. Very dense and backward with the highest IPT (measure of tannins) ever recorded at Chateau Margaux. The vanillin or new oak is evident, but the nuttiness and perfume comes up the glass, suggesting a fragrant future.  92 Drink 2018-2030.

La Parde de Haut-Bailly, 2011

Fresh nose of youthful red berry fruits; the fresh, light, palate follows with a slight bite on the finish, perfectly pleasant, but – at least not at this stage – showing much character. It’s quite a fine, elegant, style, and slowly some more chocolaty notes emerge on the finish, suggesting that the wine may round out as it develops, but I have some question as to how far this vintage really reflects the style of the chateau.

Château Haut Bailly, 2011

There’s an impression of sweet, ripe, black fruits on the nose. It’s ripe and round on the palate with nice freshness, with a touch of chocolate coating from smooth, supple, tannins. Overall a light, elegant, impression with a faint suggestion of the classic cigar box, in fact a very characteristic Pessac. Not a great vintage, but certainly a good one that should show well for the mid term. The step up in quality from Le Parde is really obvious.   12.8%

La Croix de Beaucaillou, 2009

A darker color than the Lalande Borie (which is effectively regarded as the third wine), this shows more classic sternness to the nose, and a lot more weight and roundness on the palate. Now we turn to black fruits, showing as blackberries tinged with blackcurrants, and you can see something of the style of the grand vin – second wines are certainly coming on. There’s a good sense of refined structure on the mid palate with the fruits showing restrained elegance in a style characteristic of St. Julien.   13.5% 89 Drink 2013-2022.

Château Ducru Beaucaillou  2009

Not so much darker than Croix de Beaucaillou as more purple in hue. Restrained nose gives impression of tight black fruits. Lots of concentration here, with the deep, black, fruits matched by tight tannins, but closed at the moment. Typical of the top level of St. Julien vis à vis Pauillac, the restrained elegance shows a fine texture of taut tannins. promising long life in the classic style. Fruits are certainly full, but not overbearing; reports of excess exuberance were exaggerated.   13.6% 93 Drink 2016-2031.

Carruades de Lafite, 2009

Slightly nutty nose yet with some savory undertones. Round, elegant, soft, yet there is that underlying sense of the power of Pauillac. Although the tannins are supple, the wine is very restrained; the Cabernet seems more dominant than its proportion of 50%. The palate softens a little in the glass but the nose remains muted. The tannins need to resolve to release the elegance of the fruits. Even as a second wine, this is not for instant gratification, but needs time.   13.6% 90 Drink 2016-2031.

Château Lafite Rothschild, 2009

Restrained nose with faintly nutty tones of blackcurrants. Softer and rounder, yet more concentrated, than Carruades. Tight grained tannins create a very fine texture, but show as dry on the finish. That hallmark core of elegance, of precision to the fruits, runs through the wine.  Even after only a few months, the initial exuberance has calmed down. “The wine has had good evolution, the exuberance we had at the beginning is no longer there; at the en primeur I was not sure we were in Bordeaux, now we are coming back into Bordeaux,” says Director Charles Chevalier. It’s that smooth roundness on the palate and the long velvety finish that tells us this is Lafite, that quality of seamless layers of flavor is already beginning to show.   13.6% 94 Drink 2018-2038.

Les Forts de Latour, 2009

The nose offers spicy sensations with cinnamon at the forefront. Fruits on the palate are intensely black, with blackcurrants, blackberries, and plums at the forefront. The underlying structure is tight, with firm tannins leaving a bite on the finish – but it’s a sense of grip rather than bitterness. The great fruit is partly hidden by the density of the tight supporting structure. This is going to need some time, but it should age for a very long time.   13.6% 92 Drink 2017-2029.

Château Latour, 2009

I asked M. Engerer, the Gérant at Latour, when he thought this wine would be ready to start drinking. “Well it depends on your taste,” he said, “if you are new and young to wine, perhaps five years, but we might prefer to wait longer.” Personally I think it would be infanticide before a decade is up. The intensity is indicated by the inky appearance. The nose is quite restrained. The palate is more subtle than the Forts de Latour in that its components are less obvious, principally because of the balance of fruits and structure. There’s great fruit density, but it’s held back by the structure; on the other hand, the structure is less obtrusive than in the Forts de Latour because of the fruit density. The main impression here is of the reserve of the wine, of a sense of power holding back, so massively constructed that it will take a decade to come around. This will no doubt become a classic like great Latours of the past.   13.7% 94 Drink 2022-2040.

Château Beychevelle, 2009

More fruit evident than the Amiral, but still with classic mineral freshness of St. Julien. More generous on the palate, but also more evident depth and supporting structure. Very much in the character of St. Julien, elegant rather than powerful, with supple tannins giving a furry finish with chocolate overtones. Oak is evident in the soft impression of vanillin and nuts on the finish. Fine, but will be finer yet when the planned increase in Cabernet Sauvignon occurs.   13.85% 89 Drink 2015-2025.

Amiral de Beychevelle, 2009

Typical Cabernet impression of fresh black fruits, following through to a light, elegant, palate, but with chocolate undertones. The Amiral is lighter than the Beychevelle but also a little more austere (perhaps because it has 58% Cabernet Sauvignon compared to Beychevelle’s 48%). The light underlying structure is a  good balance to the fruits, with unusually classic representation for a second wine. This should age nicely for the mid term; drink over the next decade.   13.6% 87 Drink 2013-2022.

Amiral de Beychevelle, 2005

Touch of garnet at rim shows start of development. Black fruit impressions have hints of spices. Very nicely balanced, developing well in the elegant style of St. Julien. Given the softness on the palate you would not think this was three quarters Cabernet Sauvignon, although there is a nicely defined structure. This gives a slightly fresher impression than the grand vin, almost you might say a tighter impression on the palate, because the fruits are not so well rounded.   13.0% 88 Drink now-2019.

Château Beychevelle, 2005

Rather restrained on the nose. First palate impression is of furry, chocolaty, tannins coating soft fruits – softer than the Amiral – and then the structure kicks in on the finish and you see the underlying strength of the wine for aging. Beautifully balanced, elegant, black fruits have lost the initial fat, but not yet started into middle development. The quality of the grand vin shows in a roundness that’s not on the Amiral.   13.0% Beychevelle 90 Drink now-2027.