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?

Modernism versus Tradition in the Graves

To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the classification of the chateaux of the Graves, the Commanderie of New York held a dinner and tasting this week. All the chateaux had their wines from 2009 out for tasting, and there were older wines at dinner. One day after the UGCB tasting of the 2010 vintage at its first showing, there’s a fascinating comparison between the two vintages, and also looking back to the same wines at the UGCB 2009 tasting one year ago. I was especially struck by the comparison between three wines: Domaine de Chevalier, Pape-Clément, and Smith Haut Lafitte.

Domaine de Chevalier provided a textbook illustration of the difference between the vintages. Always the most precise and elegant wine of Pessac, the 2010 showed all the hallmarks of a classic vintage: lots of tension in the wine, with finely edged black fruits supported by taut tannins. No wine at Domaine de Chevalier is ever going to show forward fruits in the modern style, but the ripeness of the 2009 vintage certainly softened the edges; a year ago it was just starting to show some aromatic development, but today it’s closed up a bit, its homage to the luscious quality of 2009 has backed off, and it’s somewhat reverting to type. It looks like the 2010 vintage will be the more classic and longer lived; it’s certainly far more reserved now than the 2009 was a year ago.

At the other extreme, Pape-Clément has been the most modern wine of Pessac-Léognan since Bernard Magrez started to revitalize it. At the 2009 Bordeaux tasting a year ago, it was one of the most overtly modern wines: very powerful and full of fruits in the modern style, giving a full-throttle impression. You might say it took full advantage of the conditions of the vintage. Although when I asked Bernard Magrez whether Pape Clément had changed more than other chateaux, he said, “No, I don’t think so. The typicity is the terroir, that we can’t change, this is what gives character to the wine. One can’t make a wine ‘international’,” it seems to me that Pape-Clément has been getting steadily richer, with warm, deep, black furry fruits showing a character moving towards the right bank. The 2009 vintage has calmed down a lot in the past year: it’s still somewhat oaky, but the fruits now let the powerful structure show more clearly. In an interesting contrast, the 2010 gives a modern impression of bright black fruits backed by vanillin, but not nearly so overtly as the 2009 did at the same stage. The original impressions of both vintages accord closely with the reputations of the years in the context of a modern style.

The surprise came with comparing Smith Haut Lafitte of the two vintages. Smith Haut Lafitte has been moving steadily in a more modern direction, although not so overtly as Pape-Clément. The 2009 was certainly in the modern style on release, but the 2010 makes it look positively restrained. With lots of new oak showing at first impression, followed by soft, black fruits, and furry tannins, this is far more “international” than the 2009 or for that matter than the Pape-Clément 2010. This is a striking move in the direction of modernism. Perhaps this reflects what Daniel Cathiard told me a few months ago: “We have to listen to our consumers (sometimes). The Americans showed what they like, now the Chinese. There is an influence because we want our wine to be referred, we want to make wine that pleases our customers.” A year on from release, today the 2009 tastes like most 2010s: still modern, but with the edges more precisely defined than they were a year ago. In fact, if you tasted the two vintages blind at this point, it would not be difficult to become confused and to conclude that the ripe, forward, fruits of the 2010 were typical of the 2009 vintage, and that the greater precision of the 2009 was typical of the 2010 vintage.

The hit of the evening at dinner was the 2000 Haut Bailly, which has reached a peak of smooth, firm, elegance, with a subtle balance of flavors. It’s close to perfection at this point, with that firm density so typical of Graves, but my one cause for concern is whether it should have got to this stage in only 12 years, and what that may mean for the future. But I would guess it’s good for another decade, at least.

The dinner concluded with a comparison of Haut Brion and Mission Haut Brion 1998. This was one of those split vintages: relatively poor in the Médoc but very good on the right bank. It was also pretty good in the Graves. The Haut Brion and Mission gave the impression of a good or very good rather than top notch vintage, and although they were generally similar in style, in this year the Haut Brion definitely has the advantage over the Mission. A confirmation of the old saying that the first growths show to greatest advantage in years that aren’t absolutely top rated.

The comparison between the 2009s and 2010s was an education in not jumping to conclusions immediately after the vintage. The 2009s have really closed up in the past year; there’s been a more or less continuous loss of lusciousness and increase in structure ever since the en primeurs. This makes you wonder just how accurate the assessments were en primeur.