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My annual cellar bash: claret 1962-1994

by Tom Cannavan, 08/99

Not that I only have one tasting in a year you understand: this is just the major event, a chance for me to pull together wine-loving friends and regular tasting pals to make a dent in my cellar and enjoy dinner. Glasgow blessed us with fine evening weather, so in the garden we enjoyed the gorgeous Amontillado del Duque from González Byass or a glass or two of the beautiful Riesling Scharzhofberger Spätlese from von Kesselstatt. The tasting itself was of 12 wines, which were served blind in pairs. The theme was Claret, specifically wines of the Médoc. Though my guests didn't know it, each pair of wines was from the same year. I had also included a couple of unannounced "ringers": wines that were not Clarets. At the end of the tasting guests were asked to give a single vote, for most enjoyable wine of the night.

   Flight One - 1994

The first 3 flights, spanning years 1994 back to 1985 and including one ringer, the Californian Opus One, a joint venture between Château Mouton-Rothschild and Robert Mondavi made with a "Bordeaux blend" of grape varieties. Wine number 6, the Beychevelle was my favourite wine of the night, and second favourite on the group vote.

Château Mouton-Rothschild, 1st growth, Pauillac
Distinctive nose of strong, creamy cappucino. Beneath there is dark, sweet berry fruit and an earthy note over a ripe blackcurrant base. Quite minty and intense. The palate is rich too, with full body and a plenty of glycerine. The long, spicy finish is perfectly focused. Really lovely, concentrated stuff that should show well in 5 or 6 years once the dominant oak that is driving it currently mellows a little: there is plenty of fruit. If I had any criticism to offer it would be a little lack of complexity, but given the vintage this is a terrific effort.

Opus One, Napa Valley California
The nose is much more nuanced at this stage. Quite herbal (rosemary?) with dark chocolate and very vivid aromas of incense, wild cherry and blackberry fruit. There is a tart raspberry edge to the palate and layers of flashy complexity. It is long and the finish quite tannic, also showing up toasty oak. Structured and full of interest, though spotted as a ringer by almost all the tasters for the forward, exotic nature of the fruit. Unusual style, and very interesting.

Flight Two - 1989

Château Meyney, Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, St-Estèphe
Rich ruby colour. Big, vegetal nose, quite stinky with cabbagy aromas over a core of sweet blackcurrant. Lovely sweetness of black fruits on the palate. Quite an odd combination of mellow, plummy fruit, old cedary oak but a really grippy edge on the palate that suggests this still needs time. Starting to drink well, but better in 3 or 4 years.

Château Chasse-Spleen, Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, Moulis
Similar colour. But a much firmer presence on the nose, cleaner and more sharply delineated cassis and coffee-bean oak. The palate is gripped by tannins but there is a lot of depth to this wine. Very muscular and brooding, giving little away - needs several years still.

Flight Three - 1985

Château Léoville-Barton, 2nd growth, St-Julien
Nice solid ruby, just browning. Text-book pure, blackcurranty Claret with with pencil-shavings and little dill-weed nuances. On the palate it is just packed with superbly clear, cool cassis fruit . Fantastically smooth, rich and seductive, beautifully focused and delicious into a long finish. Tasted many times, this is drinking very well, but has plenty of time ahead of it.

Château Beychevelle, 4th growth,St-Julien 1985
Open-knit and attractive, this wine has a gloriously seductive and hedonistic style that I love. Opulent, rich fruit, tremendous sweetness, medium-body and fragrant, plummy flavours. This is not as easy-going as first impressions suggest however, as fine silky tannins add depth and a wonderful balance keeps it focused and sharp into a long, refined, classy finish. Gorgeous and drinking beautifully, it also shows no sign of fading so should drink well for many years. An old favourite of mine.

   Flight Four - 1982

The last 3 flights, spanned years 1982 back to 1962 and again included one ringer, the Berberana Rioja Gran Reserva which I've often thought was quite Claret-like on previous tastings. However, in this company it stood out like a sore thumb, though wasn't entirely outclassed. Wine number 9, the '71 Margaux was the group favourite, my third favourite on the night.

Château Branaire-Ducru, 4th growth, St-Julien
Pale ruby, browning. Animal nose with good perfume of brown-sugar, meat, game and toasty oak. A full, glycerine-rich palate and plenty of spicy red plum fruit, the tannins are soft leaving it rich and full into a moderately long finish. Drinking better than my previous bottle a couple of years back, and really very attractive. For drinking over next 3 years or so.

Bodegas Berberana, Spain, Rioja Gran Reserva
Very pale ruby/amber. Sherryish nose, quite sweet with lifted red fruits, tea, dried-leaves and vanilla. Palate is old-woody and has quite high acidity, but there is plenty of cherry fruit with a nicely herbal edge, some depth of leather and game and an overall sense of balance. Good length. Spotted by almost all the tasters as a ringer, but good enough to earn one vote as most enjoyable wine of the night.

Flight Five - 1971 & 1970

Château Margaux, 1st growth, Margaux 1971
Medium/pale ruby/orange. Pale, browning rim. There's an immediate aroma of metallic tinned tomatos that is off-putting, but then a lovely sweetness of fruit emerges, with light raspberry and cherry aromas. Very attractive. On the palate the wine is now quite thin, but it is at that wonderful, ethereal stage of old clarets teetering on the brink of dry acidity, but still enough sweet, elegant fruit and cedary, old-wood finesse to make for absolutely lovely drinking. This definitely needs to be drunk-up, but a good bottle like this one is just delightful. 6 out of 12 voted it wine of the night.

Château Montrose, 2nd growth, St-Estèphe 1970
Amazingly deep, solid ruby/brown colour. Nose is very closed. Some blackcurrant. The palate has plenty of grip still, the fruit is there - berries, and blackcurrant, also some tobacco and earthy nuances, but all very and ungiving at the moment. Acidity is quite high, but not excessive. Tannins really are firm. This is astonishingly tightly-wound for a 30 year old wine. If the fruit outlasts the tannins it might be great in 20 years - a very difficult one to call.

Flight Six - 1962

Château Léoville-Poyferré, 2nd growth, St-Julien
Pale, old ruby colour. Sweetly edged bouquet of cedar and ethereal old fruit. The palate has absolutely delicious fruitiness, of red berries and juicy blackberries. This has warmth from toasty oak and real structure: it's almost quite fat, with body and a lovely sweetness of fruit and enveloping, soft flavours that persist into a long finish. Utterly lovely old claret. Mature. My second favourite on the night.

Château Duhart-Milon-Rothschild, 4th growth, Pauillac
Slightly richer ruby colour, though browning. Lovely perfume from this wine, some leathery, vegetal notes and berry fruits. A smoky note too. This wine at first seems more youthful than the Léoville-Poyferré, but the tannins are very old and mellow and the acidity now a little troublesome. Again, it has charm and is perfectly enjoyable, but needs drinking.