Bordeaux from the 1980s, part 1
December 29, 2011
Here we are! Nearly 2012. For wine lovers, the end of a year seems to increase the need to taste superb wines. At least, I feel that rush. And thank my lucky stars for having fellow wine lovers to share such experiences. As much as I am increasingly enamoured by the freshness of Burgundy as some modern Bordeaux approach 15 degrees and more, my heart still beats for Bordeaux. At least from the “enlightened” Old School (meaning, traditionalists who have adapted to positive change to make wines that are clean, but neither over-high in alcohol nor over-high in new oak, for example). So it was a real pleasure to start two nights of Bordeaux, mainly from the 1980s.
What better way to count down 2011? With a group of wine geeks and fine bottles? A resounding yes. Many thanks to Ian Lipner for hosting – and preparing a superb meal, with all the trimmings, on 28 December. It was great to see Ian and Faryan Amir-Ghassemi again. And to finally meet Keith Levenberg, whom I have “known” as a blogger since 2004, back when the famous Parker board was public. Great to meet David Ehrlich and David White, who publishes the excellent Terroirist blog.
Things started off with a fine Henriot 1998, whose softer nose of subtle stone and mineral did not quite hint at the increasingly citrus-infused palate. I liked the acidity, but it was not a particularly brutish brut.
David (Ehrlich) brought a white Chateauneuf du Pape 2006. The vintage was rather dry in the summer, so September rainfall which compromised other parts of France was rather welcome – for the reds. Here we have as fine a white Southern Rhone as one could expect. Not much beeswax, David noted. The nose was subtle, with white fruit, apricot and some pear, and the palate expectedly thickly textured but not overbearing. Over time, it became just a tad monotonous, but not a bad drink – also given its intriguing spice overtones.
Ian prepared tasty leek soup, made from leeks cooked in butter and red wine before being pureed and augmented with cream. I liked the acidity in the Champagne as a better match for the soup.
Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou 1990. This great estate from St Julien we all agreed had the best label of the night. In spite of TCA problems in the mid-80s which marred the 88-89-90 trio here, this bottle was fine. David (Ehrlich) sourced it from a relative with a pristine cellar. Deceptively soft, because it tightened up a bit in glass, it was still a rather light expression from this vintage, and not among the top Medoc 1990s I have had. A certain dusty aspect reminding me of the 1970 blew off, and then the wine just became a soft pleasure to enjoy, with moderate floral aromatics and jam, and some black licorice on the palate. 92+
Chateau Pichon Baron 1988. Two years older, and yet it looked (less bricking) and particularly tasted younger. Lovely precision and focus on the nose and palate, which had “more going on” and although we encounter tertiary notes, they are as fresh as ever. Although prominent acidity betrays the vintage nature – this is not the greatest balance one can obtain – the wine is now in a sweet spot, and shows certain signs that it will age very well for at least another 7-10 years. If the price is right, one to seek. Thanks to David White for letting us in on this information. 94
For these two first Bordeaux, Ian allowed a “soft entry” – a salad with a thoroughly tasty mix of various mushrooms. The meat was on its way…
Flight Two – Best overall flight
For this superb duo, Ian served perfectly prepared strips of rare duck, ladled with a delectable sauce of port and cherry…
Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou 1986. My, my. Now this illustrates the often used phrase to describe the chateau as the “Lafite of St Julien”. Sheer elegance. Where the floral aspects in the 1990 were muted, here they come to the fore, with lavender and spring flowers. The palate exudes a contained power, with finely grained tannins that have come to a certain maturity but can last a long time yet. Tobacco aspects pleased me in their subtlety. Rounded and elegant. Does it get much better from 1986 Bordeaux? Perhaps there are wines that out power this one (see below), but this has feminine charm, and I like women. 96
Chateau Gruaud Larose 1986. Whiffs of brett. I was thinking, trouble looms. But it blew off, over time. Keith may have double decanted beforehand but this needed more air. I have had this vintage over several years between 2005 and 2010, and always conjured up the image of Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks. Not for the meek this wine. Not big in a modern sense, with sweet tones of (over) ripeness in the mix. Ney, this wine is Old School and damn delicious, but it needs time to open up, its tannins still foreboding, and enrobed in saddle leather and cow hide and some notions of poop that are not – thankfully – overwhelming. At least not with some time in glass. Indeed, this became even more poised and clean on the palate over time. What it lacked for in elegance, it made up for in earthy power. 96
Chateau Montrose 1986. In spite of my best efforts to ah-so the cork out, with careful coaxing, the thing fell in, so I poured the wine into a decanter and back into a just-finished bottle of Haut Bailly 2004, which no one in their right mind should drink today because it needs more time… But that is another story. Montrose 1986 has shown better from other bottles, but this was darn good. The color was light ruby and transparent, and I had the feeling that it was on a faster evolution than other bottles I have had. Still, tobacco infused, smooth integrated tannins, a pleasing even somewhat sweet yet refined aspect, with a definite 1986 acidity that matched perfectly the roast lamb that Ian also had prepared. 94+
Chateau Lynch Bages 1986. Most of us raved over this wine. I did, too, but perhaps not as much. There was something somewhat stolid about it, but, yes, it was very youthful – a much darker core than the Montrose to be sure – and showed more primary fruit. Lots going on here, too. Did I get a slightly drying finish? Going back to it, I could not but be amazed with its downright youthful mid palate, with an intensity of “compacted power” that reminded me also of the superb 1989. More proof of Lynch Bages as the “Poor Man’s Mouton” – or is Mouton the “Rich Man’s Lynch Bages”? 95
The lamb was superbly prepared, with roasted potatoes in one bowl, and a mix of Brussels sprouts and broccoli in another. It was interesting to try both wines with the lamb. While the more mature Montrose seemed more to “accomodate” the food, the more robust Lynch Bages gave it a greater accent. Both went well with the serving, basically.
We finished dinner with a trio of “dessert” wines and obligatory Washingtonian political discussion that was quite civil. It is possible.
Chateau Gilette in Sauternes has the curious habit of holding its fermented wine for up to 20 years in concrete vats before release. Some say it preserves freshness, others call it a gimmick. The truth lies somewhere in between. This 1983 from a half bottle promised nice things, with orange rind and cinnamon spice. The vintage was successful for Sauternes, given a fine late summer that lead to late pickings and a rather slow spread of botrytis. But I have had better 1983s, such as Fargues and Raymond Lafon, both of which pack more punch. In any case, an enjoyable sticky!
A 2002 Quarts de Chaume Les Varennes from Jo Pithon was a bit too honeyed for my taste. I was expecting more acidity from the Loire. But de gustibus non disputandum est…
Finally, the Dow Vintage Port 1985 was as good as I have had from this estate and vintage. A fine bottle, exuding soft tannin, red fruit and a fine smokiness. Will not win any first place awards for high flavor intensity, but it certainly lulls the palate into a relaxed state of mind. Certainly ready for a metro ride home… Don’t drink and drive!
Many thanks to Ian, our host and master chef !