This past October, I had the very good fortune to attend a meeting of the tasting group to which I belong, the Dead Guys Wine Society, that featured more than four decades of great Bordeaux. What stood out to me above all else was just how brilliantly several of the less-highly-regarded vintages showed that night: Proof, once again, that the exclusive focus on only the so-called marquis years is a fool’s approach to the region. There’s a reason this part of the world is so universally beloved, and its reputation wouldn't be what it is today if it’s only worthy wines were from famous vintages.
That having been said, the bottlings from the classic years showed as brilliantly as they’re supposed to. The moral seems clear: Drink more Bordeaux, regardless of vintage or prestige.
We started with a magnum of 1992 Pichon-Baron, a smoky, earth-driven, rubber-scented red that still had some time on it: An auspicious beginning. From here, we moved on to a 750ml bottle of La Mission Haut-Brion 2001, a feminine, concentrated beauty with notes of bright berry fruit and seamlessly integrated acid and tannins. Château La Lagune 2000 showed all the expected perfume of that vintage, as well as more lovely red fruit. Pichon-Lalande from the same legendary year exploded with concentrated toasted Indian spices and roasted fennel seeds. Lynch Bages 2002 was another smoker, with added aromas of roast beef, flowers, and a mineral- and raspberry-driven palate. The masculine Pichon-Lalande 2004 reminded me of nothing so much as tucking into a blueberry pie by a bonfire: Delicious.
We then popped the cork on one of the most controversial wines of the past decade: Château Pavie 2003, which was at the center of a serious debate between Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson back in 2004. Its ultra-modern, super-extracted character wasn’t anywhere near traditional Bordeaux in style, but it was still identifiably Right Bank, and oozed spicy blueberry compote, hot bricks, sage, Colorado-wrapper cigar, and tannins that still promise another decade or two of evolution.
Back on less-fraught ground, we moved to Château Leoville-Barton 1999, whose birch-bark and blueberry nose led to a palate of still-dusty tannins and earth that will continue to mature for another 12 - 18+ years. Château Montrose 1996 was perfumed, intense, and spoke of smoky maple syrup, menthol, and eucalyptus. On the opposite end of that vintage’s spectrum was Château Pichon-Lalande 1996, which smelled like the most evocative horse barn perfumed with sage, eucalyptus, and more blueberry. Château Lynch-Bages 1996 found itself at a far earlier stage in its evolution, the nose more giving than the remarkably tight palate, the black raspberry, scorched earth, and bonfire still holding back a bit: This will be amazing in another few years.
Château Cos d’Estournel 1995 still has another 5 - 7+ years on it (if not more). Its smoke, charred Indian spice, and blood notes were framed by sappy black cherry flavors that made it go down almost dangerously easily. Unexpectedly, the Château Leoville-Poyferré from the same vintage was one of the wines of the night; its luscious, exuberant strawberry and rhubarb character made it impossible not to drink way too quickly.
Among a line-up of 1993s, the Cos d’Estournel was the smokier, creamier, plummier of the two, with the Ducru-Beaucaillou evoking early-autumn pine cones, high-cocoa chocolate, mint, and red cherry. Rounding out that excellent decade was Pichon-Lalande 1990, a savory, almost briny bottling with a seam of scorched earth running down the middle.
Moving back to the 1980s, Château Gruaud-Larose 1989 was a winner with its pretty notes of tea, spice, bricks, and black raspberries, all of these given good posture by tannins that were still remarkably young and persistent. A perfumed Pichon-Lalande 1988 spoke of purple berries, plums, and clay, and the Leoville-Poyferré 1982 was silky, elegant, and put the lie to the claim that the 1982s are on their downslide. I’d drink them sooner rather than later, but this beauty was still vigorous and elegant, with hints of rubber, cedar, vanilla, caramel, and lovely dried currants.
Moving on to a few First Growths, the Château Margaux 1993 was still a bit high-strung, with taut notes of raspberry and bonfire carried on a silky palate. Château Haut-Brion 1988, as expected, was a standout, its telltale stone character coming through with clarity, and framed by bright acid and and a roasted character to the fruit. Château Lafite 1987, if a bit on the light-bodied side, was still a spiced-cranberry charmer. Château Latour 1990 (a Wine Spectator 100-point wine) lived up to its reputation, exuding supremely well-integrated flavors of smoky mint, sappy cherry, minerality, and a balance as perfectly calibrated as any wine I’ve ever been privileged to drink.
The only place to go from there was to Château d’Yquem: The 1986, an ambrosial wine that oozed apricot, nuts, and frangipane, as well as a finish of the best rice you’ve ever tasted, and the 1975, a nutty, mushroom-rich treat with savory apricot notes woven throughout. It was a brilliant way to end a remarkable night.
Thanks to Scot “Zippy” Ziskind, of ZipCo Environmental Services and My Cellar wine storage, and the rest of the “Dead Guys” for a fantastic, educational, supremely fun night. And for digging so deep into their cellars for this amazing tasting.
Brian Freedman is a food, wine, and travel writer and wine consultant. He writes for John Mariani's Virtual Gourmet, Philadelphia Style Magazine, and the blog www.UncorkLife.com for Wine Chateau, among others. For more information on his work, or to contact him regarding consulting or speaking, please visit www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com. You may also read his new blog, The Food, Drink & Travel Report at www.FDTreport.com.