A Wine for All Seasons: the Tipping Point at Léoville Lascases

Two vintages of Léoville Lascases over the weekend gave me pause for thought about the view that 1982 was the vintage when Bordeaux made the transition from the “classical” to the more “international” style.LascasesThe 1982 vintage in Bordeaux was super-ripe, perhaps unprecedented if you ignore 1947, but around year 2000 I noticed that the wines were losing their lushness and reverting to type, by which I mean that the overtly fruity character was replaced by something more savory, even in some cases hints of herbaceousness (but only hints given the ripeness of the vintage). If the wines were sometimes difficult to relate to past expectations when the vintage was first released, since 2000 they have been increasingly displaying classic balance of savory fruits and lightness of being. The 1982 Lascases today is very much a classic in the modern idiom – meaning it shows the same flavor profile, increasingly moving in a savory direction, as earlier great vintages, but has the extra level of ripeness of the modern era.

1986 was not so highly rated as 1982 as a vintage in Bordeaux (Parker gives it 94 points compared with 98 points, for example) and some of the wines seemed a bit tough on release. Léoville Lascases was a standout for ripeness, and today gives an impression of first growth richness and power. It seems to be aging at a snail’s pace, and in a blind tasting might well seem ten or more years younger than the 1982. I wouldn’t exactly call it “international” but it really is a far cry from classic Bordeaux; and unlike the 1992, I do not think it will revert to classical type.

For me, these two wines typify the difference between classic and modern Bordeaux. I have never seen the tipping point so clearly demonstrated.

1986 Léoville Lascases

Very much a wine in the modern idiom, showing the power and weight of a first growth; evident why it is a 100 point Parker wine. Scarcely shows its age. Still dark, even some purple hues. Must have been massive when released as it’s still full of flavor; loaded with black fruits, supported by smooth chocolaty tannins, but there’s that typical Bordelais lift at the end to keep it fresh. Nose is complex but palate is only just beginning to develop. In terms of tannins, it’s ready, but in terms of flavor, still has a way to go.

1982 Léoville Lascases

A classic impression, with the leanness of St. Julien leading into smoke and minerality. Now really reverting to type. Original black fruits are more evident on nose than palate, which is moving in a savory direction. Acidity is pretty crisp. Complexity comes out slowly in the glass, with layers of flavor developing as the fruits show their ripeness, with a very faint sense of herbaceousness providing a counterpoise in the background.

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A Vertical of Léoville Lascases and Some Insights into Parkerization

There were many surprises in this week’s vertical in New York of Léoville Lascases from 2000 to 1982, with some vintages failing to live up to past promise and others surpassing it.

The 2000 seemed a little closed to start with, but then opened out to show classic elegance and precision, a complete contrast with the lush reputation of the vintage. The 1999 and 1998 tried to emulate its style, but simply do not have enough fruit (and are clearly going nowhere), but the 1997 showed a surprisingly silky attractiveness (but drink it up quickly).

I have not previously been so impressed with 1996 in the Médoc, which has sometimes seemed to have too much acidity, but the Lascases has really come around: a bit reserved at first, it became ripe, sweet, and silky in the glass. As has been true for the past decade, the 1995 is more open and immediately attractive, but without the stuffing for future development, although it hasn’t faded yet.

The 1990 was a conundrum. A few years back, I thought it had it all, with the density and richness of the vintage, but also acidity and tannin to hold. This time it opened with contradictory notes of herbaceousness and over-ripe fruits, and then cleared to show a complex palate with broad, warm flavors.

Going back to the eighties, herbaceousness is still the name of the game. 1989 and 1990 are often regarded as a pair, but the 1989 was completely different: herbaceousness conflicted with over-ripeness, as it did to begin with in 1990, but then it turned clearly in a herbaceous direction; 1988 took this trend further.

Previously 1986 has appeared to have the structure to mature in a classically elegant direction, but this time seemed reserved and dried out. I could not detect any flaw, but still wonder if this might have been an off-bottle. 1985 is back to the warm style, 1983 a surprise in its elegant reminiscence of Margaux in this vintage (and previously I had thought it was reaching the end of its life).

The 1982 is a knockout. Previously it had seemed to develop a bit too rapidly, but this bottle was precise and elegant, with an impression of refinement and even delicacy. Real claret.

The wines fell into three distinct groups. I could see a clear lineage in my preferred group from the 2000 back to 1996 back to 1982. It’s perhaps not surprising that 2000 should show resemblance with 1982, but I did not expect 1996 to fit into this group. These typify St. Julien.

The most traditional flavors came from 1989, 1988, and 1983, with perceptible herbaceousness, but balanced by the greater richness of the palate in a way that was not possible in the prior decade.

By popular acclaim, the preferred wines were 1990 and 1985, both showing broad, warm flavors. To my mind, this shows the Parkerization of taste. These are lovely wines, but they could just as easily come from Pauillac as St. Julien. They are the New Bordeaux, with power prized over elegance. For me, the precision of 1982 could come only from St. Julien, and that’s what it should all be about.

Retroactive Blending

You don’t often get the chance to reconsider the blend ten years on, but this is what happened when I visited Château Léoville Lascases in St. Julien. We started with a tasting of the individual varieties from 1999. That year the Grand Vin was 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, and 18% Merlot (there is no Petit Verdot because they believe it is too rustic.) Samples of the individual varieties were bottled separately (starting in new oak and then transferring to one year oak, to give an overall exposure close to the grand vin’s 60% new oak).

The Merlot showed surprisingly fresh red fruits, with just a touch of tertiary development. The Cabernet Franc was evidently more refined, more elegant, than the other varieties and showed a faint herbaceous touch with an impression of tobacco. It was less developed than the other two varieties.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was quite stern, and gave the most complete impression of any of the single varieties, showing as black fruits with a herbal edge and a touch of herbaceousness showing only on the aftertaste. It’s the most closely related (not surprising since it’s dominant component) to the Grand Vin.

The Grand Vin showed more development than was evident with any of the individual varieties, bringing greater complexity. This has certainly taken its superficial softness and roundness from the Merlot, but you can see the Spartan structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon coming through the fruits; in fact, in some ways it seems more evident here than it did in the sample of Cabernet Sauvignon alone (perhaps because the combination of fruits has less weight than the Cabernet Sauvignon alone), but the overall balance is rescued by the freshness of the finish. There is no doubt that the blend is more complex than its components. In terms of overall assessment, this is a fairly tight wine, with the fruits showing just enough roundness to counteract the leanness of this difficult year.

The most fascinating moment came when technical director Michael Georges made some new blends to see what the effect would be of increasing each variety by another 10%. I liked the blends with more Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc; they seemed to me to have at least as good a balance of fruit to structure as the Grand Vin. I could believe that either of them might be Léoville Lascases. But the blend with additional Merlot seemed to be unbalanced, to have a rusticity that had lost the character of St. Julien: I would not believe in this as a Léoville Lascases. The trick seems to be to add just enough Merlot to flesh out the wine, but not enough to go over the edge into rusticity. Further experimentation suggested that the ideal blend might have just 5% more of each Cabernet; it seemed to me that this showed just a touch more finesse than the Grand Vin. “Perhaps we should wait ten years to do the assemblage,” said Michael Georges, but then we agreed that this might have some adverse financial consequences.

For me this tasting also cast an interesting light on the question of whether assemblage should be done early or late. Some people believe that the sooner the cépages are blended, the better they marry together, and the better the final wine. The earliest practical moment is after malolactic fermentation is finished. Others hold the contrary position, that you are in a better position to judge the quality of each lot if you keep the individual cépages separate until the last moment. I felt that the retroactive blend with 5% more of each Cabernet had more youthful liveliness than the Grand Vin, but then it might of course have developed differently had this been the blend from the beginning. Based on this limited experience, I’m inclined to the view that it might be best to mature each lot separately, allowing for significant adjustment of oak and variety, as long as possible, and I think it would be very interesting to see what the châteaux would do if they weren’t under pressure from the en primeur system to blend before the April tastings.

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.