Bordeaux 2015: Taming of the Tannins

Judging from this week’s UGCB tasting of 2015 Bordeaux in New York, the vintage is very good, although lacking the sheer wow factor of 2009 or 2005. I see it as a modern take on classic tradition, by which I mean that the wines tend towards elegance and freshness, but without the heavy tannins or herbaceousness of the past, and are relatively approachable.

After a day tasting around 100 chateaux, I had a 1978 Léoville Lascases for dinner: the difference in style is most marked in the delicious tang of herbaceousness marking the 1978. Needless to say, there was not a trace of herbaceousness in any of the wines of 2015. I miss it.

2015 is a relatively homogeneous vintage: there is more or less even success across the board. It is even true that the difference between modernist and more traditional châteaux is much less marked than in some past vintages. In previous vintages the modernists–among which I include Pape-Clément, Smith Haut Lafitte, Lascombes, Lagrange, Léoville-Poyferré, Pichon Baron, Cos d’Estournel–have stood out for forward fruits, very ripe and round, sometimes approaching New World in style: in 2015, modernism takes the form of a smooth sheen to the palate, with tannins tamed and very fine. But it’s a general mark of the vintage that tannins are rarely really obtrusive, and the taming of the tannins is likely to mean that, unless it closes up unexpectedly, the vintage will be ready to start relatively soon,.

Appellation character is clear this year.

  • Margaux is very fine and elegant, although there is a tendency for the lighter fruits of the appellation to let the tannins show more obviously than in other appellations. The appellation generally gives somewhat the impression of a lighter year. Durfort Vivens has really revived, with a fine effort that speaks to Margaux, Kirwan has more finesse due to its new cellar, Lascombes is more elegant and less modern than usual, Rauzan-Ségla is quintessential Margaux, and Siran presents a great view of Margaux from the class of Cru Bourgeois.
  • The same sense of elegance carries to St. Julien, except that here the tannins universally seem exceptionally fine in the background, making many wines more immediately attractive; St. Julien is closer in style to Margaux than to neighboring Pauillac. Beychevelle as a very convincing expression of the appellation, Gruaud Larose is very much on form this year, Lagrange seems lighter compared to its usual modern style, Léoville Barton is stylish and elegant, the quintessential St. Julien, while Léoville Poyferré is distinctly more modern.
  • Moving into Pauillac, there is more power in the background, with wines somewhat rounder, but there’s a range from almost rustic to utterly sophisticated. Tannins are held in check by density of fruits, making wines seem relatively approachable. A fine effort from d’Armailhac is almost plush, it’s a good year for Grand Puy Ducasse but it doesn’t have the breed of Grand Puy Lacoste, which is structured and built to last, Lynch Bages is a solid representation of the appellation, Pichon Baron shows the smoothness of its modern style, but this year Pichon Lalande gives an even more modern impression and seems quite approachable.
  • It’s always hard to get a bead on S. Estèphe at the UGCB because so few châteaux are represented, and the top châteaux are missing, but if I got any sense that the vintage was less successful in any one appellation, it would be here. Tannins are well in front of fruits and less tamed than in other appellations: the classic tightness of St. Estèphe tends to show through. None of the wines can be called generous, although Lafon-Rochet gets half way to Pauillac with a smooth palate, Cos Labory shows the tightness of St. Estèphe, and Phélan Ségur seems on the light side for the appellation.
  • Outside of the great communes, La Lagune will be a classic, La Tour Carnet is more modern but not as obvious than usual, Cantemerle is quite smooth.
  • Cru Bourgeois show in similar style to the grand cru classés, but with less refinement and roundness; there isn’t the difference between the classic approach and the luxury wine approach of rich years such as 2009, although the advantage of the grand cru classés remains obvious.
  • Graves has many lovely restaurant wines, that is, well balanced for drinking immediately.
  • In Pessac-Léognan, I did not get much sense of the classic cigar-box in the reds, but the wines did seem a little more granular than the Médoc. Domaine de Chevalier is lovely with its usual crystalline brilliance, Haut Bailly is more granular, Larrivet-Haut Brion is smooth, Malartic-Lagravière is just a touch more tannic, Pape-Clément is not quite as modern in its aromatics as Smith Haut Lafitte.
  • It’s a very good year in St. Emilion, with wines showing the generosity of the right bank, but nicely restrained rather than lush. In fact, restrained is the phrase that occurs most often in my tasting notes. Beauséjour-Bécot is smooth, Canon is beautifully refined, Canon La Gaffelière is a top result for the appellation with layers of flavor, La Gaffelière is true to the structured tradition of the château. Making its first appearance at the UGCB, Valandraud no longer makes the outrageous impression of a garage wine, but seems in the mainstream.
  • Pomerol does not show full force lushness, and is only a little more fruit-forward than St. Emilion, with many wines showing more obvious evidence of structure than usual. The restrained black fruits of Clinet tend to elegance, even Michel Rolland’s Bon Pasteur shows evident structure.
  • Whites are decent but nothing really stood out for me: Graves produced lovely restaurant wines in whites as in red. Pessac-Léognan seems less concentrated than usual, and wines tend to be soft and attractive. Particular successes: Châteaux de France, Malartic-Lagravière, Pape-Clément, Smith Haut Lafittte.
  • Sauternes are delicious, with Château de Fargues as a standout. A sense of purity makes the wines refreshing.

Overall a very good year, with wines tending to be restrained rather than obvious, most needing only a few years before starting, and probably best enjoyed in the decade after that.


Bordeaux 2010 : Musical Chairs at the Communes

At the first showing of the 2010 Bordeaux’s at the UGCB tasting in New York last week, the most common question from producers was “which vintage do you prefer, this year or 2009?” The comparison with the 2009s at the UGCB tasting a year ago is like night and day: those wines were often immediately appealing, with lots of obvious fruit extract, whereas the 2010s have a more precise, structured, impression and are more difficult to assess. Producers seem to feel almost universally that 2010 is the better year. I am not entirely convinced and am becoming worried that my palate may have been corrupted.

Differences between appellations came out more clearly this year, but in a different way from 2009. The appellations seemed to playing musical chairs, with some switches of character. Margaux shows fruit precision more obviously backed by tannins;  St. Julien shows a soft delicacy. In fact, you might say that Margaux shows a touch of the precision of St. Julien, while St. Julien shows a touch of the delicacy of Margaux. Pauillac is quite firm but often shows perfumed violets reminiscent of Margaux,  and tannins are less obvious than usual. St Emilion is unusually aromatic (some wines were too aromatic for me) and Pomerol seems to be sterner. The other turn-up for the book was that those chateaux that have been showing a move to a more modernist style–Pape Clément, Lascombes, Lagrange, Léoville-Poyferré at the forefront–reverted to more classic character, although Smith Haut Lafitte went full force international.

My concern about the future of this vintage started when I tasted through the wines from Margaux (the appellation best represented at the tasting). Almost all the wines showed classic refinement and elegance, with a very nice balance of black fruits to fine-grained tannins, but for the most part there did not seem to be the sheer concentration for real longevity. My sense is that most of the Margaux will be lovely to drink between five and ten years from now, but they may not continue to hold for another decade beyond that. Of course, if they follow the path of the 2009s, which were very approachable a year ago but many of which have closed up today, this timescale could be extended. Judging from Margaux, this is a very good vintage indeed, but I am uncertain whether it will rise to greatness. The best wines in St. Julien are the Léovilles, which have precision and fruit concentration: others have precision but do not quite seem to have the fruit concentration.

Pauillacs were mostly lovely, but with more elegance than the power you usually find, and some might almost be described as delicate. Most seem lively for the medium term, but few offer the potential for real longevity, Perhaps we should no longer expect real longevity? A word that often appears in my tasting notes from Pauillac is “superficial.” There are rarely enough wines from St. Estèphe at the UGCB to form a definitive judgment, but on a rather limited showing they seem to be somewhat Pauillac-like this year.

St Emilion seemed to show its basic varietal composition more clearly than usual. All the wines were more obviously aromatic than usual, and those with greater proportions of Cabernet Franc tended to show unusually high toned aromatics, tending to black cherries; wines where the Merlot was more obviously dominant gave the slightly sterner impression that is the reputation of the vintage. Canon and Canon La Gaffelière were the most obviously aromatic. Cabernet Franc seems to have been too ripe for any wines to show overt notes of tobacco, but there are occasional sweet hints of it. Most wines will be ready to start in a couple of years and should hold for a decade. Pomerol, with its greater content of Merlot, is usually more obviously lush than St.  Emilion, but this year seemed more subtle.

I did not get the expected impression of greatness from the Sauternes. The best had a beautiful sweetness with overtones of botrytis, but didn’t seem to have quite enough piquancy to maintain freshness in the long run. However, the wines I tasted were mostly from Sauternes, and it’s said that the standouts were in Barsac this year.

Best wines for each appellation (from those represented at the tasting which were most but not all of the top wines) were:

Pessac-Léognan: Domaine de Chevalier

Margaux: Rauzan-Ségla

St. Julien: Léoville Barton

Pauillac: Pichon Lalande

St. Emilion: Figeac

Sauternes: de Fargues

Looking back a year, I was equally surprised at both tastings, but in quite different ways. Based on reports en primeur, I expected the 2009s to be heavy if not brutish: but by the time they had settled down for the 2009 tasting, most had that characteristic acid uplift of Bordeaux to cut the rich fruits. Accustomed to those rich fruits over the past year, the 2010s seemed much tighter, but I’m not sure they’ve really got that much more structure, and in many cases it seems uncertain whether the fruit concentration will really carry them on for years after the 2009s, as conventional wisdom has it. However, in the past year the 2009s have quite tightened up, and now seem more classical; if the 2010s do the same, I may have underestimated their potential for longevity. There’s no doubt that the 2009s are more delicious and will remain so for some time: perhaps my palate has been Parkerized, but I prefer them at the moment and I’m uncertain if and when that will change.

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.

Pichon Lalande Tasting

A vertical tasting of Pichon Lalande with Sylvie Cazes in New York gave surprises about both chateau and vintages more than confirming expectations.

When I investigated second wines a few years ago, I came to the conclusion that they are indeed second best not only with regards to the grand vin of the chateau but also with regards to other wines at the same price. In comparative tastings, it usually seemed that a Cru Bourgeois at the same price point was a better wine than the second wine of a Grand Cru Classé. Since then, especially with good vintages becoming more frequent, second wines seemed to have improved somewhat, but at this tasting I was not especially impressed with either vintage of the Réserve de la Comtesse. The 2006 seemed just to be a little too thin; blind I would have taken it for a Cru Bourgeois somewhere towards the bottom of the hierarchy. The 2003 fared a bit better, but did not seem very convincing. In neither case did it seem that the second wine was a bargain based on applying the expertise of the chateau at a lower price level, which is the usual justification.

The 2005 Pichon Lalande gave real pause for thought about the vintage. I’ve never thought of Pichon Lalande as one of the most “international” of the chateaux – nothing like as exotic as Cos d’Estournel, for example – but this seemed like a throwback to the seventies. Unmistakably Cabernet-dominated, the fruits never seemed to come to life, and I was left with the impression that they might dry out before the slightly hard tannins resolve. Where was the supposed opulence of the vintage? Some notes reminded me of 1996 or 1975, with a possible imbalance developing between fruit and acidity. It definitely did not show nearly so well as the 2004, a nice wine for drinking now.

The 2003 fared relatively well insofar as it hasn’t fallen apart like so many, but nothing will persuade me that this was a great vintage, as it was being described. Where’s the elegance, where’s that traditional lightness of Bordeaux? The only thing to do with 2003s is to drink them up – or sell them off at auction.

The 2000 was a big surprise: last time I had this wine it was developing distinctly herbaceous notes. Today they showed more as cedar with some vegetal overtones. The nose was so totally different from anything else at the tasting that the lady next to me decided her glass must have a problem, and asked for another pour in a fresh glass. This wine supports those taking the minority view that for some chateaux, 2000 was not as good as 2001.

The most fascinating comparison was between the  Cabernet-driven 1996 (75% Cabernet Sauvignon) and the Merlot-driven 1995 (45% Cabernet Sauvignon). The 1996 was the one wine that was really characteristic of its vintage: very classic, savory and herbaceous – in style more like the seventies than the eighties. But I think it still has a bit too much acidity and tannin for it really to mature to a classic. By contrast, the 1995 was absolutely delicious: it’s come right around in the past five years and is the peak of perfection for a left bank Merlot, soft and supple but with adequate structure. So much for the Medoc being best in the Cabernet years.

The 1985 was for me the wine that had  it all: classic herbaceous notes in a context of ripe, sweet, but savory fruits: the wine of the tasting. This was not the vintage I would have picked out ahead of time as the most likely to excel. A few years ago the 1975 was showing as one of the best wines of the vintage, a slightly tighter version of what the 1985 has become today, but now the 75 has passed its peak, and the high toned aromatics suggest it is in decline.

The motto: never mind the Ides of March: beware the Vintage of  the Century. 1975 has never fulfilled the expectations raised at the time (vin de garde, my foot), 1996 is not going to come around (another vin de garde that won’t make it), 2000 may be going into decline, and 2005 may not make it. The wines showing best were 2004 (a lovely restaurant vintage) and 1985 (never hailed for its longevity at the outset). It ain’t so easy as they think to judge these vintages en primeur.

Tasting Notes

Réserve de la Comtesse, 2006

Slightly spicy black fruit nose gives a fresh impression. There’s a light fruit impression on the palate with a touch of vanillin. Crisp acidity leaves a tang on the finish and gives some emphasis to the light tannins. Overall impression is that the palate is driven by relatively light Cabernet fruit. A little too acid, a little too light in fruit concentration, this is relatively disappointing for the second wine of a super-second.  86 Drink-2016.

Réserve de la Comtesse, 2003

First touch of garnet in appearance suggests some development, but not much evident on fresh black fruit nose, except a bit of lightening in fruit intensity. Palate shows very good acidity for 2003, black fruits with vanillin overtones, but the fruits already are beginning to dry out and the tannins are beginning to stick out just a little. Not a bad result for the vintage but somewhat lacking in focus.  86 Drink-2014.

Pichon Lalande, 2005

Medium ruby color already with a touch of garnet. A mellow nose has a very faint touch of nuts. The palate is smooth and fresh, not at all the blockbuster you might expect from the reputation of the vintage. The overall impression is quite classically Cabernet-driven, fruits with a touch of asperity backed by tannins that don’t seem very generous, decent structure to age well, although softening a little in the glass to become nuttier. Blind I would put this down as an average rather than great year, and in short, more of a throwback to the classic style than would be expected from 2005.  88 Drink 2014-2021.

Château Pichon Lalande, 2004

A garnet touch to the color suggests some development. The fresh black fruit nose gives a faint impression of perfume. Nice balance on the palate between black fruits, just a touch of asperity from the tannins shows retronasally, but overall the tannins are quite soft. This is a very good result for the vintage, producing a wine that will drink well now and hold for a few years. A perfect restaurant wine.  88 Drink-2018.

Château Pichon Lalande, 2003

Age indicated by medium garnet color with some orange at rim. Black fruit nose shows blackcurrants and a touch of cedar, even a faint touch of herbaceousness on the nose, somewhat surprising for this vintage. Rich and chocolaty on the palate, with tannins that are ripe but giving a faint impression of being over cooked. The wine becomes a touch hard on the mid palate in the glass. It may be that the tannins will outlive the fruits. The wine is not falling apart, as many are, but it gives a slightly clumsy impression, not atypical of this vintage. It should be drunk in the near future.  87 Drink-2015.

Château Pichon Lalande, 2000

This wine is full of surprises and has changed yet again. What appeared as herbaceousness two or three years ago now shows as an intense cedary aroma on the nose, following through to palate and finish. The dusky garnet color still appears relatively youthful. It is hard to pick out the fruits on nose and palate against the background of cedar, but they seem to be in good balance with the acidity and tannins. The wine gives a very dry, classic impression: it is lean rather than opulent. 90 Drink-2021.

Château Pichon Lalande, 1996

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.

Château Pichon Lalande, 1995

This wine is now at a delicious point, much softer and more open than the 1995. The garnet color is beginning to lighten up. The nose shows notes of nuts and semolina, giving over to slightly more vegetal notes (nut less intense than a few years ago). The palate is soft, supple, and  fleshy – the antithesis of the classic 96. This is really delicious right now; although there is decent structure, it does not have great potential longevity.  90 Drink-2016.

Château Pichon Lalande, 1985

The hit of a vertical tasting of Pichon Lalande. Lightening garnet color. Classic nose showing bell peppers and a touch of cedar. Acidity quite noticeable on the palate, which generally follows the nose. Beautiful balance, now a point with savory fruits not yet turning tertiary. Elegant and delicate, with bell peppers strengthening on finish. Very fine grained structure. A bit of a surprise that this year should end up with such a completely classic development.  92 Drink-2016.

Château Pichon Lalande, 1975

This wine probably peaked about five years ago, when it showed an absolutely classic aroma and flavor spectrum of a left bank, Cabernet-dominated wine. It’s still in the same tradition, but the fruits are beginning to dry out. It’s a lightening garnet color with a touch of high toned aromatics on the nose. The fruits on the palate start out surprisingly sweet, but the touch of bitterness intensifies in the glass: you have the sensation that the fruits are drying out in the glass, allowing the bell peppers to become more dominant on the finish. Slowly the dryness of the finish takes over.  88 Drink up.