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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The Perils of Tasting: Auctions and Condition

I have been brought up short more than once at tastings by wines that display an unexpected character, but I was led to wonder about the whole question of assessing wines or vintages on the basis of tastings by a tasting of 1989 Bordeaux organized by a wine store in New York. The wines as a group showed a flat profile rather suggesting that the vintage is not aging well and might have been over rated. Thinking that I might need to put my 1989 Bordeaux up at an auction, I pulled a bottle out of the cellar to check. It was quite different from the bottles we had had at the tasting, and I realized that I might have been completely misled. I don’t know the detailed provenance of the bottles at the tasting, but I suspect that they came from recent auctions: caveat emptor, indeed.

Suspicious as to how often I might be misled by bottles in less than perfect condition, I have been making some more comparisons after going to tastings, pulling the same wines from my cellar that I had bought en primeur, and which have been kept under temperature and humidity control ever since. I regard these as equivalent to tasting wine at the chateau. And sometimes I have also been able to taste wine at the chateau of the same vintage to compare with a tasting elsewhere. In several such comparisons, always made within a short time period, there was only one case in which the wine at the chateau or from my cellar was not distinctly superior. That was a comparison of Palmer 1996, where the wine at the chateau showed austerity, and the wine at the tasting was more forward and delicious: perhaps in this case the wine has simply developed more rapidly outside the chateau.

The most striking comparison was between two bottles of Ducru Beaucaillou 1996, both tasted last week. One at a tasting organized by a store in New York had such a curious nose of over-ripe fruit that I even wondered whether it was authentic. (I’m not sure I would have placed it in Bordeaux if I had tasted it completely blind.) I found it impossible to believe it was the same wine as a bottle from my cellar, which showed a completely classic development, a bit of a surprise in the post-1982 era, but a happy one. Indeed, I wonder whether I should revise my opinion of the 1996 vintage, which based on this tasting I had put down as only somewhat better than average (Bordeaux 1996: the Throwback Vintage).

In the present market, most of the wines at tastings of old vintages have probably passed through the auctions at some point. I am sure that the auction houses do their best to check provenance and condition, but whenever I see in an auction catalog “removed from temperature controlled storage,” the question that leaps into my mind is: “yes, but where was it for the twenty years before it went into the storage?” The moral is that you are safe at auction only if the catalog specifically guarantees that the wine was stored ever since the vintage in the same cellar under controlled conditions. Given the way wines are circulating around the auctions these days, that is becoming an increasingly difficult standard to meet.

Léoville Barton, 1989

From my cellar

Quite undeveloped appearance with ruby hue. Nose shows black fruits dominated by blackcurrants and blackberries with some faintly musty overtones that intensify retronasally There’s lots of black fruit on the palate, supported by soft, plump tannins. The intensity of the fruits combined with that faintly musty note give this a more modern impression than is usual for the chateau. No signs of tiring yet, good for years.   92  Drink -2021.

At tasting in New York

Medium garnet color with some paling orange at the rim. Red fruits in mid development with a soft impression on the nose. Balanced acidity supports the soft fruits on the palate,  fruits are red rather than black, there’s a touch of heat on the finish, well balanced and the acidity may keep it going longer than the average 1989, but there’s not a great deal of flavor variety. Not quite up to the usual precise standard of Léoville Barton.

Pichon Lalande, 1996   

Direct from the chateau   

Medium garnet color. Classic nose, with fruits turning savory, although no tertiary development yet. Completely classic on the palate, a throwback to the seventies in style, dominated by the Cabernet Sauvignon. Savory black fruits have a touch of herbaceousness, with the sense of bell peppers carrying through the long finish. The acidity is less pressing here than in some wines of the vintage. This should continue to mature in the classic style – which is to say savory with vegetal overtones rather than overtly fruity – until the tannins overtake the fruits.   89 Drink -2020.

At tasting in New York

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.

Palmer, 1996

At the chateau

First touch of garnet color showing. Restrained nose has more red than black fruits. Faint savory touch is not quite as developed as 1999. There is a typically smooth impression on the palate, with relatively delicate fruit; the tannins are receding into the background, although there’s a faint touch of medicinal austerity. It may be that being a high Cabernet wine does not suit Palmer very well.  90 Drink -2018

At tasting in New York

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.

Ducru Beaucaillou, 1996

From my cellar

Quintessential St. Julien, claret in the old style. Herbaceousness of Cabernet Sauvignon is tamed by the fruits (or vice versa). This is slowly maturing, full-throated Ducru, with a slowly maturing core of dense fruits turning savory, a distinct touch of herbaceousness on nose and palate, but making a delicious counterpoise to the sweet fruits. There’s the elegance and precision of St. Julien, more than a touch of austerity reflecting the character of the vintage, but this is as good as the vintage gets.   92 Drink -2019.

At tasting in New York

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.

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.