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Bordeaux wine styles: 40 years of change

Since he started writing about Bordeaux in the 1980s, Stephen Brook has witnessed fundamental stylistic shifts in the region’s wines. Here he reflects on the highs and lows, tastes and trends, of the past four decades...

Long before I started writing about Bordeaux wines, I was buying and drinking them, seeking out bottles from less fashionable vintages, such as 1979, that I could afford. By the time the famous 1982 vintage was released I was beginning to scribble, and attended some tastings of those wines. It divided opinion at the time. ‘Too Californian!’ sniffed some British wine merchants, unused to the aromas of ripe fruit. But wine writers, an emerging breed back then, were more positive, and they were right. The 1982s were delicious and beguiling, a reminder that Bordeaux in a top year didn’t have to be mean and lean.

Moreover, the 1980s would prove a fine decade for claret, with nimble 1983s, enchanting 1985s, superb 1989s, and more controversial vintages such as 1986 and 1988. In those years the wine trade and wine-fanciers were still impressed by overt tannins, although the lumbering 1975s (with some exceptions) should have sounded a warning.

Scroll down to see Brook’s comparative tasting notes and scores for a range of Bordeaux wines

I was impressed by the 1986s – such density and structure! – and I was not alone. I lashed out on a top St-Estèphe from that year, and sold the case 15 years later, fearing it would never mellow enough to be enjoyable. Many 1988s were austere, even tough, and it took the precocious vintage of 1989, followed by the great 1990s, to remind us that fine claret was not a monument but a source of the utmost vinous pleasure.

That pair of vintages set the pattern for the decades to follow. There were unlovely exceptions such as 1992 and 1993, but the successful vintages – however different from each other – showed a riper, more succulent interpretation of red Bordeaux. There were two explanations for this. The first is the slow march of global warming: flowering was beginning earlier, yields were gradually reduced, and the harvest was focused on obtaining the ripest fruit, not on bringing in the crop as rapidly as possible.

And then there was the simultaneous rise of the consultant and the wine critic, both separately and in tandem. Robert Parker Jr, then in his prime, favoured optimal ripeness, and although that was sometimes pushed a bit too far for my taste, he was right to do so. His friend, the consultant Michel Rolland, thought the same way. Operating mostly in the Merlot-dominated Right Bank, he was prepared to tolerate some raisining at harvest if it ensured opulence and sensuality in the finished wines. Their informal alliance did establish a dominant style, although some questioned whether these super-ripe wines would age well. However, the public loved them, and only some connoisseurs and investors were greatly concerned about whether the wines would last three decades or more.

See Brook’s comparative tasting notes and scores for a selection of Bordeaux wines

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