In my latest collaboration with Hong Kong wine merchant Ginsberg+Chan, we take a journey through half a dozen wines from two mid-Eighties vintages of Bordeaux’s “Second Growth” wines.
Ah, Bordeaux. For hundreds of years, along with Burgundy it has been the quality benchmark by which all other red wines are measured against. But the best bottles will make you wait; in most examples of top quality “Claret”, you need at least a decade before the elements of fruit (and other flavours), tannin, alcohol and acidity start to properly unfold and integrate to produce a symphony of a glass.
So in conjunction with Ginsberg+Chan, we pick out six 30-year-old bottles in order to take a snapshot of this ageing process. Following the stellar Bordeaux vintage of 1982, lauded as among the greatest ever, most harvests in the 1980s suffered from poorer-relation syndrome: often patchy in quality or early maturing, notable for a loss of fruit, buyers had to be cautious in what they chose. Fortunately we have some excellent examples, all from the Deuxieme Grand Cru Classe, i.e. those wines deemed a “Second Growth” as per the Bordeaux 1855 Classification, a process requested by none other than Napoleon III.
Led as ever by our host, the effusive and gregarious Roberto Gallotto, we taste two simple and straightforward flights: 1986 and 1985.
Château Léoville Las Cases
A touch cloudy but a lovely purple hue (above, right) makes the wine look a lot more youthful than it is. On the nose, beautifully balanced fruit, still fresh although not particularly prominent. More of a branch-like, woody character upon first sniff. Very attractive. Palate excellent, tannins soft but just the right amount of coarseness — quite subtle. Good acidity. On the group’s return to the glass, fruit started to unfold in the form of dried strawberries. Finish not particularly long but a fantastic wine. Aged Bordeaux is really on-song when like this.
Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande
Very clear and clean to the eye, indeed the best clarity of the three ’86s. A much more pronounced nose, but again it is the rustic woodiness and savoury notes jumping out the glass — soft smoky oak, leather and graphite all there. To taste is where this one gets interesting: more power than the Las Cases, with a strong acid thread and a tannic structure that has yet to fully develop. There was an astringency present, leading to some bitterness which manifested itself in the form of smoky Chinese tea on the finish. For a wine already 30 years old, fascinating to think you could leave for another decade and it would still be absolutely fine (albeit with a further loss of fruit). One for the purists.
Château Cos d’Estournel
Big expectations from the group going into this one, given Cos’s lofty status as a First Growth pretender, and its proximity (just 2km, across the Chenal du Lazaret) to the estate of Hong Kong’s favourite blue chip wine, Château Lafite. Sadly, it was a bit of a let-down.
To start, similar in depth of colour to the Las Cases, with some cloudiness. As with the previous two, fruit was only lingering in the background, but this one carried a beautiful herbal character. “Dried mint”, a taster mentions. There’s also a wonderful aroma of soft liquorice, taking me back to my childhood. The palate is where the disappointment started for everyone though; perfectly pleasant with nothing out of place, acidity and tannin fine, but it really lacked any degree of body, depth or complexity, with only faint dark fruit for company. As another member of the group said, “it’s drinkable”. We all thought that summed the glass up pretty well. A shame given the high hopes.
Château Rauzan Segla
A touch of oxidisation upon first inspection (smoky bacon?), although not enough to knock things out of kilter. Brambles and countryside fruit gives this wine a certain rustic charm, something which carries through to the taste. This wine’s most notable feature was its acidity — very refreshing, and despite the black fruit struggling to be prominent, led to a really satisfying finish. As such, this Rauzan would be make for a terrific accompaniment for richer red meat dishes.
Château Leoville Poyferré
A seriously elegant wine on our hands here: easily the most perfumed of the six glasses, dried lavender and fresh herbs danced with rocky minerality and sweet, jammy red fruit. What a nose, oozing class. Continuing on the palate, nothing exalting but with everything in place, unlike the ’86 Cos it went on to have a long balanced finish that left you going back for more. Just a brilliant example of old Bordeaux, with hints of its previous life: the Cabernet Sauvignon’s blackcurrant leafiness came through, as well as the smooth red fruit of the Merlot, and rustic power of the Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. I hadn’t tasted Poyferré before, but my goodness this wasn’t bad as a first try.
Château Cos d’Estournel
Can the ’85 redeem Cos in this particular showing? Well, yes and no. First up, the nose was very different to its younger brother. In keeping with the quality of the vintage, it seemed more youthful: displaying a toffee note, as well as fresh plummy black fruit, this one had a lot more personality out of the glass. To taste it was also a lot richer than the ’86, the weight of alcohol carrying through well on the finish (where sweet spice made a nice appearance). Overall though, it still did not carry real purpose, and ultimately left the group scratching their heads at a perceived lack of quality. I’d factor in the high hopes everyone had going in, given its modern-day status, but on its merits, and compared objectively to the other wines in the flight, it disappointed.
A really good tasting of some fantastic old Bordeaux. Overall, the 1986 Léoville Las Cases was the most popular (as is customary in our #winewednesdays events, the group take a vote at the end of the evening), garnering lots of hands. I loved it too, but the wine I left thinking about the most was, without doubt, the ’85 Léoville Poyferré. That nose was elegance personified, its palate offering an intriguing glimpse into its past while still showing how good it was in the present day. I’d be a fool not to buy a bottle or two.
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Thanks to Ginsberg+Chan for hosting such a good tasting. Specializing in partnerships with brilliant producers and those hard-to-find bottles, be sure to go and visit their friendly crew next time you’re on QRC: