The 10 Médocs of my life

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🔓 Almost half a century of being moved by the great wines of the Médoc. A lifetime. Bordeaux’s greatest wine taster remembers. Selected moments, engraved emotions.

IT IS DIFFICULT, if not impossible, after forty-five vintages of regularly following the Médoc wines and hundreds of remarkable bottles that remain engraved in my memory, to single out ten of them without some injustice. If it had to be done, I might as well combine the great personal emotions of tasting with the historical development of wines which, over a century and a half, have expressed to the highest degree the strength of their origins and the skill of their production.

CHÂTEAU LÉOVILLE LAS CASES SAINT-JULIEN 2005 I owe a great deal to Michel Delon, who for thirty years was the most perfectionist of Médoc administrators. Back in 1982, he generously opened the doors of his estate to me, as well as those of his vision of his “great wine”, born on one half of the estate, the large enclosure adjoining the heart of Château Latour. He also gave me the opportunity to meet and see at work his oenological advisor, Emile Peynaud, founder of the modern French school of oenology, whose knowledge inspired my tasting. In the 1960s, his father Paul, with Peynaud’s help, produced wines that were more precise and distinguished than the First Growths (except Latour), which were not at their best. It was clear that from 1978 onwards, the cru had taken a real step forward in terms of purity of expression, which has never been denied since. For the 2005 vintage, I found many wines, especially on the right bank, weighed down by alcohol and too much new oak. Triumphantly welcomed by the international critics, I described them, with great injustice to an entire profession, as “truck driver wines”. And so they have remained. On the banks of the Gironde, on the grand enclos, and thanks to Cabernet Sauvignon harvested later, on cooler days, the microclimate specific to this sector has produced a wine of rare splendour that I consider to be Michel’s greatest success, heralding the extraordinary wines of today, overseen by his son Jean-Hubert, which benefit from global warming by gaining in body without losing any of their complexity or aromatic nobility. In a recent vertical tasting, this 2005 showed the same full body and incomparable character of a magical terroir, with the ideal complement of a small percentage of Cabernet Franc that marvellously harmonises with the density of the Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s hard not to admire this ideal blend of vigorous tannic support, straightforward texture and fresh bounce on the palate, which it shares with Château Margaux but with different, slightly more strictly earthy aromas.

CHÂTEAU MEYNEY SAINT-ESTÈPHE 1929 Another legendary vintage from the 1920s that I never imagined I’d taste when I started out in the trade. When it was born, contemporary observers considered it to be exceptional because of the magnificent ripeness of the grapes and the velvety, supple character that set it apart from the somewhat abrupt monumentality of the 1928. For forty years, all the tasters gave preference to the 1929, while predicting that the 1928 would live longer. I have to agree with them, and the five or six 1929s I was lucky enough to taste between 1990 and 2010 (including three Premier Crus Classés) were showing signs of decline, with the exception of this marvellous Château Meyney, an ideal example of the perfection of construction and harmony of flavour of the Médoc’s greatest wines, certainly better preserved than those of the vintage’s Premier Crus Classés. The cru’s terroir benefits from the same Gironde-side microclimate as its immediate neighbour Montrose. The vineyards have been fortunate in not being drained as much. The upper part of the vineyard has retained the layer of blue-grey clay that its illustrious neighbour lacks. We don’t know the exact grape variety of the château, but the Cordier estates – of which it was a part – were among the best cared for in the region. Once again, the snobbery of the trade and collectors leads to absurd price differences between wines of perfectly comparable potential. Today, the release prices of this marvellous cru are more than enough to compensate wine-lovers who are frustrated by the ridiculous price rises that have deprived them of some of the “stars”.

CHÂTEAU LAFITE-ROTHSCHILD PAUILLAC 1988 I haven’t always been lucky with my Lafites. Despite very complimentary tasting notes, many vintages from the 1960s and 1970s showed disappointingly lean constitution in the bottles I opened. I waited a long time before finding what I had dreamed of as a young wine-lover: the heights of finesse and distinction that had placed it at the absolute summit of Pauillac and Bordeaux in the 19th century. Even the 1982 and 1990 never matched the magic of 1988 for me, a type of in-between vintage that gives priority to the grapes and the terroir rather than the climate. With exemplary consistency (I bought a case of it en primeur, which is no longer possible at today’s prices), each bottle I opened was seductive, with an incomparable refinement of texture and cedar aromas of textbook perfection, as Pierre Casamayor, one of my tasting masters, would have said. This type of wine gives you the feeling of hovering above any oenological contingency, in a naturalness that combines unbounded flavour and rigorous construction. In short, everything we love about our great Cabernet Sauvignons. In recent vintages, these incomparable qualities that have been absent for so long will be found again, perhaps with even more substance. And we didn’t have to wait more than twenty years for it to blossom.

CHÂTEAU MOUTON-ROTHSCHILD PAUILLAC 1953 On two occasions, I’ve been lucky enough to do very thorough vertical tastings of this prestigious cru, which defies the decades to reach, around its thirtieth year in bottle, a unique expression of sensual, rigorous Cabernet Sauvignon that could sometimes be mistaken for a great Pomerol. This is particularly true of wines made in the 1940s and 1950s because of the way the winemakers of the time extracted tannin. For example, the incredibly dense 1945 has become a legend. At Mouton, I consistently preferred the 1947 and especially the 1949, as did the teams at the château, for their extra harmony, but my personal favourite (on both occasions I tasted it) was the 1953, the centenary year of Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild’s purchase of the estate. This vintage has a particular, almost Burgundian, finesse and grace, and a silky texture that is very different from that of the 1945, more modern in the tactile sensations it delivers, and which we find in recent vintages, with even greater regularity. This marvel is a sort of Mozart conducting Parsifal.

CHÂTEAU MONTROSE SAINT-ESTÈPHE 1964 The 1964 vintage had a strange destiny and, until the end of September, a marvellous climate, far superior to that of 1961, which, according to the old winegrowers, will not be seen again until 1982. The race for perfect ripeness betrayed a harvest that was too late. The rains at the beginning of October ruined the promise of the unharvested Cabernets. Strange lorries were even seen bringing suspect wines into the winery. Or, let’s say, from elsewhere. Fortunately, the fear of scandal, like the Evian agreements, put a definitive end to practices that are hard to imagine today. For example, there are the absolutely magnificent wines harvested before the rains on the early terroirs on the banks of the Gironde. And those diluted by the rains. Montrose is one of the best examples of the first category, with the mineral and saline tension typical of the cru and a harmony of texture that it did not often have in this period when it was harvested too early, which resulted in wines that were rather austere at birth and have always remained so. Tasted in magnum, its finesse is even more evident and foreshadows the magnificent wines produced today. You’ll never tire of the cedar and sweet spice notes of this type of vintage. Especially as there were none of the little phenol deviations that would mark the wines of the 1980s. Much healthier corks still held up perfectly in 2015. I would have liked to describe the magic of this incredible 1921 vintage, but I would have been accused of being too snobbish or too lucky.

CHÂTEAU SOCIANDO-MALLET HAUT-MÉDOC 1982 As we all know, the 1855 classification is protected by its historical character, which has the effect of freezing the development of the vineyards and preventing talented producers on terroirs as remarkable as those of the crus classés from receiving the reward for their merit. The Graves de Baleyron, in Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne, the heart of the Sociando Mallet vineyard, is a perfect extension of the great terroirs on the banks of the Gironde, from Latour to Montrose, with an exceptional microclimate where the river’s water mass regulates temperature contrasts, allowing the grapes to escape the spring frost and ripen a week early. This ensures regular harvest volumes, as the blossom rarely runs. In 1982, I was lucky enough to spend a large part of the summer in the Médoc and to share a good eight weeks of ideal weather, alternating bright, clear sunshine – vital for the finesse of the aromas – and welcome rain, without the scorching temperatures we’ve been experiencing for the last ten years. I was indebted to my friend Jean Gautreau for this stay. At that time, people were just beginning to notice the class of his wine, which still came from more than 80% of the deep gravel of Baleyron. Its magnificent 1982, as energetic and refined as the greatest wines from Pauillac or Saint-Julien, did much to make it the most sought-after non-classified cru of the end of the last century and, in any case, the most remarkable value for money in the whole of Bordeaux. It still holds up perfectly today in my cool cellars on the banks of the Seine, unlike the batches that suffered a severe cold spell in Jean’s cellars in January 1985. I remember the unequalled brilliance of the best vats of Cabernet, tasted in March 1983 in the company of Jean’s remarkable oenological adviser, Michel Couasnon, who has done so much to perfect the wines of the many crus in the north of the Médoc and whose modesty has meant that we don’t talk about him enough.

CHÂTEAU LATOUR PAUILLAC 1952 Wine-lovers are not always aware that until the 1970s, it was technically impossible for a Médoc cru to release the entire harvest of a vintage in less than six months. As a result, there are often considerable differences between two bottles from the same year, particularly when small batches are bottled. For older wines, this leads to a lottery that deconstructs certainties about the hierarchy of vintages and their prices at auction. About five years ago, for my birthday, some Chinese friends honoured me by opening two bottles of Château Latour bought from the same Swiss collector. A 1961, one of the most legendary vintages ever made, and a particularly good one at Latour, and a 1952, the year I was born. That day, this monumental 1952 had everything that makes this vintage a benchmark. Still dark in colour, the nose was grandiose, with spicy Cabernet notes that still retained the fruit of its birth, followed by a mineral and ferruginous note that literally sculpted the texture and ensured a long finish. The 1961 showed itself to be more tired and, above all, less imposing in its substance, with a diminished sense of great terroir. That’s the way life is. This should discourage true wine-lovers from rushing into vintages declared great by a few experts in the service of the trade. With Latour, there are plenty of fine, less speculative vintages to choose from.

CHÂTEAU LES ORMES-SORBET MÉDOC 1961 Despite all that has been said, 1961 is not an exceptional vintage in terms of climate. It took a frost during the flowering period in May to reduce the harvest by more than half, and in some cases by as much as two-thirds. The small number of bunches took advantage of the sunshine – which was much cooler than in 1947, 1949 or 1959 – to produce particularly concentrated grapes, which lacked the harmony of the 1982 or 2009. Sadly, the speculative trade had acquired the unfortunate habit of buying the crop ‘on the vine’, as early as March. Many producers harvested less than they sold. It’s understandable that, to satisfy their buyers, they sometimes lengthened their wines. Especially as the light, plentiful 1960 sometimes harmonised with overly powerful 1961s. The true type of 1961 has always had a unique pulpy character. One of the most brilliant and little-known successes of this vintage is to be found in the northern part of the Médoc, which is scandalously neglected these days by the local wine trade. In 1862, the Boivert family bought some fine vines on the limestone plateau of Couquèques. Jean Boivert’s father, who taught me so much about the true traditions of the Médoc, gave preference to Cabernet Sauvignon, which was rare in the area. In 1983, his 1961 (which, alas, now seems to be no more than a memory) had a strength, a brilliance and a velvety texture that equalled and even surpassed what I tasted in many of the crus classés. Hats off to this deserving family, whose wine has rediscovered all its individuality in recent vintages, at an infinitely reasonable price. Needless to say, 1961 was the last sale on stumpage in history.

CHÂTEAU PALMER MARGAUX 1928 Before the Merlots planted under the influence of the Miailhe family typified the cru as we know it today and made it so admired, Palmer was undoubtedly planted with more traditional grape varieties. Or at least closer to that of Château Margaux. Tasted on several occasions, this grandiose 1928 has always left me with unforgettable memories. The last one was during a vertical tasting at the château in the presence of Thomas Duroux, its brilliant director. But there was also the estate’s legendary 1961, which has done so much for its glory. While this vintage, for all its generosity of texture, was beginning to show signs of fatigue, this was not the case with the 1928. On every criterion of aromatic nobility, wine building on the palate, strength and originality of expression of the best Margaux soils, it crushed the 1961, but also most of the other vintages, by its naturalness and grandeur. As we know, the 1928s were admired for their potential right from the start, but they took a long time to make, longer than the 1929s. Many of them now have minor analytical deviations from the formal perfection of our best recent wines. In the case of this bottle, there were none, which says a lot about the skill of the men in the cellar at the time. I know it’s hard to believe in so much superiority or authority in such an old wine. But if you’re lucky enough to drink one that’s so well preserved, you’ll quickly realise that the great Médocs are a glory of our viticulture. It hardly deserves the stupid French bashing it receives from our astonishing elites.

CHÂTEAU MALESCOT SAINT EXUPÉRY MARGAUX 1870 It’s always a mini-drama to open the last bottle of a vintage. Jean-Luc Zuger generously wanted to share this moment with a few friends, as the crowning glory of a great vertical tasting of the wines from this highly respected château in Margaux, that cultivates discretion in the image of its owner. We all admired the clarity of expression of the recent vintages made with the advice of Michel Rolland, wines that are modern in their energy, their volume on the palate and the beautiful ripeness of the grapes. Those prior to 1982 were less so. The vegetal Cabernet Sauvignon of the time was not redeemed by rustic tannins in their stiffness. Then came the magnificent 1870. We all knew the mythical character of the vintage, both abundant and ripe. But we had no idea to what extent the current vintages were in fact its worthy successors. The texture and smoothness were intact and perceptible, the hallmarks of a perfectly ripe harvest. Yet the mystery remains. How were they able to extract so much strength and nobility with such rudimentary means compared to our technology and oenological knowledge? And, above all, to give it a stability capable of defying more than a century of bottle ageing? It’s a blow to our self-esteem. You only have to read the texts of the time, or slightly earlier, to admire the agronomic perfectionism of a generation of producers who drew their inspiration from countless learned societies, taking advantage of the birth of the experimental science so dear to Claude Bernard. The 1855 classification was the consequence, not the cause, of this perfectionism. Just like the demands of the brokers and merchants of the heyday of the Chartrons. Far from the routine carelessness that I unfortunately witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s. The magic of Cabernet was still in full effect, with noble aromas of cedar and a straightforwardness that harmonised all the moments that we so often separate, but which in great bottles unite aromas and body, entry, middle and finish. It was a great moment that only reinforced what we have a right to expect from these terroirs.

 

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