DAVID PEPPERCORN MW trawls the Saint-Emilion archives to bring us the highs and lows from 1975 to the present day on Bordeaux's Right Bank

DAVID PEPPERCORN MW trawls the Saint-Emilion archives to bring us the highs and lows from 1975 to the present day on Bordeaux’s Right Bank

Decanter magazine, December 2000

Nowhere is the revolution in red winemaking techniques more in evidence than in Saint-Emilion. Now wines are sharply divided between

traditional and new wave, with some

graduations visible between the two. The wines of the 1970s and early 1980s are a timely reminder of how much has changed. For this reason I propose to begin this survey in 1975 and move forwards, rather than in 1999 and go backwards.

1975

In general the wines have more harmony and fruit and less dryness than in the Médoc. Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Canon, Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Figeac and Magdelaine are probably now at their best.

1976

Ausone is outstanding but most wines are now going dry. Pavie is still impressive.

1977

Memorable only for the fact that this was the year when Michael Rolland took up his very first consultancy at L’Evangile. A

serious frost at the end of March resulted in a tiny crop which lacked ripeness.

1978

This was another late October harvest, and in general there are fewer successes here than in Médoc. The pick of the bunch are Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Figeac and Magdelaine. They should be drunk now.

1979

A large crop in contrast to 1978 and another October vintage. The best wines are Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Belair, Canon, Figeac and Magdelaine. A recent bottle of Figeac was delicious and had lasted well but these are wines to enjoy now.

1980

A very late vintage. The wines were light and rather austere and I would not

recommend anything today.

1981

A most successful vintage in Saint-Emilion, with rather small yields producing

full-flavoured and luscious wines that have matured well. Not only the top wines, but grand cru ones reveal pleasant surprises. All the top wines are good, especially La

Tour-du-Pin-Figeac-Moueix.

1982

Here the great châteaux made great wines led by Ausone and Cheval Blanc. This is when Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse started to produce consistently fine wines. Belair, Canon, Magdelaine and Pavie all made slow developing, long-keeping wines, while delicious more forward styles have come from Figeac, Clos Fourtet and La Gaffelière. In general, wines with a good proportion of Cabernet Franc have lasted well, but some Merlot was overcropped and this shows. However, many grands crus from the Saint-Emilion plateau and côtes, as well as from Saint Christophe des Bardes, are still worth investigating – as are the grands crus classés.

1983

In general, the Saint-Emilions have become a shade dry and need drinking, but as usual this does not apply to Cheval Blanc. Otherwise Pavie, Belair and Clos Fourtet stand out from the rest.

1984

The Merlots were devastated by coulure and the crop was extremely small. This is a vintage to forget.

1985

Unlike the Médoc, this was a smaller

vintage than 1982 in Saint-Emilion and many outstanding wines were made which have perhaps developed more slowly than might have been expected. Cheval Blanc is at least as impressive as 1982. One of the earliest of the ‘new wave’ wines, Tertre Rôteboeuf, showed magnificently when tasted recently, muscular and tannic but rich and perfectly balanced, proving that this cru really gets it right and ages

splendidly, as well as being impressive when young. The lovely aromatic fruit and opulence of Gaudet-St Julien shows that it is not just the star wines that have performed in this vintage. I would grab hold of anything that came my way from both crus classés and grands crus.

1986

These wines were hard to taste en primeur, with their big tannic structure, and sold for lower prices than the 1985s. Those who saw their potential have been amply rewarded and today prices for these wines are well ahead of the 1985s. Although this has rightly been regarded as a great Cabernet year, thus favouring the Left Bank, there are nevertheless some very impressive wines in Saint-Emilion and the Cabernet Franc did very well here. Ausone and Cheval Blanc are both impressive in their different ways, with the usually precocious Cheval Blanc taking longer to mature than usual. Among the other crus Angélus, Troplong-Mondot, Belair, Canon, Beauséjour (Duffau-Lagarrosse) and Magdelaine are all big and powerful wines maturing slowly. Pavie is particularly impressive, the

aromatic richness and intensity being

particularly fine, while the attractive la Gaffelière is more forward. Wines of this year are worth investigating at all levels when you come across them.

1987

This rain-affected harvest produced attractive wines for early drinking. Those who followed the style of the year and

did not try to over-compensate with

over-extraction did best. So drink up if you have any left and be wary if you are offered any.

1988

Here the wines are more harmonious

perhaps than those on the Left Bank, with real richness and concentration and are often preferred to the 1986s. The Cheval Blanc has that freshness and elegance that the Cabernet Franc brings in good

vintages and, as so often with this cru, is a joy to drink. I recently had the chance to taste two new-wave wines, but from very different terroirs. Canon-la-Gaffelière was very rich with solid tannins, fruity and well-balanced and a distinct Cabernet Franc influence. No over-egging here.

At Troplong-Mondot the bouquet was

comparable to the excellent 1989, although on the palate there was a shade less richness. But above all there was a lovely fresh fruitiness, still extremely youthful and attractive. This vintage was

sidelined by both the 1989 and 1990, and has tended to develop more slowly. Now seems to be the time to seek them out. My hunch would be to go for the Côtes and plateau wines, and also look for Saint Christophe des Bardes grands crus.

1989

Recent tastings of Left Bank wines point to this being a better year there than the charming but sometimes weaker 1990s. That is not the impression one gets in Saint-Emilion. But there can be a

problem. The exceptionally early ripening of the Merlot (first week of September) meant they could easily tip over into

over-ripeness; when this happens the Merlot loses its aromatic qualities. This happened to an extent at Canon-la-Gaffelière, where the wine is very rich but rather short and without the opulent fruit

characters of the 1990. Cheval Blanc is exceptional and here the picking of the Merlot at the critical moment – together with wonderful ripe Cabernet Franc – results in one of the great wines of the vintage. This is one of the few wines not to suffer in comparison with the 1990. Two impressive wines from recent

tastings are Grand-Mayne and Troplong-Mondot. These are now very much wines to begin drinking. There are wide

differences from cru to cru, so it’s hard to generalise, but the best are excellent – and sometimes exceptional.

1990

There is no doubting the sheer magic of this vintage in Saint-Emilion. The Merlots have an opulence and sheen over and above their sheer richness, while the Cabernet Franc gives the structure and complexity. When tasted, either against the 1989 from the same cru, or in a line-up of vintages, the 1990s stand out like a beacon. Seldom have poise and beauty been so felicitously combined and the aromatic intensity and complexity of the wines so remarkable. Ausone is the

long-distance runner, less showy and evolved than the sumptuous Cheval Blanc. This is an exceptional vintage for Belair with richness and elegance

combining to produce a truly complete wine. Wines which are well evolved and can be drunk with great pleasure include Clos Fourtet, Balestard-la-Tonnelle, Figeac, La Gaffelière and Pavie, while Magdelaine and L’Arrosée are more structured, muscular wines which will be very long-lived. If you drink the very pleasant but lightweight L’Oratoire and then compare it with the 1995, you will see what Comte Stephan Von Neipperg has achieved here. On the other hand, the richly concentrated L’Angélus contrasts sharply with the much lighter, textured tones of the early 1980s and before.

For both Troplong-Mondot and Canon-

la-Gaffelière, 1990 was a summit of achievement after a range of important improvements in the 1980s, and show that they really got the balance right and were not overextracted or over-oaked. But as events were soon to prove, it is easier to get things right in a great vintage than in lesser ones. My general advice would be to try any 1990 that comes your way. Even if you pick one of the lighter,

overproduced wines, it will still be very pleasurable at this stage.

1991

Only a few vines on the Côte de Pavie escaped the great frost of April 21st, then rain spoilt the chances of the second-

generation Merlots. A year to forget.

1992

With the August rainfall three times above normal levels and then rain every day of the harvest, this was a nightmare year for growers. There are some light, fruity wines, but when tasting this September in the region, I saw two real beauties that quite belied all the problems – Canon-la-Gaffelière and Troplong-Mondot.

1993

This vintage was marked by more rain than the previous year, especially in September, but the Merlots did much better than in 1992, although the Cabernet Franc still had problems. Angélus shows how difficult it can be to get the balance right when trying to

compensate for natural differences by extraction and new oak. This wine was chocolatey and delicious for its first five to six years, but in the last year seems to have separated like a mayonnaise, leaving exposed tannins looking threadbare. Troplong-Mondot got it right with a lighter texture that now delivers

charmingly sweet fruit. This is not one of Cheval Blanc’s successes, judged by its own high standards, but Figeac, Belair and especially Magdelaine did well. Other crus worth looking out for are Matras, Grand-Mayne, Haut-Corbin and La Dominique, followed by Clos St Martin, Soutard, Pavie-Macquin, Larcis-Ducasse, L’Arrosée and Yon Figeac. These are essentially wines for drinking within the next two years.

1994

Excellent growing conditions promised an exceptional vintage for Saint-Emilion, but heavy September rain determined otherwise. Nonetheless, the general

consensus of opinion was that this was a much better year than 1993. At present this is not confirmed by what is in the glass. My most recent tastings have revealed wines with body and plenty of structure; that said, these wines remain disappointingly dull and closed, whereas two years ago many seemed full of promise. The only hope is to wait and see if they come through this difficult patch as there is certainly almost nothing to drink with easy pleasure now.

1995

At last, a good vintage with favourable harvesting conditions. This is a year where the battle lines between the

traditionalists and the avant-garde are well and truly drawn. Ausone, by this time under Alain Vautier, had its malolactic

fermentation in barrel, but four years on still looks like a monumental vintage. Angélus I find over-extracted, as is Canon-la-Gaffelière, but this was the year that Clos l’Oratoire really came good, and Troplong-Mondot and Tertre-Rôteboeuf were exceptional too. In traditional mode, Cheval Blanc has a great future and Figeac is delicious. Among crus which really gave notice of a new lease of life, I would single out La Couspaude. In

general these wines have developed quite slowly and still need another two or three years cellaring to give real pleasure. There are some grands crus that are more

forward and so more approachable.

1996

The quality pattern in Saint-Emilion is uneven because many growers picked their Merlots over-ripe and so lost

aromatic complexity. Cheval Blanc leads the real successes; Canon-la-Gaffelière is one of the most enjoyable; Clos l’Oratoire has elegance and charm; Troplong-Mondot is a keeper and still needs time, but is impressive. Others to look out

for are Angélus, Beauséjour Duffau Lagarrosse, Clos Fourtet, Pavie-Macquin, Curé Bon, La Tour-Figeac, Chauvin, La Dominique, the newly ennobled Laroque, Corbin-Michotte, Grand-Mayne and Clos des Jacobins. Most of these wines will require another year or two cellaring.

1997

These are delicious drinking now and will remain so for the next two or three years, provided you can find it at sensible prices. Troplong-Mondot was one of the most delicious wines this year in Bordeaux, closely followed by Canon-la-Gaffelière, as well as a much improved Berliquet. Watch out for some final reductions in the coming months.

1998

A fine laying-down vintage, but watch out for over-extraction. Cheval Blanc is the best since 1990, one of the greats. My shortlist for the top wines would include Angélus, Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Berliquet, Canon-la-Gaffelière, Figeac, Clos Fourtet, Grand-Mayne, La Dominique, La Tour-Figeac, the first vintage of the new-style Pavie, Tertre-Rôteboeuf and Troplong-Mondot. But further down the scale there will be many other delicious and

attractively fruity wines which will give great pleasure for the next two or three years ahead.

1999

At this stage in cask, the wines have

enormous charm and are oozing fruit. They will probably develop more quickly than the 1998s and seem to have less structure. My laying-down list included Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Canon-la-Gaffelière, Clos Fourtet, Grand-Mayne, La Couspaude, La Dominique, Magdelaine, La Tour-Figeac, Tertre-Rôtebouef and Troplong-Mondot. The new-style Pavie is very impressive but as to whether it is overdone, only time

will tell. The new Quinault is less

controversial, if expensive, but its second wine, La Fleur de Quinault, is real value for money, making for delectable early

drinking. A lesser cru which caught my eye was the very dependable Faugères, and there are sure to be plenty more in this category.

Written by DAVID PEPPERCORN