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Vintages: Compare and contrast

Both were highly acclaimed but which one is truly great? Serena Sutcliffe MW assesses four pairs of neighbouring vintages and sorts out the sibling rivalry.

If good things do come in pairs, then the last couple of decades in Bordeaux have done us proud. We have been showered with enough ‘twin vintages’ to keep us guessing, comparing and pontificating over dinner tables until most of us are in our dotage. It is the stylistic difference between vintages – the result of a maritime region, specific microclimates and, usually, a range of grape varieties – that keeps us drinking. The juxtaposition of two consecutive vintages often presents fascinating conundrums in the glass, when one area can eclipse its neighbour or one château can get it exactly right.

The one pair of vintages that is currrently coming under special scrutiny is 1982 and 1983. The 20-year factor has hit the 1982s and, while we are taking stock of this first mega media-hyped vintage, it is logical to look at its successor. Obviously 1982 is the winner here, but the vintage is by no means flawless, and cracks are appearing in surprising places. We all know about the glorious weather, but only someone who was there in 1982 would recall the unusually hot nights that are atypical for the Gironde in early autumn. The heat led to low acidity, which Professor Peynaud said would be ‘replaced’ by all the dry extract in the wines. Well, yes, up to a point, but very low acidity still precludes ultimate balance. When this is allied to the 1982 high yields, in most cases without the selection that would be practised today, one is not looking at overall longevity. One is thrilled, of course, to find the glorious exceptions and at its best the 1982 vintage produced wines of wonderful depth, thick-textured and rich.

If 1982 was beautifully healthy, 1983 was not. A wet, hot August led to the diseases that flourish in humid conditions and only those vineyards that were treated regularly produced totally healthy wines. Luckily, in 1983, it was hot and sunny throughout the harvest, and this especially favoured those who picked later. The crop was only slightly smaller than in 1982. Quality in 1983 was less homogenous than in 1982, and at its least charming in the northern Médoc – that said, the generalisation that all Margaux 1983s are delicious is, regrettably, untrue. It is not a fleshy vintage and lean, inhospitable wines break out everywhere, with some clearly showing evidence of rot. This makes the successes all the more exciting. I took the excuse of this article to compare a great benchmark from both vintages – Château Margaux 1982 and 1983, bought en primeur and perfectly cellared ever since. Without a doubt, there is no other château that made such great wines in both years. I have always just given it to the 1982 and this tasting confirmed my feeling, although I would unhesitatingly put both wines on a pedestal. The 1983 has richness and sheer intensity on the nose, with damp earth scents, and its enormous, youthful, black fruit impact jumps all over you. The 1982 is more complex, aromatic and deep on the nose; a massive, thick, mouth-coating wine that is many-layered and endless.

However, take something like Latour and it was marvellous in 1982 but not brimming with health in 1983 – a scenario reflected at Lynch-Bages but on a different scale. Lafite made a wonderful 1982 (it could go the whole distance) and a very good 1983, but it is not better than a miraculous Pichon Lalande 1983, which consistently gives immense pleasure. Pichon made a simply fabulous 1982 as well, starting life in super-ripe jammy fashion and now growing more classic by the moment. I find Léoville Las Cases 1983 a touch austere beside the great 1982, and at Mouton, of course, it is ‘no contest’ – one cannot speak of the 1983 in the same breath as the astounding 1982. Ducru 1982 eclipses the good 1983, and at Gruaud-Larose it is the same thing. I love Haut-Brion 1983, although some find it a touch vegetal, while the 1982 is sumptuous – and ready. At La Mission, the extra generosity in the 1982 takes the palm from the 1983. Palmer 1983 is excellent, although not ultimately luscious, and I think the Palmer 1982 is somewhat maligned. With more selection, it could have been more impressive, but then you could say that about many 1982s, particularly in the Médoc.

On the Right Bank, you do not need me to extol the delights of Cheval Blanc 1982. The 1983 is in a different register, but has impressive Russian leather and violets. Pomerol did better than St-Emilion in 1983, with Pétrus, Trotanoy and Vieux Château Certan all more than honourable. I particularly like the complexity, layers and freshness of Pétrus. The top Pomerol 1982s are magical – lower down the ladder, many are tired – with Pétrus vying with Lafleur, Trotanoy with VCC.

In 1986, the red wine crop beat the 1985 record and it was exceptionally dry during the harvest, making it the most tannic year since 1975 and completely different from the softer, plumper 1985s. However, 1985 had a very dry, hot September and a warm and dry October, so the gods smiled on both vintages. In particular, 1986 favoured Cabernet Sauvignon while 1985 produced glorious Merlot, with higher sugar levels and lower yields in St-Emilion and Pomerol than in 1982. The top 1985s represent terrific value on the market today, particularly in Médoc and Graves, where people tend to go for the 1986s. There is nothing wrong with that, but you need both to see the beauty of each style. Haut-Brion, La Mission, Margaux, Mouton, Pichon Lalande, Cos d’Estournel, Léoville Las Cases and Palmer 1985 are all favourites, but it is difficult to go wrong here. Latour 1985, last night, was perfectly delicious. On the Right Bank, Cheval Blanc 1985 is super-mature, rich, slightly roasted and totally approachable but, again, I don’t know of any disappointing 1985s, although minor wines should have been drunk. In 1986, one zooms to the Médoc for some monumental wines, with Lafite and Mouton bestriding all. These top wines do have more substance and structure than 1985. The Lafite is eternal, luscious, opulent, minty and packed full of glycerol, while Mouton is gloriously cassis and classy, with the structure covered in fat, thick texture. Latour is becoming softer by the minute, but Margaux is massive, with deep cassis and loganberries. Léoville Las Cases is iconic while Pichon Lalande is superbly classic and, as always, amazingly consistent. Talbot 1986 is a star and Palmer, Lynch Bages, Gruaud-Larose and Cos are all excellent. In Graves, both Haut-Brion and La Mission are exemplary, with Haut-Brion’s wonderful scent and all that peat of Pessac-Léognan allied to elegance (but watch that big finish). La Mission is equally scented but veers towards Havana cigars and earthy, warm, irony flavours.


Over on the Right Bank, Le Pin 1986 is amazing. Admittedly, it is somewhat New World in its overwhelming, all-enveloping style, but there are moments when one can fall in with hedonistic loganberry essence! Vieux Château Certan has that wonderful scent of top Pomerol, totally perfumed and beautifully balanced all through. Contrary to what the two vintages might indicate, though, I prefer Pétrus 1986 to 1985, as it is enticingly spicy and exotic. The 1985 has the aromatic nose, red fruit and some luscious liquorice, but it is not quite concentrated enough. I have been impressed with Ausone 1986, with its coffee beans, finesse and elegance, while Cheval Blanc 1986, with a draconian selection from a big yield, is all silky harmony, chocolate flavour and a heavenly sweet finish. Lesser Right Bank 1986s, though, can be lean now.

I feel somewhat guilty here as I really think there is a trio of vintages – 1988/ 1989/1990. However, when discussing 1989 and 1990 alone, it is amusing to realise that the weather patterns were very similar. The conditions were virtually perfect in both years, with flowering in May, and 1990 might have had an even earlier harvest than 1989 if heat and drought in July had not stopped vine development. Both were huge crops, but the heat of 1989 gave more alcohol and exoticism, while the 1990s have perfectly structured fruit. I sometimes find the 1989s have more fascinating complexity and depth, but the greatest 1990s are nobility itself. I have just read my notes from two verticals of the very top growths in 1989 and 1990 – and I am convinced that these are some of the greatest wines you will ever see. The vintages are very different, but I don’t think there is a winner on intrinsic merit. It is more a question of what you prefer. With Pétrus, I just give it to the 1989 for its extraordinary excitement and dimension, although the 1990 is a stunner, too. With Haut-Brion, the 1989 bestrides the vintage and remains the wine that has everything. However, the 1990 Haut-Brion is utterly beautiful and the buy of the vintage. With La Mission, legend has it that the prize went here in 1990 and over the road in 1989 but, for me, the choice is not straightforward and I need them both. When it comes to Mouton there is no contest. The 1989 is minty, aromatic and classy, while the 1990 is good but a bit weak by its own standards. With Latour there’s also no contest, but it’s the other way round, with the 1989 showing less power than usual and the 1990 remaining truly stupendous. Lafite is a tough call, because the 1989 is utterly entrancing and full of layered flavour, but the 1990 is just fabulous and could well turn out the overall winner in the vintage. Margaux, again, is tough as both are quite exemplary. I just give it to the truffley, pruney Cheval Blanc 1990 on hedonistic grounds. At Figeac both are very good, but at Pichon Lalande there’s no contest as the 1989 is superb and the 1990 pretty but a bit weak for the cru. With Lynch-Bages it’s unquestionably the 1989, whereas at Angélus the brilliant 1990 just has it, although both are very alluring. Again, at L’Evangile both are excellent, but the 1990 is so rich and exotic. The Domaine de Chevalier 1989 is superlative and a long-lasting classic. At Trotanoy both vintages are stunning, so spin a coin, and it’s the same at Léoville Las Cases, although the 1990 will probably endure longer. Lafleur? Maybe it’s the 1990 but I need to keep tasting it, although at Montrose it’s definitely the 1990 that’s seminal.

And so it goes. You cannot make a false move here. Buy all you can from these two vintages and open them together wherever possible. You don’t have to stay up in the stratosphere price wise, either – La Tour de By 1989 this week was sumptuous. These two years really are, without a doubt, the heavenly twins.

Here we have two terrific vintages, both still flexing their muscles. 1995 came as a saviour to Bordeaux, after the ‘rain stops play’ scenarios of 1992, 1993 and 1994. In 1995 the growing season was dry and hot, and, miraculously, the weather was perfect from 20 September right into October, giving lovely ripe grapes. Quality was homogenous, with lovely wines everywhere. The Merlot was particularly stunning, so St-Emilion and Pomerol made majestic wines, but there are rich, firm Médoc and Graves wines, too. You cannot go wrong. The nature of the 1996s is different, with unusual aspects of the growing season giving a particularly imposing character to the vintage. June and July were hot, August cool with more rain than normal, and September dry, sunny, but cooler. The result was high sugar but the cold nights gave high acidity, too. This concentration of sugar and acidity is the unique selling point of 1996 and it existed all over France, giving the wines nobility, personality and great keeping properties.

In 1996, there are superb, even giant, wines in Médoc and Graves, with the Cabernet Sauvignon really strutting its stuff, while in St-Emilion and Pomerol there are some great classics, although some wines are not as rich and fat as in 1995. The Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot pair resembles 1985 and 1986 – the fives are in the Merlot corner, the sixes in the Cabernet corner. This is a classic set of twin vintages. If I had to choose two 1995s, it would be Cheval Blanc and Haut-Brion, followed closely by Margaux. In 1996, Mouton and Mouton again, but Latour, Lafite and Margaux 1996 are also stunning. Also voluptuous and classy is L’Evangile 1995; both Ausones are wonderful; and Pétrus 1995 is a wow. Léoville-Barton 1996 is a winner, but then so are Pichon Lalande, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Cos d’Estournel and Grand Puy Lacoste. La Mondotte 1996 is a real keeper, while Léoville Las Cases cracked it in both vintages, though the 1996 just has it, which is the pattern for Lynch-Bages, too. And Pontet-Canet has done a first-class job in the two years. Calon-Ségur’s 1996 is magnificent, while Lafleur 1995 is all breed, sweetness and succulence. This is but a sample of what awaits in this set of twins. The future lures us on.

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