Connoisseurs laud the great Bordeaux vintages. But do the wines stand the test of time? With the 2003s due to be bottled this year, LEN EVANS looks back 50 years at a few great 1953s and puts the wines – and tasting notes of his friend Michael Broadbent – to the test.
For those of you who were wondering whether to hold onto your 1953 great Bordeaux vintage or not, I can help. Attending a 50th birthday dinner in Sydney recently, I sampled most of the best of that great Bordeaux vintage. Happily, I did not refer to my velocipedic friend Michael Broadbent’s great book, Vintage Wine, before the tasting and so my thoughts were unclouded, my prejudices my own.
Last year, having bought a large collection of Château Latour Bordeaux vintage from Christie’s, a group of us enjoyed them over the four major meals of a weekend. We read Broadbent’s notes carefully beforehand, including the one indicating a particular vintage was like an old railway sandwich – dry, curled up at the edges and without much in the middle. He was right.
So on this occasion I thought it would be fun to taste the Bordeaux vintage wines, then compare my notes to his after the event – just to see how the old boy’s palate is holding up.
Cristal, a double magnum of Blain-Gagnard Premier and another double magnum of a Pouilly Fuissé put us in the mood. They weren’t 1953s, but you must be assured that our palates were suitably cleansed. A 1978 Las Cases in double magnum was the drinking red, replacing an imperial of 1953 Talbot that was smashed by the carrier on the way up from Melbourne. In its original case, too, as they say at auctions. With the exception of the Lafite, all the 1953s were in magnums.
First, the wines you should think about quitting. The 1953 Pichon Lalande should be the first to go, though, happily, you should enjoy its departure. It is still fragrant, elegant and highly drinkable, but it is drying out, as MB predicted in his book in 1994. One up to him. This also applies to his great favourite, Lafite. Oh the rhapsody of his comments: ‘Lovely – beguiling – exquisite – words cannot do it justice…’ But then, stop press, 2002: ‘Having said this, it is now past its peak and one can expect some frailty…’ Two up.
Now the Latour 1953. My notes say, ‘Big, powerful, butch nose, cedar, marine, very Pauillac; rich middle, but thinning out on back, and tannic.’ MB’s put it in a rather similar way: ‘Not a great Latour, never will be. Drink up.’ Vintage Wine has done it again. Three up.
La Mission Haut Brion 1953 has a lovely bouquet. It’s rather burly on the palate, yet with great depth of flavour, long and balanced with good integrated tannins. I like it now and don’t think it will do much more. MB says virtually the same, though he expresses it better. Four up.
Next, the best four wines of the tasting. Signficantly, they represented the four major Bordeaux sub-regions, with three of them the greatest of their areas. If you agree that Margaux is consistently the top Haut Médoc, then that’s four out of four.
First, the Haut Brion 1953. A beautifully balanced wine, with a rich, honest nose that represents all that Graves should be; a round, almost lush middle, full of flavour and concentration with good length and balance. Broaders writes of first tasting it in his youth and then talks about his bowels, no doubt a subject of endless interest but one we shall avoid here. He does mention a touch of varnish, yet surely this is part of old Graves? The harmony, balance, the typicality of this wine make it remarkable. Anyway, mostly he’s right. Five up.
Cheval Blanc 1953 – glorious nose, rich, deep, very powerful, great entry, voluptuous middle, fresh and fragrant. A touch of volatile acidity at the back (MB doesn’t mention it), but not assertive. In fact, MB likes the wine, but it has appeared to him lighter than our magnum. Still, words like ‘very sweet – elegant – more lovely wine with perfectly integrated component parts’ apply, so the old boy’s got it right again. Six up.
Margaux 1953 – superb, sublime, sensuous and sexy. Great fragrance, violets, cigar-box, sweet with delicious entry into the mouth, blossoming into intense, concentrated flavour of great finesse and style. I’ve always thought it the greatest 1953 first growth and this magnum confirms it. Although Broaders, for the most part, goes for the Lafite as the greatest, he has qualified his previous adulation and for the Margaux he starts off: ‘Now, here’s a wine.’ I quite agree. Seven up.
Pétrus 1953 – a huge, powerful, wonderful drink in top condition. Big, rich, huge nose; great fleshy middle palate full of softness, seductive, supple, with smoky Merlot overtones; great length and balance.
MARGAUX OR PETRUS
These four were the group’s favourites, which went on to discuss which was best, the Margaux or the Pétrus? The latter won, though I felt they couldn’t be split. They’re just different, great wines. MB doesn’t seem to like the Pétrus quite as much – ‘relatively four square and lacking finesse’ – but that’s Pomerol versus Haut-Médoc, surely? However, he recently finished ‘a perfect magnum’ so let’s call that one a half.
So, according to our group, he’s spot-on with seven and a half out of eight. To me, at least, this proves the value of Vintage Wine and the great depth of Michael’s tasting experience. What’s more, he seems to put it better than other people. Being a piano-playing architect/artist who collects fine drawings, there’s a certain amount of sensitivity apparent.
In 1985 there was a commemorative judging in Melbourne. I had the honour to be chairman and among the international judges were Jancis Robinson MW, Robert Mondavi, Miguel Torres and so on. James Halliday judged, too, and one day he wrote a typically terse note about a certain wine: ‘H2S, mercaptan mars otherwise good fruit flavours.’ I showed the wine and note to the late Helmut Becker of Geisenheim fame. ‘Ah’ he bellowed, ‘devil farts!’ Broadbent’s judgment on the same wine? ‘A farmyard festooned with a garland of flowers.’ It’s a gift and we should be very grateful that Michael Broadbent MW has shared it with us.
Len Evans is the author of Len Evans’ Complete Book of Australian Wine, £65, Lansdowne.
Written by Len Evans