FIRST GROWTH SHOWDOWN – 1985 AND 1995
It is always an event to taste one of Bordeaux’s first growths, but to taste all of them next to each other from the same vintage is a rare privilege indeed. Even better when that vintage is a stellar year like 1985, which Michael Broadbent described as “one of the most perfect vintages, for drinking now and for keeping.” And so it was that a group of twenty or so dedicated followers of claret assembled in the Roberson cellars to compare the ’85 Grand Vin from each of the five first growths and their second wines from 1995 (another great year). As one would expect, it proved to be an illuminating evening of beautiful wines and animated conversation.
There had been only one spanner in the works in the build up to the tasting and that was the sheer difficulty of tracking down the 1995 Petit Mouton. The inaugural vintage of Mouton-Rothschild’s second wine was 1993 and the first few vintages were made in small quantities and it proved nigh on impossible to find anything that was at least a decade old. We managed to track down the 1994, which although from a weak vintage would at least give an indication of the character of the wine.
FLIGHT ONE - 1994 PETIT MOUTON
We tasted the first wine on its own as it was not really fair to compare it with the ‘95s, but in actual fact it equipped itself very well and the entire group was suitably impressed with its concentration and youthfulness. 1994 was a very average vintage, but there are plenty of good wines out there for those who don’t have a vintage chart mentality.
Great producer + poor vintage = (relative) bargain.
FLIGHT TWO - 1995 BAHANS HAUT BRION, 1995 PAVILLON ROUGE DU MARGAUX, 1995 CARRUADES DE LAFITE, 1995 LES FORTS DE LATOUR
This was a lovely flight of wines that whetted the appetite for what was to come. We kicked off with the Bahans, which had a beautiful nose full of dark fruit and minerals. On the palate there was layers of flavour that were all wonderfully precise and very clean, a great illustration of why Robert Parker feels that Bahans is one of the top one or two second wines in Bordeaux.
From there we moved on to the Pavillon Rouge. A more complex nose here with rich damson fruit leaping from the glass and a vague medicinal note lurking in the background. Above all this is a silky wine with beautiful texture and loads of black fruit on the palate - it was no surprise to learn that an unusually large proportion of the wine was Merlot in ’95.
Next up was Carruades de Lafite, and almost all of the group were left disappointed with what was the most expensive wine of the flight (and in general the wine with the fastest growing price in the world for the last two years). The nose was attractive, with plenty of dark fruit and a meaty, savoury quality that was promising. Unfortunately the palate was clunky and slightly unbalanced, with acidity that seemed out of kilter with the rest of the wine. It wasn’t universally disliked, but the majority of the tasters were left unimpressed.
The final wine of the flight was Les Forts de Latour and here was a wine that eclipsed the Carruades in every department. Like the second wine of Lafite, Latour’s offering is taken predominantly from vineyards separate to the main estate (and source of the Grand Vin) and can be looked at almost as a Grand Vin in its own right rather than merely a second wine made from declassified fruit. And ‘grand’ it certainly was with a beautiful nose full of blackberries and black cherries with a savoury quality that was reminiscent of good beef stock. On the palate it was delicate and soft but with genuine presence, silky mouthfeel and great balance.
When the votes were cast the tasters deemed Les Forts de Latour to be the winner (9 votes), with Pavillon Rouge (6 votes), Carruades de Lafite (2 votes) and Bahans (1 vote – which was me!) bringing up the rear.
FLIGHTS THREE-SEVEN - 1985 MOUTON ROTHSCHILD, 1985 HAUT BRION, 1985 MARGAUX, 1985 LAFITE, 1985 LATOUR
Then it was time for the main event. We took each wine individually rather than tasting them all at once, as is befitting their status. Mouton is the junior member of this elite club, having only been promoted to 1er cru classé in 1973 and it was the first wine tasted out of the five.
And what a start! The nose was absolutely stunning, jumping out of the glass and full of classic Bordeaux character. Masses of sweet black fruit with graphite and pencil shavings, layered on top of toasty oak and a beguiling hint of sweet spices. The palate was plump and juicy with very luxurious texture that made it fabulously moreish. A very showy wine that was warmly received by the group, one of few criticisms being that it didn’t quite have the length of finish that was expected.
The Haut-Brion followed and here was a wine that really split the group. We were met with a quieter nose that the Mouton (which is perhaps unsurprising) and the Haut Brion was showing a more developed character with a more cooked fruit character. It was very soft on the palate and while many of the group were left waiting for something extra, some of the tasters were seduced by the beautiful balance and elegance. Personally I felt that it lacked a little stuffing in the mid-palate, but it is undeniably a charming wine.
As we moved on to the Margaux the group immediately noticed a far tighter and more concentrated nose with lots of primary dark fruit. The palate was elegance in a glass, with satin-like texture and wonderful concentration that promises many more years of development ahead. The sweet black fruit was layered over chocolate and minerals and it seemed to combine the opulence of the Mouton with the softness and elegance of Haut Brion.
1985 was a ‘comet vintage’ (Haley’s comet in this instance) and the Lafite was the only one of the wines to denote this on the bottle. Apparently the atmospheric conditions that accompany a comet improve the quality of the harvest, although how much empirical evidence there is for this I don’t know. The ’85 Lafite was quite subdued on the nose, although there was a very mineral aspect to it that reminded me of pencil lead. The fruit was there although it was somewhat quiet, which prompted some of the audience to question whether the Lafite would ever come out of itself and live up to its billing. Personally I think that it will continue to improve, but even now it is a wine of obvious class and great breeding, if not the sumptuousness of the Mouton or Margaux.
The final wine of the evening was Château Latour, scored the lowest of the five by Robert Parker (just 88 points). The nose reminded me instantly of the Les Forts de Latour, with an appetising combination of blackberries and gravy (well, appetising for me but then I am from Manchester). The palate had good weight, with punchy fruit and a creamy texture that showed off more oak that the others. Again the group was split, with many feeling that the Latour was a little hefty and cumbersome in comparison to the elegance of some of the others.
The votes were cast, and the clear winner was Château Margaux (14 votes, including me). Haut Brion (2 votes), Mouton and Lafite (1 vote each) picked up the other votes and poor Latour ended up with nothing. A full report has been sent to the relevant authorities and we anticipate a reclassification on the basis of our results, with Margaux being promoted to king of the grand crus. Well, perhaps not, but tasting the wines next to each other in this fashion was certainly an illuminating experience and the entire group was very impressed with how different all of the wines were from one another. Their individual personalities were fascinating to compare, and 1985 proved to be an ideal vintage in which to make the comparison – all the wines are drinking beautifully right now.