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Bordeaux Wines (was Aerating Wine)

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Jason, your comments are especially timely as I have claret on the brain these days. I’m putting on a Bordeaux dinner next weekend and will look at nearly all the vintages you mention. We’ll be tasting a vertical of Ch. Gruaud-Larose, a super second St. Julien (70, 78, 79, 82, 83, 84, 89 & 90), followed by dinner with more Medocs from 1990-1994. Wish you were closer to Sonoma, I’m trying to fill 4 more seats!

Before I respond to your inquiry about vintages, let me first state my feelings about Bordeaux wines. These were the first fine wines that I started to collect. After all what else rewards patience as much as fine claret. I’ve experienced first hand what are called the three stages of Bordeaux enjoyment: 1) waiting for your futures to arrive; 2) waiting for your wines to be ready to drink; and 3) over the hill and well into decline. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m not all that enamoured with Cabernet Sauvignon and even less with the blending varieties. So, they’ve been piling up and I use the 82s through 90s for trading stock and to finance my educational expenses. I do continue to take advantage of opportunities to taste older and new vintages whenever I can for intellectual curiosity. Recently I had the chance to blind-taste several of the top 96s and can provide complete tasting notes if you’re interested – the Haut-Brion was just lovely with all the Graves subtlety you mention.

Both 1989 and 1990 came from hot, drought-stressed years that produced surmaturité (overripeness) that the French so lust for. The early word was that while both were very good to excellent vintages, the 1990s were judged superior due to better balance and harmony. Many felt that despite very ripe fruit, the tannins of the 89s were somewhat underripe and astringent, not unlike 1975. The remarkable thing about the 90s is that they have stayed open and accessible with a plush, low acid, almost California demeanor most of their lives instead of going into a dumb state as typical clarets do. But today, the early development of the 90s has raised some concerns about their long-term potential and the 89s are starting to get the nod as the superior vintage. Recently I put the 90 Pichon-Lalande and the 90 Gruaud-Larose into a single-blind tasting and was surprised at how evolved both wines are. It was also interesting to look back at both Clive Coates and Robert Parker’s early assessments of these two wines. CC loved the Lalande and panned the Gruaud; whereas RP panned the Lalande and declared the Gruaud one of the greatest ever. Today they’re pretty evenly matched, easy to drink with velvety ripe tannins, and I question whether they’ll improve much more although they should hold for a long time. On the other hand, this is what was said about the 82s at the same stage. (g) I’ll be very interested in hearing how your l’Evangile shows.

Push your 86s to the back of the cellar. As you say, they’re very backward and indeed shut down now. The 85s, which were overshadowed by the greatness of the 86 vintage, are drinking very well now. Not as complex as 82s, but a good deal less expensive. The 85 Lynch Bages is glorious.

I’m probably most familiar with the relative rankings and progress of the 82s as that’s the first (and only) vintage that I bought en primeur. I had cases and cases of cru bourgeois that I took to parties to years. I remember reading over and over everything I could get my hands on and obsessing about relative pricing and storage conditions at different retailers. I had the chance to taste many of them when they were first released. The 82 Pichon-Lalande is a phenomenal wine today, but don’t you find it rather California-like? I’ve not had the 82 Leoville Las Cases that I can recall. The best of the 82s are still evolving, despite the nay-sayers that said they wouldn’t make it past 10 years. The right banks, in most cases, do need drinking up.

From your personal favorites, the commune of Margaux seems to call to you. An inconsistent place if there is one, but when they hit it, nothing is better. I’ve not had the 78 Margaux but discovered a couple bottles in a friend’s cellar last week. I did a price search --- $180-$420 at auction in the last year, depending on label condition and fill levels. I did make a special request to be present when he pulls the cork!

1978 produced ripe and clean wines but not much finesse in general. The Margaux is about the best of the bunch. I bought many of them with my student loan money when I was in grad school. The franc was so low and the $10-15 prices for super seconds was less than the best California Cabernets. Most of them were consumed before their 15th birthday.

The 1970 Palmer is wonderfully subtle with floral and mineral essences weaving through rich fruit. I’ve only known this wine in the last 10 years. The bottle tasted a year ago seemed to be losing some fruit and developing a bitter edge in the finish, so perhaps it’s great run is coming to an end.

You’ve certainly given me a work-out here, Jason! But one question, if Margaux wines are your favorite, why aren’t you drinking red Burgundy? (g,d,r)

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  1. Melanie, I just noticed your post with the thread name change, as I have not been paying as much attention to the chowhound board as before. I had been scanning for your reply under the old thread. I do appreciate your thoughts and observations. I acquire most of my wines by attending the NY auctions and bottom fishing. Prices vary dramatically and with patience and a large number of options good bargains can be found, sometimes I may wait years to find the right price for a particular wine. I also never compromise on quality factors such as fill (with age considered), seepage(never acceptable) and capsule corrosion (never acceptable). Labels I don't care about. Even so, I have acquired more imperfect bottles of wine than I am willing to let myself realize and this must be true for other auction goers as well. Even a whiff of TCA drives me crazy. I suspect that your recent 1970 Palmer may have been an off bottle because I have had a perfectly wonderful one within the last month. With regard to pricing for 78 Margaux, I reviewed my pricelists for this fall and found that it has sold for as low as $138. I believe that with patience you can still get it for $125. The 70 Palmer can probably not be had for less than $150-160.

    Your discussion of Clive Coates and Robert Parker raises the interesting question of rating the wine raters. Clive Coates occupies another universe and I can find absolutely no relationship between his opinions and mine. Overall, I do like Robert Parker's analysis and ratings, although he occasionally seems to me to have a complete miss, e.g. 1970 Montrose, far too high and 1989 Margaux, far too low. The wine spectator is ok, but lacks overall consistency, probably because their reviewers change. An example is the 88 bordeaux which they consistently overrated. I have a vertical of Pichon Lalande with all of the good years from 70 to 89, but haven't bought the 90 because of Parker's very negative review. I will now have to reconsider. I did buy the 90 Pichon Baron which I thought initially was terrific, but recently have not, maybe its entered a dumb phase.

    I am surprised that you don't like the Cabernet Sauvignon very well. For me this is the ultimate grape for power, complexity and concentration. I appreciate the Pomerols, but only the best and still not as much. The l'Évangile 1990 was excellent although still somewhat young, but to my taste, merlot based wines that are a few steps below lose all interest. It's interesting that you noticed that the two wines that I had singled out were from Margaux, because I really think of myself as a Pauillac/St-Julien person overall.

    Finally, you asked why I wasn't more interested in California wines vis Pichon Lalande 82 and Burgundy vis Margaux. The answer is that you're right and I probably should be, but am limited by time and money. The top California cabernets such as Araujo Eisely, Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Maya etc are as or even more expensive than the super seconds. So where I am is 70% red bordeaux, 20% white burgundy, 10% rhone and I have started thinking about Zind-Humbrecht which I have found to be irresistable at several wine tastings.

    What one California wine would you recommend as most directly comparable to Pichon Lalande 1982?