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Anson on Thursday: Mature Bordeaux – A cautionary tale

Bordeaux 1975 is a classic example of how we critics sometimes write off specific vintages, consign them to history and then realise that we were perhaps overly hasty.

The beauty of Bordeaux is that the best wines last long enough to make total fools of anyone who is too quick to leap to an assessment; and so it has proven in several cases with the Bordeaux 1975 vintage

An ‘agreeable surprise’

I re-tasted wines from this mature Bordeaux vintage over the summer to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Decanter magazine – but I wasn’t holding out much hope for the vintage.

I am happy to have been proved wrong in almost every example, and I’m not alone. Both Jean-Luc Triaud and Jean-Michel Cazes said they had all but abandoned the 1975s left in their cellars until a year or so ago.

‘Both the 1970s and 1975s are really over-performing expectations every time I open a bottle,’ said Triaud. Cazes added, ‘At first the tannins were hard and we were disappointed by how it aged, but over the past five years every bottle I’ve opened has been an agreeable surprise, particularly those in magnum.’

The explanation is due to something that was noted at the time – hard, tight tannins that have taken a long time to soften because winemakers picked a few days earlier than they would have ideally liked to.

Context is key to understanding why. Bordeaux in 1975 was a very different place from the one it is today. Baron Eric de Rothschild had taken over from his uncle Baron Elie as director of Lafite in 1974, Baron Philippe de Rothschild was still celebrating Mouton Rothschild’s promotion to First Growth in 1973.

The American Dillons were ensconced at Château Haut-Brion but we were two years away from André Mentzelopoulos buying Chateau Margaux, and Latour was in English hands with the Pearson Group.

A run of bad vintages

Uncertainty was everywhere after a run of bad vintages since 1970 not helped by vineyard practices at the time. There was a lack of the selection and crop reduction that is necessary in difficult years to create drinkable wine and is routine today.

Yields were often high, with phenolic ripeness not fully understood. In the cellar there was no regular temperature control, very little new oak (although long ageing of three years in barrel was fairly common), malolactic fermentation had just become widespread, and chaptilisation was regularly used to compensate for Cabernet Sauvignons that were picked around 10.5-11%abv, and Merlots around 11-11.5% abv.

Against all this, the economic background was tough, with the 1970s global oil crisis just a few years passed, leading to an interest rate rise that saw many cancelled orders, intensified by the scandal in Bordeaux that centred around trader Pierre Bert and the 3m bottles of mis-labelled wines that led to the prosecution and trial of 18 local wine traders.

Bordeaux 1975 vintage conditions

The promising weather conditions of 1975 offered a welcome respite. A freezing period in spring had reduced yields naturally and a sunny July followed by a heatwave in August had raised sugar levels.

Triaud remembers not seeing natural sugar levels as high as 1975 until the 2000s, particularly in the merlots.

By early September the sense of excitement was rising. A deluge of rain in the middle of the month brought with it the threat of rot – although things were worse around Margaux, Listrac and Moulis where 8,000 hectares were hit with a devastating hail-storm – and nerves began to fray.

Harvest began around 22 September, according to records at Tastet Lawton brokers. Early tastings noted better concentration and flavours than had been seen for a number of years, but the harsh tannins led to widespread disappointment.

Combine that with a refusal by many négociants to buy, and much of the 1975 production remained in the cellars.

As luck would have it, this means it is not an impossible vintage to get hold of today.

Here are my favourite Bordeaux 1975 wines.

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