Old (Very Old) Vintage Bordeaux Tasting: Time Traveling with Decadence
by Ken Gargett
“Time traveling with decadence”. That’s the perfect description of the incredible extravaganza known as the annual tasting in Scandinavia, which saw an absolute deluge of amazing wines, so many of them a century old, give or take.
Each of these wines really deserves an entire column to themselves, but sadly time and space prevent it. Instead, they are all a bit bundled together, though I can’t promise that a few won’t escape and receive some of the scrutiny they deserve down the track.
The tasting was not solely about Bordeaux. We saw wines from all around the globe, some superstars among them. Champagne we have touched on, but how about DRC Romanee-Conti from 1900 and 1923 as well as their 1943 Richebourg, 1918 Barolo, Napa wines from Beringer from 1936 and 1945, Vega Sicilia Unico 1921, a couple of venerable old Yquems from 1918 and 1876 (and 2016 – there were more contemporary wines as well, of course), Madeira from 1900, 1800 and 1789 – the list goes on (yes, all winelovers are allowed a little vinous bragging every now and again, so forgive me).
And I reference Neal Martin’s excellent new book, “The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide – 150 years from 1870 to 2020”.
In all, we tasted eight Bordeaux from the 1800s, and another seven that were over a century in age, and more than twenty between 75 and 100 years of age.
Yes, enough for any lifetime. Of course, there were some failures. A magnum of Chateau Ausone 1945 that was badly corked was enough to reduce some of us to tears.
A few others were simply past their best, a little too tired. But among them, some truly extraordinary wines. There were plenty of stellar younger wines, as well, but I have drawn the line at anything after the 1940s.
I have been asked several times if the event was not excess personified, that it was simply too much and unnecessary. Possibly, but our host is an incredibly generous man and loves opening the bottles he has sourced over many decades amongst his friends and fellow winelovers. I can’t think of an argument that tops this.
I mentioned Martin’s book earlier as he has written a superb guide to the region and especially the vintages. I thoroughly enjoy his writing and he has neatly tied in events, films (such as were available), and music, showing us that wine is part of a much bigger mosaic and that we really can get a little tunnel vision when it comes to great bottles. He devotes notable space to all of these.
The details below are nothing like the order in which the bottles were served to attendees, but it makes for a convenient segregation.
All wines were served blind.
As always, with wines of this age, relying too much on any notes is fraught with danger. There is a saying – no great old wines, only great old bottles. A friend took it further – no great old bottles, only great old corks.
The first of the Bordeaux from the 19th century to be unveiled was from 1868, a creditable effort from Pichon Lalande though certainly it had enjoyed better days. A little broad and short, but I think it can be forgiven. It falls outside Martin’s designated years, so it gets no event or music.
So too, the Dufort 1869. Also drinkable, but lacking any intensity and exhibiting hints of caramel. It seems that even great Bordeaux does have a lifespan.
We looked at a pair of wines from 1884, the superb Chateau Palmer and the nearly as good Chateau Margaux. The former a classic cedary, complex, mature Bordeaux and the latter, smoky notes with good persistence. The vintage received mixed reviews at the time. The first roller coaster opened on Coney Island (you’d have to think that something more noteworthy happened, but perhaps it was a slow year).
From 1887, Chateau Beycheville was stunning, full of life and alluring fragrances. A wonderful experience. An extremely hot vintage. It was the year that Greig wrote his Violin Sonata No 3.
1889 Pontet Canet. Quite what business a Fifth Growth had in producing a wine so truly spectacular as this is a bit beyond reasoning. A real cigar box note here and tobacco leaves. It reminded me of a great Partagas cigar.
There was still elegance and unbelievable length. Martin notes that the vintage looked like being a top one, but changes in the weather ended that.
Apparently not for Pontet Canet. It was the year of the opening of the Eiffel Tower and Mahler’s Symphony No 1.
Montrose has always had the reputation of a wine that has great longevity and we saw that for ourselves with the 1892. Woodsmoke, cherries, chocolate, and leather. Secondary flavors had certainly taken over but the wine was in great condition. A revelation and proof as to the aging ability wines from this Chateau possess. It was not a highly regarded vintage.
Of far more importance is Martin’s event, the very first Ashes cricket match between Australia and England (of course, no chance that this would be mentioned had Australia not emerged victorious – for those who do not know the legend, the contest is referred to as the Ashes as England was in such shock that the bails, the little bits of wood that sit on the stumps, were ceremoniously burned and the ashes place in a small urn, the subject of surely the longest international sporting battle and still the most important).
The final year of the 1800s, 1899, was a hot year but some superb wines (also great in Sauternes). The 1899 Mouton Rothschild was a star. Tobacco leaves and rose petals but wonderful elegance and life. It was the year in which the Second Boer War started and Elgar premiered the Enigma Variations.
Those bottles over the 100-year mark, but not from the 19th century, included, from the very start of the 20th century, the 1900 Gruaud Larose (curiously in a one-liter bottle). Complex, balanced, fragrant and with silky tannins. Blackcurrants to the fore. Incredible to be in this condition after so many years.
It was a great vintage and this shows through with this brilliant bottle. Sigmund Freud published his ‘Interpretation of Dreams’, although it was hardly an overnight success. The 600 copies originally printed took eight years to sell.
A 1900 Chateau Branaire was also thoroughly impressive, with finesse, elegance and lingering persistence. A great vintage indeed.
1911 was a tiny vintage, but reputedly a very fine one (wonderful in Champagne). The 1911 Margaux was still hanging in with warm earth and animal skin notes. Quite smoky. Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize while Irving Berlin wrote ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’.
A dismal Clos Eglise 1917, although it was perhaps not quite as disastrous as Martin’s event, the Russian Revolution. The 1917 Mouton Rothschild fared far better, with cassis and chocolate, power, and length. Cracking stuff.
From 1918, the Chateau Margaux impressed with straw, cigar box and compost notes. Excellent length. A very good wine, though not a great one. A small and variable vintage. Elmo Lincoln starred as Tarzan in an early film of Edgar Rice Burrough’s hero, while Holst gave us ‘The Planets’.
1920 has always been a vintage that has received mixed reviews. Martin does note a magnificent 1920 Lafite, which suggests he had a better bottle/cork than we managed. Ours was only just holding together. Perhaps it was appropriate that it was this year which saw the introduction of Prohibition.
In the category of Bordeaux younger than a century but still venerable (my rather arbitrary cut-off point being the end of the 1940s), we looked at the 1924 Margaux, a 99-year-old wine which was still in great condition. Florals, leather and notes of Cohiba cigars. Martin describes it as a so-near-and-yet-so-far vintage. He also tried the Margaux and, on this occasion, seems our bottle was the preferred one.
This was the year in which Hubble discovered the Andromeda galaxy and George Gershwin wrote ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.
Martin notes the 1924 Latour as the star of the vintage. Our bottle would provide further compelling evidence of this. Superb old Bordeaux, seamless and long.
1928 was a great vintage but sadly, nothing could save our Chateau Certan. The year Walt Disney introduced Mickey Mouse and Mack the Knife made an appearance.
1929 is a truly legendary vintage around most of the planet and perhaps especially so in Bordeaux. For me, the Cheval Blanc 1929 was perhaps the greatest Bordeaux of all we tasted.
Fragrant, silky, elegant, and amazingly alive, this is a wine that dances across the palate. Wow! Martin’s event was less exciting for many, the Wall Street Crash, while Louis Armstrong sang ‘Ain’t Misbehaving’.
The 1929 Calon Segur simply reinforced the quality of this year. Such amazing power and great length.
The 1934 Gruaud Larose was in excellent condition, with hints of cedar, truffles and some serious complexity. It was a famous year for this Chateau, deservedly so. Cole Porter sang ‘I get a kick out of you’, while Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed and killed in Louisiana.
1937 La Conseillante. Martin notes this as the last decent vintage before 1945 and one of only two good ones from the 1930s (the other being 1934). It was simply one of the great wines of the day for us. In stunning form with years ahead of it.
Cherries, strawberries, tobacco leaves. The freshness was phenomenal. Martin notes the Hindenburg explosion, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain. Also from 1937, a Pichon Lalande, which was drinkable but a little tired and vegetal.
Martin describes 1938 as a year of ordinary wines, lost in the fog of war. It was the year that Superman first appeared in the comics, while Ella Fitzgerald sang ‘A-tisket, a-tasket’. The Latour we tried was all saddle leather and bay leaves, a little too rustic. Drinkable, yes, but hardly great.
The 1938 Cheval Blanc was similar. Again, pleasant but lacking length and exhibiting little finesse.
A 1939 Mouton Rothschild, the less said about it the better. The War began and The Wizard of Oz was released.
1945 is a legendary vintage, once described as a gift from the Gods. The 1945 Evangile showed just how special it was. Still opulent and focused, a glorious wine. one of the greats. The Gruaud Larose 1945 was even better. Mindbogglingly good with incredible complexity.
The 1945 Beycheville had a touch of oxidation but under that, power and concertation. It was, of course, the end of WWII. The tragedy of the magnum of 1945 Ausone has been recorded above.
From 1947, the Margaux was a star. Complex, and with great length. Notes of pepper, coffee beans and delicatessen meats. A hot year but one where the best are still superb. Frank Capra produced ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, while the first UFO was allegedly found at Roswell in the USA. The 1947 Carbonneaux was seriously impressive with ripe cherries and warm earth.
From 1948, the famous La Fleur, but sadly it was in poor condition and offered about as much interest as whatever else was happening that year, which did not seem quite so interesting enough to record.
Finally, just sneaking in under my arbitrary cut-off, 1949 and the Cheval Blanc. If any wine topped the 1929 Cheval on the day, it was this one – incredibly opulent. Martin talks of how good a vintage it is, but gives the opulence to 1947, seeing 1949 as exhibiting more class. This was intense with such length and balance.
Truly glorious stuff. 1949 was the year Orwell published ‘1984’ and Sir Alec Guinness appeared in ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’.
I am all too aware that readers (and myself) are extremely unlikely to encounter many, or possibly any, of these wines again. It is rather, a look back at what was, and hopefully included a little fun with Neal Martin’s events, music, and film.
Time traveling decadence all round.
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