Great wines (or at least expensive ones) tend to build up in the cellar waiting for ‘special occasions’ in order to be drunk. Eventually they become so numerous as to present an urgent problem. Perhaps the best solution is that expressed by Stephanie to Miles in Sideways concerning the fate of his ‘cellar treasure’; “When you open a ‘61 Cheval Blanc, that is the occasion.” And so it came to pass that after threatening for years to line up a night of First Growths, one Noble Rotter decided that September 11, 2006 was the occasion. Racks were raided, unopened cases were breached, and in an act of extraordinary generosity, the following wines were celebrated. In keeping with this spirit, no wines were corked, and none were dropped (all double decanted just before dinner):
1955 Moulin Touchais (Anjou)
Honey & nougat nose, overlaid with a nutty maderization. Wood spice & cinnamon notes. Palate follows the nose to a degree, weighty, with almost an amontillado aspect to it. The aging has bequeathed some pungent notes and the wood-like flavours, all of which is interesting; but the single biggest effect of the oxidative effects has been to truncate the finish somewhat, which is a pity. Otherwise well preserved by the acidity, which is still ragingly high, this is a privilege to drink, although its time has definitely arrived, and there’s nothing to be gained by holding it longer.
1993 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Paulliac) [12.5%]
A quite young and fresh nose of sweet oaky spice and currant-like fruit, with an earthy, faintly fungal-but-clean note. The palate is dry, moderately low in acid, with medium weight powdery tannins. Cedary flavours abound, there is some stalkiness leading to a very dry finish of moderate length only. Do I detect a dip in the mid-palate as well? A tricky vintage; although the wine is very pleasant, at its core the balance doesn’t quite seem right, and I fear the tannins will outlive the fruit. Probably best to drink sooner rather than later.
1989 Chateau Cheval Blanc (St Emillion) [13%]
1988 Chateau Cheval Blanc (St Emillion)
These wines were served as a pair, and perhaps confirmed the relative merits of the two vintages. The 1989 offered a medium intensity aged nose of mushroom, graphite and a pleasant compost note. The palate was dry, with low-medium acidity and medium weight powdery tannins. There are leafy-but-ripe developed fruit flavours, with cedar & wood-spice which follow the path indicated by the nose. This wine is not exactly lavish; it’s somewhat boney and restrained, yet the balance is good across the palate, tailing off a little at the very back. With a medium length dusty dry finish, and medium weight body, it would appear to be at, or just past, its peak. Dropping back a vintage, the 1988 is more obviously aged; the faintly exotic-spiced nose here only slightly compromised by a metallic note. It’s still seems promising, though. On the palate, it’s similar in profile to its younger sibling, except all the structural elements seem wound back a notch, with the result that it begins to look a bit thin. Drying tannins are the final remnant on the palate; drink up now is what this wine tells us. Consumed with the first course of the meal both wines lifted considerably, as you’d expect with top claret, so it’s not too much of a trial…
1989 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Paulliac) [12.5%]
This wine’s bouquet still has some primary fruit notes to offer – there’s more than a dash of rich cassis aroma among the accompanying smoke and tobacco nose. Very rich indeed after the preceding Cheval. The palate is big too; an arch of ripe flavour stretches in an even sweep from front to back. Here the development takes centre-stage, and the aromatic fruitiness subsides beneath the strong chalky tannins and muscular acidity. Wonderfully balanced, with a long even finish, this is a classy wine which drinks beautifully now, but will happily take more cellaring. Was the early runner for wine-of-the-night, and only lost a few supporters along the way.
1988 Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande (Paulliac) [12.5%]
Here’s a modest interloper second growth come along to play with the big boys. And, it must be said, making a pretty good fist of it. The nose is of developed cigar and leather, some violets, a dash of cassis; powerfully intense correct Paulliac. The palate is impressive too; acidity, dusty tannin and overall body all at mid-to-high levels. There are developed red fruit flavours, drying furry tannins, and an almost slippery-glycerol feel to the texture; upholstered and rich. A long, even and weighty finish caps off a super tasting experience; richer still with food, this wine should have plenty of time left before any lessening occurs. Bravo! (And, crudely perhaps, the bargain of the night!)
1988 Chateau Margaux (Margaux) [12.5%]
1988 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Paulliac)
1988 Chateau Latour (Paulliac) [12.5%]
And so to the triptych of First Growths from 1988. Facing these wines, having read about them so often, it is difficult to avoid seeing them in their stereotypical guises. Suppose the Margaux is ethereal and fragrant, the Mouton rich and flamboyant, the Latour stately and majestic; is this how the wines speak, or is it subliminal channeling of the writings of Broadbent / Parker / Robinson? The only certainty is this: it’s a privilege to be able to find out!
The Margaux, at least, confirms some of the clichés. The nose is developing, certainly, not quite fully mature, and biased more toward floral than fruit. Difficult to pick out specific aromas; violets perhaps, some reddish flower…? It’s medium weight – turns out to be the lightest of these three wines – with fine powdery tannins and a drying finish, but with a sort of persistent exotic spiciness I can’t quite pin down. Less cedary than the Paulliac wines, the leaner body doesn’t inhibit the length of finish, which is pretty good. At sixteen years it does seem ready to drink; matches a treat with the grainfed tenderloin, it must be said. Very good, then, but not quite life-changing.
And the Mouton is definitely rich. Overtly ripe blackcurrant fruit dominates the nose just the way you’d expect. The palate shows more cigar/cedar tones and remains highly tannic; dry, dusty and astringent; the fruit plays second fiddle to the structure here, almost to the extent of going missing in action (pardon the mixed metaphor). Only that makes me query any further improvement for this wine, and suspect if it will just plateau at this stage. A medium+ length finish concludes the show.
By far the youngest nose of the night belongs to Latour. Here the blackcurrant aroma has an inky darkness to it, but is still restrained and brooding. Acidity is not prominent, but tannins are; fine but powerful, they almost threaten to swamp the fruit; I get a real sense that this is the first wine of the night that actually needs more time to show at its best. The palate feels compact but powerful, the finish is medium-long, tight, and with just a little dip in the mid-palate. Intense and full-bodied, overall it’s a very impressive effort, and will be perhaps the most interesting of the night’s wines to revisit in 5 year’s time. At full bloom of maturity I reckon this will be quite a drink!
1987 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Paulliac)
This was a tough year in Bordeaux; along with 81 and 84 these are the wines that provided all that classed-growth drinking throughout the nineties. At nearly 20 years old, this is the first red wine tonight that’s showing signs of serious age. The low-medium intensity aromas are of woody sawdust, cigar box – everything is very secondary here, and there’s not much fruit to be found. The palate still offers plenty of medium weight chalky tannins which have softened out, medium acidity, but it’s really of light-medium body now, and the finish is a little short. In its favour, it’s still quite well balanced, but its future appeal is strictly for those who like their wines over-the-hill. Drink up.
1983 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Paulliac)
An interesting wine. An archetypal old Bordeaux. Lead pencil, cigar box, old wood. A dry, medium bodied wine, still strong in tannin but not much else, which offers some astringency on the back palate, with little remaining fruit. Good enough with beef and a rich sauce, but for all its character and even typicity, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed, considering the vintage. Baron Philippe spent nearly fifty years lobbying to get Mouton promoted to 1st growth status (in 1973); the irony is that since the renaissance of Ch Margaux in 1978, Mouton has largely been (excepting the 82 & 86 vintages) last among equals. I suspect this is the kind of wine which reinforces that attitude.
1986 Chateau Raymond Lafon (Sauternes) [13.5%]
A hyped estate with prices to match, which, on this showing, still has some work to do. A deep gold, here is a very aged nose of nougat & marzipan, overlaid with a real patina of age. Like getting into a 60s Jaguar. The palate has lost much of its sweetness and become slightly bitter, there’s some volatility of acid, and a distinctly oxidised tone. Enjoyable enough in isolation, although clearly past its best, but it’s clearly upstaged by the next wine.
1983 Chateau Suduiraut (Sauternes)
Mid-yellow – gold, the offers developed secondary aromas of honey and apricot with moderate botrytis influence. The palate has plenty of acid still, with medium sweetness remaining, and caramel & crème brulee-like flavours. Medium weight, this has attractive balance across the palate, with a healthy length finish. A very enjoyable old wine, and a fitting end to a great dinner.