It’s always nail-biting when you open a precious bottle – will it be ready to drink, or not? To help you avoid disappointment, world authority on Bordeaux MICHAEL BROADBENT gives his view on the notable Médoc vintages back to the 1940s
When to drink’ is a perpetual challenge. If one is the fortunate owner of an extensive private cellar, the problem can be solved in quite the best way: by opening from time to time bottles of a particular wine of a particular vintage to see how it is developing. Those with a more modest collection, or a disinclination to open a pristine box to extract a costly bottle must seek outside advice. Wine merchants are – or should be – well qualified, though in my experience they tend to encourage their customers to drink too soon, which has a double benefit – for them – of clearing warehouse space and encouraging the purchase of the latest ‘laying down’ vintage.
The wines of what is now commonly referred to as the ‘Left Bank’ have the longest track record not only in Bordeaux but worldwide. If one excludes Tokaji, they also have the oldest system of classification. The precedence of the châteaux of the Médoc (including Haut-Brion in Graves and Yquem in Sauternes) was already well established as 1st, 2nd and lesser growths by the second half of the 18th century; indeed long before the ‘official’ 1855 classification.
Moreover, for more than two centuries, the wines of the Médoc were the mainstay of traditional British wine merchants and their middle and upper-class customers. The wines of St-Emilion, with the exception of Cheval Blanc, were not taken too seriously, and those of Pomerol virtually unknown.
The following is a personal assessment of vintages – and their drinkability – which, happily, have featured prominently throughout my wine trade career.
THE 1990s was a very uneven decade, vying with the 1970s as the least successful of the past half-century. The start of the 21st century shows more promise.
In cask, I thought this was likely to be a classic vin de garde; it had all the component parts, almost in excess, certainly in balance. But the 1990s are drinking surprisingly well. My recommendation, though, is to keep. These are wines which will be a pleasure to taste at regular intervals, like watching a favourite grandchild growing up.
Following a substandard quartet, 1995 was welcomed by traders who needed an en primeur campaign to slake their thirst and replenish their coffers. Unquestionably the best vintage of the mid 1990s. Remains expensive, but worth hanging on to.
The second largest crop of the century. Though the summer was baking hot, there was much rain at harvest time. A vintage to test the skills of the winemaker, and for the go-between courtier to earn his modest commission. Frankly, it is a Right Bank vintage. The Médocs are uneven, and the Cabernets tannic. Keep or drink? Neither one nor the other. On balance I would keep for interim drinking.
An even more difficult year, weather wise. Tremendous variations in quality, the best Médocs superior to the 1998s. The vintage campaign was dampened by the anticipation of a successful Millennium vintage. Pious hopes were fulfilled. The first decade opened with a very satisfactory vintage.
Unquestionably a very good year, uniform in quality. Demand was high with prices to match, which have since risen inexorably. Classic Médocs are well worth cellaring. All the first growths are excellent, with classed growths (Gruaud-Larose, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, the Léovilles, Palmer, Pichon-Lalande, Rauzan-Ségla) also first rate.
Even if the wines had been uniformly good, 2001, coming after the much-touted 2000, would have fallen a little flat. Despite this, opening prices were too high, then fell, and have fallen further. It is time to take advantage, for good wines were made, with ripe Merlots, aromatic Cabernet Sauvignons, high-quality Francs and superb, late-maturing Petit Verdots. May turn out to be a surprisingly attractive and drinkable vintage – at tempting prices.
Interim years: 1991, 1992, 1993 all suffered the same fate: a fairly good to very good growing season ruined by rain which diluted the not fully ripe grapes. The 1992s are thin, the other two need drinking. Had this been the 1930s, the wines would have been irremediably bad. Better techniques saved them from ruin. 1994 – somewhat better but upstaged by the 1995. 1996 – good, but lacking some of the flesh and appeal of the 1995, and unwisely overpriced, as were the 1997s. The latter are perfectly decent, and pleasant enough for drinking now.
THE 1980S SAW the Bordeaux renaissance, engendered by better weather conditions and an increasingly buoyant market. Several good vintages.
This put Bordeaux – in particular the classic châteaux of the Médoc – firmly back on the map. Its acclaim – which, with time, has been fully justified – renewed the investment market. Lesser 1982s should have been long consumed by now but the classified growths are uniformly successful, though many remain stubbornly tannic. Too many excellent wines to list.
The finest, best-balanced vintage of the decade. Drinking well, keeping well. It would be invidious to list the best. I like them all.
When I first tasted this vintage I was bowled over by the wines’ richness and fruit-laden opulence. A magnificent year with a splendid future. Yet, despite its convincing component parts, I thought it might develop quickly. To my surprise, its charm of youth is now stiffened with reserve. A great vintage. Keep.
Interim years: 1981 and 1983 – each at the time considered more ‘typical’ than the extraordinary and atypical 1982. Both past their best. Drink soon. 1980 – light, of little interest; 1984 was unbalanced due to Merlot failure; 1987 – drink up. 1986 and 1988 are both serious vintages, though I must confess I had reservations about the 1986, which lacks the charm of the 1985 and richness of the 1989. But it will, I am sure, prove a good mid-term wine. Mouton Rothschild 1986 is the acknowledged star. 1988 – the first of an unusually good trio – is sturdy, tannic, and will be long lasting. It is seriously undervalued.
THE 1970S WAS the most uneven decade since the 1930s, ranging from dreary to assez bien (good enough).
A successful vintage to meet burgeoning and somewhat spurious investment demand. Yet there are disappointments. The best, still extremely good, include Latour, Ducru-Beaucaillou, an over-the-top Giscours, Palmer and Lynch-Bages. Some, like Mouton Rothschild, uneven; Lafite on the decline.
A small, high-priced vintage (better on the Right Bank). Some are drinking well now, others – Lafite, for example – are disappointingly feeble.
The first vintage after the 1973/1974 slump to be proclaimed a true vin de garde: unbalanced, over tannic, though the best, such as Haut-Brion and Pichon Lalande, are still drinking quite well. The rest are to be avoided.
‘The year of the miracle’. Atrocious growing conditions saved by a protracted, warm, sunny, ripening period. Despite this, not as good as some people think. My advice: drink up.
Interim years: 1972, 1973, 1974 – a disastrous trio, the first triggering a severe recession in Bordeaux; 1976 – cheap, superficially charming, but drink up; 1979 – prolific, tannic, lacking fruit and flesh; 1977 – dreadful.
By the end of the 1950s, and into the 1960s, the cosy post-war period was eroded by competition from the other side of the Atlantic. This, and the gradual post-war recovery in northern Europe resulted in a steady rise in prices.
Like 1945, a small production of concentrated, tannic, wines. It was, from the start, very expensive (the trade jibbed at having to pay £1 a bottle for first growths!). I recall, in 1967, at the end of my first season at Christie’s, referring to 1961s as the ‘gold dust’ of the future (a pity I couldn’t afford them). Latour great, Palmer the best ever, and many others.
Overshadowed by 1961, leaner but very good, and the best wines still drinking quite well. Las-Cases on top form.
Except for the late-picked and doused Lafite, Mouton, Calon-Ségur and Lynch-Bages, some lovely wines – notably Latour, Beychevelle, Montrose and d’Angludet.
A lean, long-distance runner, still going. Latour again top, Calon-Ségur making up for the 1964, Cos, Ducru, Gruaud, Palmer and several others, though some drying out.
Interim years: Give 1960, 1967, 1969 a miss; 1963, 1965, 1968 all atrocious.
THE POST-WAR YEARS saw wine-starved, luxury-deprived, claret lovers served by a trio of outstanding vintages: 1945, 1947 and 1949. Depleted stocks were then filled with – in retrospect – the reasonably priced vintages of the 1950s.
Small quantity, concentrated wines of the highest quality. In my opinion the greatest of all the post-war vintages – not even the 1961 quite reaches these heights. All the first growths were, and still are if well kept, magnificent, Mouton Rothschild standing out as one of the greatest red Bordeaux of all time.
A richer, rounder vintage following an exceptionally hot summer. Some wines suffered from excess volatile acidity, but many of the top wines such as Mouton, Gruaud-Larose and Calon-Ségur are delicious, (Cheval Blanc, on the Right Bank, made a superlative, inimitable, 1947).
The third of this unsurpassed trio. Châteaux Margaux and Latour supreme, Mouton exquisite, Lafite less dependable.
Stern, tannic, masculine wines, long under-appreciated but still good, notably Beychevelle and La Mission Haut-Brion.
Perhaps my favourite claret vintage of all, epitomising charm, delicacy and supremely lovely drinkability, Lafite being the quintessential example. (The antithesis of the over-extracted, over-the-top, overripe cult wines that currently dominate the sadly uncultivated ‘global’ taste.)
Over-shadowed by, and not as charming as, the 1953s nor
as magnificent as the 1959s, but good. Latour, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild still drinking superbly, plus Beychevelle, Cantemerle, Talbot and others.
Magnificent. The first so-called, ‘Wine of the Century’, some pundits then qualifying this by suggesting the wines lacked acidity. Rubbish! Supreme: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton and a host of others drinking well, including Cos, the three Léovilles, Montrose and Pichon-Lalande.
Interim years: The rare 1946 – quite good; 1948 – erratic; 1950, 1954, 1958 – over the top; 1951, 1956 – both execrable.
So has there been a change in style? Are the more obvious, fruity, upfront wines of Bordeaux going to enjoy a long life? Looking back over the past half century there have been many changes. Better vineyard management, better selection of grapes and vats. On the other hand, I am convinced that riper grapes have resulted in a uniformity of style. The differences between districts – St-Estèphe compared with St-Julien, for example – and the former distinct individual character of the various Médoc châteaux, have become blurred. Vintages are in danger of becoming more uniform. I do not want classic, lean, long-lasting Médocs, with moderate alcoholic content to be turned into fleshy, full of fruit, Pomerol look-alikes. But if this is what the influential critics like, and if it aids sales, what right have I to protest? And what is the cost? A pity, that’s all.
Michael Broadbent is the author of numerous wine bibles. His latest book, Vintage Wine (£35; Litle Brown/Websters) won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Book on Wine & Spirits 2003.
Written by Michael Broadbent