Blue moon on the left bank


Blue-moon territory: the chance to taste all of the Bordeaux First Growths, plus Pavie, Angélus, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Petrus, at 20 years old. With Yquem thrown in for luck. Twice in two days. In two southern Chinese cities: Shenzhen and Nanning. My thanks to trilingual China-based educator Julien Boulard of Zhulian Wines and his team for this singular opportunity.

The vintage was 1998: a ‘right-bank vintage’ by reputation. Why? Essentially because there were a couple of bouts of heavy rain on September 29th and October 1st, before some of the Cabernets were fully ripe. I chatted to Bordeaux négociant Jeffrey Davies about the vintage before leaving for China, though, and he told me that both banks now have a very fair reputation among Bordeaux insiders. Our tasting justified that view: the Médoc wines varied, but both Lafite and Haut-Brion were outstandingly good, and neither Margaux nor Mouton disappointed. August 1998, remember, was hot, and it’s August which lays the foundations of every Bordeaux vintage. In this case, they’re sound. Ripeness is ample.

Prices mean that these wines which are beyond almost all of us, except for rare occasions of this sort. My aim, therefore, is to ‘talk around’ each property rather than write tasting notes per se, based on this glimpse of each at the two-decade point, and at a certain point during their long evolutionary trajectories. The order is that in which we tasted the wines: left-bank this week, and the right-bank next. The quality of the bottles, by the way, was outstanding: excellent fills, no tca issues, and nothing to suggest that any of the wines had suffered from excessive heat in transit or storage. All had been purchased in retail in Hong Kong shortly before the tasting – a testament to the professionalism of today’s Hong Kong wine trade.

Lafite 1998

Lafite is an enormous property. At 112 ha under vine, and with average yields (according to Eric Bernadin and Pierre Le Hong’s Crus Classés du Médoc) of 48 hl/ha, around 530,000 litres of this wine will be potentially available for bottling every year. Think about that: over half a million litres. It’s rare to see Lafite itself for less than £500 a bottle and Carruades for less than £250 a bottle (the 2013s are currently listed for more than that); half a million litres at an average price of £375 a bottle means revenues of roughly £250 million. Insider estimates of the cost price of a bottle of any first growth, Lafite included, rarely exceed 30 euros: much less than ten per cent of the sale price. Phew! Wonderful news for the owners, for the sales intermediaries and for tax gatherers alike. These Médoc gravel mounds may look like forgotten beaches, left stranded by former ice ages; in fact every pebble is – invisibly — lined with gold leaf. (For more on yield questions, see next week’s Jefford on Monday.)

Lafite is not always the densest wine of the vintage. It’s the blue-blooded grandee; the purveyor of urbane, drinkable classicism at all times; the apogee of ineffable refinement. Such a profile doesn’t require any strenuous panting after ‘depth’ or ‘power’ or ‘concentration’. The property did, though, get a grip on the principle of exclusion of any but the best wine from the Grand Vin selection earlier than some of its First Growth peers, and the 1998 was composed from just 34 per cent of the total harvest. The blend was 81 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon (including old-vine Cabernet from the St Estèphe vineyard of Caillava) and 19 per cent Merlot.

It’s still deep in colour, without any evident bricking, though now translucent and opaque. It’s a lovely thing to smell: stealthy, refined, tiptoeing from the glass with a classical dancer’s poise. There’s volume of scent, yet it still manages to tease: incense wood, cedar, fine resins, unlit cigars. A ripeness of fruit, too, but even that is understated: compare it to any Napa wine, and what you’ll find here is a suggestion of ripeness rather than ripeness itself.

It is, though, a concentrated wine on the palate: these vineyards can do that even at what seem like elevated yields (ah, the gilded pebbles!) — but don’t forget, too, that classical Bordeaux élevage, which means 18 months in barrels and almost obsessive racking every three months, is said to mean a loss of 10 to 15 per cent by evaporation prior to bottling. That’s a force for concentration in itself (and qualifies our back-of-the-envelope calculation of revenues). I would call this wine lean – but it’s certainly long and architectural, soaring in the mouth, with more sustained dry fruits than the aromas sketched out, with perfectly incorporated tannins and singing acidity providing seamless balance. Those cedary, incense notes provide a vapoury mist around the fruit. Great left-bank Bordeaux always has a sense of direction and purpose to its flavours, and it was hard not to think of the Rothschild arrows in this respect – but these arrows carried soft, feathery vanes. It was much enjoyed by our Chinese guests, coming second after Petrus in Shenzhen with four first places and two thirds, and occupying joint first place in Nanning (three first places, three seconds and three thirds). Robert Parker awards it 98 points; I would give it 96. (13% abv)

Château Lafite-Rothschild in 2015.Credit: Chris Mercer / Decanter

Mouton 1998

Terroir means that Mouton (90 ha today) and Lafite have to be compared to one another; indeed there’s a strong case for considering them to be non-identical twins, legendarily parted according to a line decreed by the ‘Prince of Vines’, Nicolas-Alexandre, the Marquis de Ségur — who owned both. Their vineyards interfold one another; Carruades lies on the other side of Mouton’s vines. No other two properties among Bordeaux’s ‘great ten’ are neighbours, let alone neighbours with this level of intimacy. Examine the contour lines on a map, and you will see that the two properties share the same gigantic gravel mound or croupe – yet in character their wines are very different.

This is a generalization, since the landholdings are complex (I’m thinking of Lafite’s St Estèphe component, and its vineyards to the west of the D2), but might that fundamental difference in style be due to the fact that Lafite commands the northern part of the croupe, and Mouton the southern? Hence the nuanced refinement of the former; hence the exuberance and exoticism of the latter. I don’t know – but something must account for it, since it is consistently noted by those who have a chance to taste these wines regularly, year after year.

Any consideration of the historical trajectory of properties of this sort reveals a series of gear changes: moments, often connected with changes in key personnel and (more rarely) in ownership, when there is a new push for quality, a new seriousness of intent, and — in three out of five cases among the First Growths — the creation of new cellar facilities. For Mouton, that gear change coincided with the arrival of Philippe Dhalluin in 2003. Mouton’s 1998 belongs to a period during which it was still performing rather inconsistently, mirroring vintage hazards more closely than those paying for the bottles might wish: outstanding in 1982 and 1986, for example, but less exciting in 1985 and 1989. There was no official second wine until 1993. Disciplined selection had got underway by 1998, and the Mouton 1998 was made with 57 per cent of the harvest, and a blend of 86 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 per cent Merlot and two per cent Cabernet Franc. But there was, in that vintage, less selectivity than at Lafite. The wine was also made in the old winery whose large wooden fermenters made parcel selection difficult; and the regimes for press wine and barrel choices were less refined than today.

This is not in any way a disappointing wine – indeed it was two tasters’ first choice wine at our Nanning tasting, and I would be thrilled should I ever get the chance to taste it or drink it again. Its colours, though, are a little more evolved than for some of its peers. The scents are very enticing, very flattering: sweet and creamy, yet clean and fresh, too. There is, though, less fruit crowding its scents than at Lafite. The palate is impressive, with intensity and density of flavour as well as a sense of soft, friendly grip. Indeed it’s succulent and rich, too, with time in the mouth. There is fruit here, seamlessly mingling with roasted meat and sweet leather notes: appetizing and gastronomic. Robert Parker gives it 96 and I would give it 94 – though, as so often with Bordeaux, this score is dictated by comparison with high-quality peers. Taste the wine in isolation, and a peer-correlated score will seem mean. (12.5%)

Latour 1998

It’s a commonplace to say that the core of Latour, the 47 ha of vineyards which cluster ‘the tower’ itself and which are communally known as L’Enclos, is the finest single terroir in the Médoc – at least if consistency through the vagaries of wet years and dry years, warm years and cool years is the criterion. It may be so. The four metres of fine-draining gravels over succulent, water-holding blue clays are usually said to be the cause. This time, the core of the croupe is shared with no other property, though both Pichons dispute its dissipating undulations; we are closer to the Gironde at Latour than at Lafite. Latour has a long tradition of selection, with second and third wines.

For all that, the 1998 vintage was a pivotal moment at Latour, the movement the gear lever was thrown. François Pinault had bought the property in 1993, but changes came slowly. Frédéric Engerer was already there, but he only became ‘Président’, his current job title, in 1998; he took over fully in running the property after the 1998 harvest, not before. The modern Latour, complete with new winery and the huge number of changes and refinements it has made possible, was a post-1998 creation. So, too, is the intense focus on individual vine quality and soil health in the vineyards (including the use of biodynamics).

The 1998 Latour, made from 90 per cent Cabernet and 10 per cent Merlot, looks neither notably lighter nor darker than Lafite and Mouton, though the hues are a little less evolved that Mouton’s. It’s the most straightforwardly fruity of the three: fresh blackcurrant scents with a bakery sweetness, even a popcorn touch. On the palate, it is curranty, driving and deep; on the lean side, but authoritative. That line of fruit holds right through to the finish, and it’s still surrendering blackcurrant perfumes, even after you’ve swallowed. For me, though, it doesn’t have the complexity of either Lafite or Mouton, though it is well-preserved and forthright. Robert Parker gives it 90 and in the vintage context I would agree with that 90 score – though our Chinese tasters rated this wine more highly than that: it scored two second places and two thirds in Shenzhen, and another second and third place in Nanning. (13%)

Margaux 1998

Margaux is a still larger property than Lafite: its 265 ha make it the size of a small hamlet on its own, though much of this is vineless pastureland running down to the estuary. In vineyard terms, it has around 92 ha of vines at present, disposed in the least unitary manner of any First Growth – a bottle of Margaux coud be seen as a synopsis of the best land of the commune, though its core still comes from a single croupe. The gravels, here, are sandier than further north in the Médoc, and sand in vineyards usually means finesse and gentleness in place of the powerful and the chunky.

Margaux has been through a gear change in recent years, though (in best Margaux style) that shift has been so stealthy, silky, smooth and supple that it’s hard to pin it to a single vintage. The late Paul Pontallier was open to change, but didn’t like to institute it until it had been fully tested (via research – he was a former researcher himself) at the property. Modern techniques, like the ultra-fastidious handling now common to all of the top Bordeaux properties, took some time to be adopted here. As at Mouton, the recent investment in new cellar facilities has made a big difference, especially in terms of being able to vinify smaller parcels separately — from 2015.

There has always been a second-wine tradition at Margaux, predating the official institution of Pavillon Rouge in 1906, not least because of the evident heterogeneity of the vineyards. Some 50 per cent of production made the cut for the Grand Vin in 1998, whereas nowadays it tends to be less than that (38 per cent in 2010, for example, and just 28 per cent in 2016). This wine has by far the smallest percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon of any of the Médoc first growths in this vintage: just 55 per cent, balanced by 40 per cent of Merlot with the other five per cent coming from Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

The wine was well-coloured: a little denser than Latour, with little brick-red as yet. It began rather quietly in the glass, like a singer clearing her voice, but after five minutes the aromas were everything one hoped, in harmonious style: red fruits as well as black, with suede, cream and mushroom – indeed none of the first growths had advanced quite as far into a ‘mature wine’ spectrum of scents as had Margaux. When fully on song, after about 20 minutes, it was aromatically the most commanding of the four Médoc peers, though it didn’t hold in the same way as some of the others (Lafite, Haut-Brion). The palate was fresh, pure, dancing and chic, full of the same aromatic nuance that the aromas had sketched out, and very deft and precise in style: never a false step, never a hair out of place. Perhaps there was a tiny touch of greenness driving some of that freshness, but this was far from being a blemish. The wine was liked in Shenzhen, with one second place and two thirds. Robert Parker scores the wine at 91 but I would give it 94. (12.5%)

Haut-Brion 1998

This is by far the smallest of the five First Growths, and destined to remain so forever. Unlike its counterparts, it has no chance to swallow any obscure properties littering its vicinity – since that vicinity has long since been concreted over. Its 48 ha, though, is still over six times larger than the largest of Burgundy’s Grand Cru monopoles (Clos de Tart at 7.5 ha): there’s plenty of market clout there. And it has an extra 200 years of history as a fine wine compared to its First Growth peers.

The advantage of a tasting of this sort is that it underlines just how unique and different Haut-Brion is from the other Left Bank First Growths. Its way of ripening, its fruit expression and the grain of its tannins are pitched in a different key: there’s a dry refinement which the others don’t have. Even if (as in 1998) you have the impression that Haut-Brion is riper than the other four, and even if its tannins seem firm under analysis, there is nonetheless a lightness, a shapeliness, a slenderness and a quickness to it; the other four, even Margaux, are always a little wider in the beam and on the tongue. Haut-Brion can be almost essence-like.

Its terroir is more different than you might think to those of the Médoc. The gravels are finer, and the croupes top out at a slightly higher altitude (27 m compared to 16 m at Latour); there will certainly be sub-surface differences, too. We are much further, here, from the wild Atlantic, and there is no Gironde estuary nearby, either, just the lazy Garonne, so the qualities of reflected light and seaside moderation are less pronounced. The urban location is a significant warming factor: Haut-Brion is usually the first of the Firsts to pick.

This is an outstanding wine, as you might expect from a year in which Merlot was favoured — and a site where the Cabernets ripen earlier than in the Médoc. The vineyard plantings favour the Cabernets by a slight margin (45 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 per cent Cabernet France compared to 40 per cent Merlot), yet in 1998 the final blend of this wine has by far the highest percentage of Merlot of any of the First Growths: 60 per cent, together with 40 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon. That is, by the way, a higher percentage of Merlot than at Angélus, Ausone or Cheval Blanc in 1998 — yet all of those wines seem more “Merlot-like” in terms of their overall wealth, comfort and amplitude. This underlines an important point: what we assume to be varietal character is often, rather, a sense of place. Yes, there’s more Merlot here – but it’s Haut-Brion Merlot: a different beast to Merlot at Cheval Blanc, at Ausone or at Angélus.

It’s still saturatedly deep in colour, with exciting scents of animal fur, hung game, cooked plum and roasted meat, freshened with tea leaf. Despite the ripeness, it’s vivid, lively, even incisive wine, dartingly deep but in no sense wide, with intense, essence-like flavours which recall the aromatic analogies. The tannins are grippy without thickness; there’s just a hint of brown sugar to balance out the dry refinement and the lively, lunging acids. There are many years ahead. Robert Parker gives it 96+, though his note seems more enthusiastic than his score; I would give it 98. The wine won one first, one second and two thirds in Shenzhen; and one first place and two seconds in Nanning. (13%)

Translated by Sylvia Wu / 吴嘉溦

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