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.

 

 

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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.

Is Ripeness All in Cabernet Sauvignon

I’ve been mulling over the issue of ripeness as I begin the research for Claret & Cabs, because the issue seems to be exaggerated with Cabernet Sauvignon, and also with its parent Sauvignon Blanc, relative to other varieties. I think this is because they share the property that varietal character depends on production of pyrazines, in particular IBMP (3-isobutyl-2-methoxy-pyrazine for those technically inclined). Pyrazines form during vegetative growth, essentially during the period before veraison, and then are gradually destroyed by exposure to sunlight. People are very sensitive to them, which would have been an evolutionary advantage, as they are an indication of unripe fruit. IBMP gives Bordeaux its classic notes of bell peppers. This dramatic transition in flavor spectrum is not something I associate with most other varieties. With Pinot Noir, for example, there is certainly a change as the grapes pass from unripe, through ripe, to super ripe, and you see a transition from light, red acidic fruits to darker, riper, black fruits, but you don’t really see a whole flavor component completely disappearing. Is this why the “international style” has made more impact with Cabernet Sauvignon than with other varieties?

As the climate has got warmer, and as criteria for harvesting have moved to greater degrees of ripeness, the concentration of IBMP has fallen in Cabernet Sauvignon, and these days it’s quite rare to detect it in young Bordeaux. Indeed, if you mention the word “herbaceous” to a Bordeaux proprietor today, he is likely to take it as a personal insult. Herbaceousness has never been much of a character in Napa Valley Cabernet, which has always achieved a greater degree of ripeness, and I suspect that most Napa producers would actually regard it as flaw.

But have we lost something here? No one wants to go back to the days of vegetative wines – remember when they couldn’t ripen Cabernet in Monterey and the wines became known as Monterey veggies – but are the wines as interesting when they present simply a monotonic array of fruit flavors. “We need grapes that are cooked, roasted, and green; even this last is necessary; it improves in the cuve by fermenting with the others; it is this that brings liveliness to the wine,” said the Abbé Tainturier at Clos Vougeot almost three hundred years ago; I think he may have had a point. Isn’t there a key point in complexity in which the faintest, barely detectable, touch of herbaceousness brings a crucial element? Does pursuing maximum ripeness lead to optimum complexity?

Something that has been puzzling me lately is the apparent reversion to type of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. When the wines were first bottled, they were full of lush fruits: you would have been hard put to detect herbaceousness. This is still true of the Chateau Latour, so fruit-bound, and with such with intense aromatics, that it just seems infanticide even to think of drinking of it. It won’t take fifty years to come around like the 1928, but it certainly isn’t ready yet (tasting note in Chateau Latour: Wines for the Ages). On the other hand, the Margaux has reverted to type, and I think the Lafite is about to do so. By reversion, I mean that some herbaceous notes are poking through the fruits, not at all obvious, indeed very subtle against the background of the fruit intensity, but bringing additional complexity. But where did they come from?

Pyrazines come from the grape (mostly from the skin, also from the stems if the grapes weren’t destemmed), and the concentration cannot have changed in the wine since bottling. It must be that as the tannins resolve, and the fruit concentration lightens, you begin to see pyrazines that were there all along but hidden by the fruit intensity. (So the supposed threshold for detection isn’t everything.) I must say that I did not see this coming until I detected faint herbaceous around year 2000 in the 1982 second growths. For me it’s an important contribution to complexity, so I’m puzzling over how to spot the potential in young vintages, which since 1982 have of course become even more intense in overt fruit concentration. Indeed, I wonder if and when they will go the same route as the 1982s.

 Château Margaux 1982

Has now reached a stage of perfection not to mention classicism. Developed black fruit nose has herbaceous overtones turning more distinctly to bell peppers in the glass. There’s a delicious balance of savory black fruits with a herbaceous catch on the finish. There has been a complete reversion to classical type from the lushness of the first decade, with a perfect offset between the black fruits of the palate and the herbaceous overtones of the finish.   96 Drink till 2022

Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982

Still a dark color, although now garnet rather than purple. Black fruits are just beginning to show some development on the nose, with a hint of menthol, and a touch of austerity cutting the fruits. Typically very smooth on the palate with those layers of flavor typical of Lafite, in fact still quite youthful and fruit-driven. Tannins are now resolving but are very fine grained and ripe, the structure will keep this going for years. Smooth and elegant rather than voluptuous. 93 Drink till 2023

Chateau Latour: Wines for the Ages

Chateau Latour never fails to impress with its longevity. Is it the longest lived wine of Bordeaux? A comparison of two vintages, at three decades and five decades of age, showed two wines aging at a glacial pace, but seeming much younger than their years.

The 1982 and 1964 vintages showed a generally similar aroma and flavor spectrum, in itself an extraordinary feature for two wines separated by two decades. Of course the aromatics were stronger in the younger wine, the color and fruits were more intense, but you could see the same lineage. In a blind tasting you might have taken the young wine for the early 1990s and the older wines for the early 1980s. In a blind tasting I would not have separated them by twenty years.

One of the marks of why Chateau Latour is such a great wine is that no single feature stands out from the harmonious whole. The ripeness and density of the fruits is unmistakable, but in so many New World wines those same features make the wine overpowering, at least when paired with food. Here the 1964 was perfection against a variety of dishes, although I have to admit I found the aromatics on the 1982 just a fraction intense, and found myself muttering “infanticide” from time to time.

The wines were tasted at a splendid dinner at The Modern restaurant in New York, which has recently changed its format from a three course to a four course prix fixe (alas, accompanied by a significant price increase). The wines went well with a mushroom tart (containing mussels and various other components in a brilliant blend that was hard to deconstruct), monkfish in a mushroom sauce accompanied by a green sauce (the killer dish of the evening with an extremely complex texture), and chicken breast in chanterelle sauce (perhaps a mistake on my part to have three dishes in succession based on mushrooms, but  the chanterelles were wonderfully intense). One of the things I like about The Modern is that its well balanced menus do not fall  into the mistake of striving too hard for effect for unusual flavor combinations that clash with wine: everything was perfectly harmonious.

1982 Chateau Latour

This wine is a brooding monster, several years away from coming into a mature balance. Dark in color and on the palate, it hardly seems to have developed. Quite intense aromatics open the nose and follow through to lead the immediate attack on the palate, with blackcurrants dominating. It’s going to take some time for them to calm down, another ten years at least. Underneath is a massive structure with firm, sturdy tannins, well counterbalanced by the concentrated fruits, but everything is in proportion. It’s really more the aromatics than the tannic concentration that characterize the wine as being too young. This does not rival the 1928 in requiring fifty years to come around – it is perfectly drinkable although a bit of a waste at this point – but I suspect that it will begin to revert to type, which is to say to show more savory elements, only in another couple of decades,

1964 Chateau Latour

Still a deep color. The nose has come off its original spectrum of primary fruits, but has not yet developed tertiary aromas. The palate is pure Latour: deep black fruits, some blackcurrants just poking through, dense and rich. You begin to see the layers of complexity starting (!) to develop, but oh so slowly, with the overall impression still fruity rather than tertiary. There is no sign of tiring. Perhaps this does not have the depth of the 1961, but I think it may still have more fruit than the 1966. (Typical for left bank chateaux that picked before the rain in 1964). This particular bottle showed more evident fruit than some others I have had, so not surprisingly there is of course some variation in the extent of development depending on the bottle. But in top condition it should clearly last another couple of decades.