Last week, I had the very good fortune to attend a meeting of the tasting group to which I belong, the Dead Guys Wine Society, that featured some of the top wines produced in Bordeaux in the past 50 years. It was one of those nights that not only tastes seriously great, but that also allows you to contextualize so many other bottlings you’ve tasted before and will taste afterward.
What stood out to me above all else was just how brilliantly several of the less-highly-regarded vintages showed that night: Proof, once again, that the obsessive focus on only the so-called marquis years--the ones that the Spectator and Parker salivate over--is a fool’s approach to Bordeaux. There’s a reason this part of the world is so renowned for its grape juice, and its reputation wouldn't be what it is today--what it has been for hundreds of years--if it’s only worthy wines were the famous-vintage ones.
That having been said, the bottlings from the classic years showed as brilliantly as they’re supposed to. The moral seems clear: Drink more Bordeaux, don’t be afraid to cellar it, and buy even in the less-than-stellar vintages. Chances are you’ll be rewarded many times over when you finally pop that cork. Just don’t wait too long.
We started with a magnum of 1992 Pichon-Baron, a smoky, earth-driven, rubber-scented red that still had some time on it: An auspicious beginning. From here, we moved on to a 750 of La Mission Haut-Brion 2001, a feminine, concentrated beauty with notes of bright berry fruit and seamlessly integrated acid and tannins. Chateau La Lagune 2000 showed all the expected perfume of that vintage, as well as more lovely red fruit. Pichon-Lalande from the same legendary year exploded with concentrated toasted Indian spices and roasted fennel seeds. Lynch Bages 2002 was another smoker, with added aromas of roast beef and flowers and a mineral- and raspberry-driven palate. The Pichon-Lalande 2004 reminded me of nothing so much as tucking into a blueberry pie by a bonfire: Masculine and delicious.
We then popped the cork on one of the most controversial wines of the past decade: Chateau Pavie 2003, which was at the center of a serious debate between Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson back in 2004. Its ultra-modern, super-extracted style earned 98 points from the Man from Monkton, and a painful 12 / 20 from Robinson. It was, and remains, a wine that divides people, and stirs up much conversation whenever it’s opened. Personally, I loved it, and while it wasn’t anywhere near traditional Bordeaux in style, it was still identifiably Right Bank, and oozed character and flat-out sex appeal: Spicy blueberry compote, hot bricks, sage, Colorado-wrapper cigar, and tannins that still promise another decade or two of evolution.
Back on less-fraught ground, we moved the the Chateau Leoville-Barton 1999, whose birch-bark and blueberry nose led to a palate of still-dusty tannins and earth that will continue to mature for another 12 - 18+ years. Chateau Montrose 1996 was perfumed, intense, and spoke of smoky maple syrup, menthol, and eucalyptus. On the opposite end of that vintage’s spectrum was the Chateau Pichon-Lalande 1996, which smelled like the most evocative horse barn perfumed with sage, eucalyptus, and more blueberry. Chateau Lynch-Bages 1996 found itself at a far earlier stage in its evolution, the nose more giving than the remarkably tight palate, the black raspberry, scorched earth, and bonfire still holding back a bit: This will be amazing in a few years.
Four years ago, I tasted the Chateau Cos d’Estournel 1995 from the same friend’s cellar, and last week it showed itself to have evolved excellently. And while it still has another 5 - 7+ years on it (easily), its smoke, charred Indian spice, and blood notes were framed by easier-going sappy black cherry flavors that made it go down almost dangerously easily. Unexpectedly, the Chateau Leoville-Poyferre from the same vintage was one of the wines of the night, its luscious, exuberant strawberry and rhubarb character made it impossible not to drink way too quickly.
Among a line-up of 1993s, the Cos d’Estournel was the smokier, creamier, plummier of the two, with the Ducru-Beaucaillou evoking early-autumn pine cones, high-cocoa chocolate, mint, and red cherry. Rounding out that excellent decade was a Pichon-Lalande 1990, a savory, almost briny bottling with a seam of scorched earth running down the middle.
Moving back to the 1980s, the Chateau Gruaud-Larose 1989 was a winner with its pretty notes of tea, spice, bricks, and black raspberries, all of these given good posture by tannins that were still remarkably young and persistent. A perfumed Pichon-Lalande 1988 spoke of purple berries, plums, and clay, and the Leoville-Poyferre 1982 was silky, elegant, and put the lie to the claim that all 1982s are on their downslide. I’d drink them sooner rather than later, but this beauty was still vigorous and elegant, with hints of rubber, cedar, vanilla, caramel, and lovely dried currants.
Moving on to a couple of First Growths, the Chateau Margaux 1993 was still a bit high-strung, with taut notes of raspberry and bonfire carried on a silky palate. Chateau Haut-Brion 1988, as expected, was a standout, its telltale stone character coming through with clarity and framed by bright acid and and a roasted character to the fruit. Chateau Brane-Cantenac 1978 sang with menthol and cherry, as well as smoked figs and a deeply savory note. Pichon-Lalande 1970 tasted of spearmint, rosemary, and minerals, its spice still hanging on but not destined for much more life past where it is now. Still, it was a great, fully mature bottle. Chateau Lafite 1987, if a bit on the light-bodied side, was still a spiced-cranberry charmer. Chateau Latour 1990 (a Wine Spectator 100-point wine), lived up to its reputation, exuding perfectly balanced, supremely well-integrated flavors of smoky mint, sappy cherry fruit, minerality, and a balance as perfectly calibrated as any wine I’ve ever been privileged to drink. This was as profound as wine gets.
The only place to go from there was to Chateau d’Yquem: The 1986, an ambrosial wine that oozed apricot, nuts, and frangipane, as well as a finish of the best rice you’ve ever tasted, and the 1975, a nutty, mushroom-rich sticky with savory apricot notes woven throughout. Brilliant way to end and remarkable night.
Thanks to Scot “Zippy” Ziskind, of ZipCo Environmental Services and My Cellar wine storage, Anthony Maffei, and the rest of the “Dead Guys” for a fantastic, educational, damn fun night. And for digging so deep into their cellars for this amazing tasting.