Old Bordeaux vintages are obvious collectors’ items, but how are they actually drinking? And do you know your 1990 from your 1995? DAVID PEPPERCORN MW compares the best vintages of the past 25 years
One of Bordeaux’s landmark vintages, which helped to re-establish the region
After a difficult period in the Seventies, 1982 was a new dawn for Bordeaux, with
consistently fine quality across the region. With hindsight, there was lack of selection and yields were very high, yet the top wines have stood the test of time. The surprising thing is that in 2003 I believed that many of these wines needed drinking up, and that even the best had little mileage left. But in the past 12 months, I have found several wines that I had written off had taken on a new lease of life, and are giving as much pleasure as they have ever done. As so often, Lafite – not so special when young – is now majestically superb and the price reflects this. The front runners such as Mouton, Latour and Cheval Blanc continue to flex their muscles, and still promise a long and rewarding life ahead. Pichon-Lalande continues to delight and confound with its exotic magic. Beychevelle and Lynch- Bages have proved me wrong and have new vigour. In St-Emilion, Belair and Canon are showing themselves be classics, as is La Conseillante and, even more, Trotanoy in Pomerol. Less familiar wines such as La Dominique, L’Arrosée and Haut-Bages Libéral show just how good the vintage can be below the top level.
Best bargain: Haut-Bages Libéral
The familiar Bordeaux story of the vintage saved by an Indian summer
In cask, these wines always tasted dry next to 1982. The year was a great success in Margaux, though claims that it was better than 1982 are not always borne out in comparative tastings. It is more a question of style: the 1983s are bigger but, for me, have less finesse than the 1982s. Château Margaux is impressive and continues to evolve and gain in complexity. Palmer is less complex, just as powerful and evolving well. This was the first really good vintage at Rauzan-Ségla for a long time, and the wine has recently been most impressive. Outside Margaux, the pick of the bunch in recent months has been Léoville-Las- Cases, while Haut-Brion and La Mission seem more complete than the other first growths. I have recently been impressedand surprised by Figeac and Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarosse which suggests there should be some fine things to be found in St-Emilion if you can unearth them.
Best bargain: Léoville-Las-Cases (£59; F&R)
A fine vintage but drink up soon
This vintage has always been a charmer and gave pleasure as soon as it was bottled, but recent examples show that many good wines are now running out of steam and need drinking. Among those holding up best are Rauzan-Ségla, Cos d’Estournel and Haut-Bailly. Mouton is still delicious but seems to have peaked. Pichon-Lalande and Calon-Ségur are classic examples. Canon is still fresh but starting to look a shade lean so is perhaps drying out.
Best bargain: Durfort-Vivens
(N/A UK; +33 5 57 88 31 02)
An inconsistent vintage, with some wines struggling to grow old gracefully
I still feel a certain ambivalence about this year. When it all comes together, the
wines are indeed majestic, as at Mouton. But all too often, the wines seem toughand are not evolving much. Lafite is also fine but, side by side, the 1988 was better. The Rothschild team also did a great job at Clerc Milon, which would be my best bargain, were it not for the following wine, which combines structure with charm and fruit – an exception in this year.
Best bargain: Monbrison (£36.96; F&R)
An underrated year, with many wines perfect for drinking now
This vintage got forgotten in the scramble for 1989 and 1990, and just as well, since the wines needed time to come out of their tannic shells. Now they look balanced and more elegant than the 1986s, and the tannins are finer. When I recently compared Lafite of the two vintages, the 1988 was finer. They lack the concentration and power of 1989 but drink better now. My only caveat is that some look as if they could go dry. Now is probably the moment to catch them. The best top châteaux I’ve tasted recently are Pichon- Baron, Domaine du Chevalier and Rauzan- Ségla on the Left Bank, and Trotanoy and Beau-Séjour-Bécot on the Right Bank.
Best bargain: Mouton Baronne Philippe
(£42.30–£50.36; BdI, Evy, F&R)
A vintage that changed winemakers’ thinking on when to pick
The earliest harvest since 1893 but, more importantly, the one that taught Bordeaux that it could no longer pick grapes simply on sugar levels. Many grapes harvested using this rule of thumb turned out not to be phenolically ripe. Since then, growers and producers have been tasting grapes to gauge exactly when the tannins in the skins are ripe. There is little doubt that, in general, the 1989s are more concentrated than the 1990s and that this suits Cabernet Sauvignon. Consequently this has typecast 1989 as a Left Bank year. Lafite produced a wine that is rich, and concentrated, yet still quintessentially elegant in approachability. This is a good year, too, for Mouton, Pichon-Baron, Pichon-Lalande, Talbot, Rauzan-Ségla and Sociando-Mallet. But there are alsosome notable successes on the other side of the river: Cheval Blanc, Pétrus, Pavie, Canon and Trotanoy are all exceptional.
Best bargain: La Gurgue (£31.34–£38.14; Evy, F&R)
A fascinating contrast to 1989
The weather cycle looked very similar to 1989, and the vintage dates were only
days apart, but the character of the two years looks increasingly different. Textures are lighter in 1990; there is less concentrationand more flattering fruit, so they’ve been drinkable for longer. Margaux and Lafite have beautiful character and balance; Pichon- Baron is very good in both vintages, as is Rauzan-Ségla. Palmer is lovely. Batailley and Durfort-Vivens are also very good drinking. On the Right Bank, Cheval Blanc and Pétrus are again superb, so is
Pavie. Unfortunately, I’ve not seen many other Left Bank 1990s recently – probably a sign that most have been drunk.
Best bargain: Durfort-Vivens (N/A UK; +33 5 57 88 31 02)
A relief after four poor years
The elements frustrated the best efforts of man to do more than make something
serviceable from 1991 to 1994, starting with the great frost of 1991, and then rain hampering each subsequent vintage. I remember Pierre Lurton, who took over at Cheval Blanc in 1991, saying that after four problem vintages, he began to wonder when he would get a chance to make a great Cheval. Wines from 1995
are richer but more chunky, with less elegance than 1996, so the Right Bank
has come through better in general. But from Pessac-Léognan, La Mission-Haut-
Brion is one of the wines of the vintage, with Haut-Brion not far behind. On the Right Bank, I have had very enjoyable bottles recently from Cheval Blanc, Troplong-Mondot, Clos Fourtet and Angélus. In the Médoc, Rauzan-Ségla, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Lynch-Bages and Clerc Milon have bucked the trend.
Best bargain: Chambrun (N/A UK; +33 5 57 25 91 19)
Five stars for the Left Bank only – three stars for the Right Bank. Cabernet the star
This is such a classic year for Cabernet, and the Right Bank’s wines are not in the same class. The great Médocs have taken much longer to mature than most judges thought, and have only opened out slowly. Their great attribute is length of flavour, yet they have also proved rather tight and lean until maturity has begun to fill them out. It is still early days for these classics, although Château Margaux is magnificent now. This was the vintage when Charles Chevallier’s management of Lafite began to bear fruit by ripening the Cabernets more consistently so that the proportion in the grand vin rose dramatically: 57% in 1990 to 84% in 1996, with the Merlot down from 30% to 8%. It is also the year when Pontet- Canet really got it right and began to reclaim its heritage. Very accessible now is Pape Clément; others starting to drink well include Pichon-Baron, Pichon-Lalande, Rauzan-Ségla, Lafon-Rochet, Sociando- Mallet, Gruaud-Larose, Talbot, Grand-Puy- Lacoste, Léoville-Barton, Langoa-Barton,Calon-Ségur and Ducru-Beaucaillou.
Best bargain: Carbonnieux (£178/case; Evy)
Five stars for the Right Bank only – three stars for the Left Bank. The Right Bank quality is almost as good as 2000
This is a great vintage on the Right Bank, but the Cabernets on the Left Bank are
not generally fully ripe, though many are now beginning to show well. At their best, wines such as Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Pétrus challenge their 2000 equivalents. Other impressive wines just starting to be drinkable, but with good evolution ahead include Figeac, Pavie, Trotanoy, PavieMacquin, Magdelaine, Lagrange Pomerol, Vray Croix de Gay, La Conseillante, and La Fleur-Pétrus. On the other side of the river, Bahans Haut-Brion, Léoville- Barton, du Tertre, Branaire and Duhart- Milon are beginning to drink well.
Best bargain: Lagrange Pomerol
Mixed quality, with some nice wines to enjoy now
Although there are some wines with good fruit for early drinking, 1999 was only a
modest year, with many wines short on, or lacking, balance. Some second wines
such as Petit-Cheval and Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux are excellent now. Others who got the balance right were L’Evangile, Pavie Decesse, Pavie, Haut- Bailly, Pichon-Baron and Durfort-Vivens.
Best bargain: Pavillon Rouge du Château
Margaux (£58.50; Far, £549/case; Wlk)
Fantastic quality everywhere, with wines that need time before they hit their peak
The year where, exceptionally, everything went right; a great vintage across the
region. The best advice about what to drink is: don’t. Wherever you have 2001 and 2000 of the same château, you will find the ’01s much more approachable. And when you run out of that, drink2003 while waiting for the 2000. The only 2000 cru classé I know which can be drunk now without qualms is Cantemerle,
while in Pomerol, Bourgneuf-Vayron is a medium-weight charmer. The lovely Beychevelle may soon be ready. Otherwise, stick to the excellent lesser
appellations such as Castillon, Fronsac and Lalande-de-Pomerol. Some crus bourgeois such as Fourcas Dupré and Bernadotte are drinking well but many
deserve keeping, if you can.
Best bargain: Latour-Martillac (£210/case; JBe, £240/case; Rol)
More approachable than 2000, with added elegance
The perfect complement to 2000. The wines have less power but make up for this with elegance and balance. There are many crus bourgeois now drinking very well, such as Pibran, Brillette and Ségur de Cabanac. Lovely Pomerols worth trying include Vray Croix de Gay, Lafleur- Gazin, Certan-Marzelle and Rouget. In
St-Emilion, there are lighter wines which exude elegance, such as Berliquet and, at the other end of the spectrum, the luscious La Mondotte. On the Left Bank,
try Malartic-Lagravière, Fieuzal, du Tertre, Durfort-Vivens and Branaire. Wonderful wines to wait a little longer for are: Léoville-Barton, Calon-Ségur, Pichon- Baron, Pichon-Lalande, Pontet-Canet,
Gazin and Vieux Château Certan.
Best bargain: Sociando-Mallet (£38.99– £44.13; Evy, Hen, £260/case; JBe)
Four stars for the Left Bank only – three stars for the Right Bank. Another vintage saved by a dramatic improvement in the weather in early September
While the later-ripening Cabernets on the Left Bank took full advantage of the
11th-hour weather improvement, the change came too late for many old Merlot vineyards on the Right Bank. After showing well when first in bottle,many wines have now closed up, so it is hard to write about them at the moment. Look out for Pichon-Baron, Beychevelle, Fieuzal, Sociando-Mallet, Alter Ego de Palmer, Duhart-Milon, La Tour Haut- Brion, Langoa-Barton, Bahans Haut- Brion, Grand-Puy-Lacoste and Rauzan- Ségla. On the Right Bank, La Mondotte should prove wonderful early drinking and Vieux Château Certan, helped by its Cabernet Franc, did well. This may well be the best-value first growth vintage currently available.
Best bargain: Langoa-Barton (£23.25– £29.95; BdI, Rol, WDi)
2003 ****An extraordinary vintage – you either love them or hate them
With their exotic character and luscious textures, 2003s are very unBordeaux-like: Burgundy-lover’s claret, even. But the big surprise is that they are now wonderful to drink, and it is hard to know whether this is indeed the time to capture them or if they will repay keeping – many people are not taking the chance. Wines I would suggest trying are Bellevue – a triumph for Nicolas Thienpont – Pavie-Macquin, La Couspaude, Canon, Clos L’Eglise and L’Eglise-Clinet from the Right Bank and, on the Left Bank, where St-Estèphe was especially good, try Meyney, Le Crock, Phélan-Ségur, Haut-Marbuzet, Montrose, Pichon-Baron, Ducru-Beaucaillou, La Mission, Sociando-Mallet, Rauzan-Ségla, Léoville-Barton and Pontet-Canet.
Best bargain: La Couspaude (£26.73– £49.35; Ant, Evy)
Underappreciated at the time, but now beginning to show their quality
I loved these wines en primeur and wrote well of them, only to find that other influential writers had been dismissive. But tastings in bottle changed opinions, and most have come round to my side. Such tastings have shown how consistently delicious the 2004s are on both sides of the river. If you want a few first growths at a relatively sensible price, choose either 2004 or 2002. From the Right Bank try Petit-Village, Rouget, Pavie, Pavie-Macquin, La Fleur-Pétrus,
Troplong-Mondot, Trottevieille and L’Evangile. From the Left Bank: Branaire,
Pichon-Baron, Durfort-Vivens, Lalande- Borie, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Langoa- Barton, Léoville-Barton, Calon-Ségur, Talbot, Pontet-Canet, Montrose and du Tertre.
Best bargain: du Tertre (£19.50–£26.39; F&R, Fou, Ply)
One of the finest vintages of the past 40 years
A year to equal and, in the future, challenge 2000. One of the towering summits of Bordeaux and the top wines will take decades to evolve. At present, you can admire the power and structure and just hope you live long enough to enjoy them somewhere near maturity. For wines you may be able to drink in the next five years, my shortlist would be: Sénéjac, Séguin, La Couspaude, Angélus, Fonplégade, Valandraud, La Gomerie, Grand Mayne, Pontac-Lynch and Potensac. For the great wines, I’m afraid that if youdidn’t buy en primeur, you may have missed the best in terms of price.
Best bargain: Sénéjac (£15.91; Far)
Written by David Peppercorn MW