Conclusions from the tasting:
It is not every day that 21 people share in a Bordeaux wine made exactly 100 years previously, pretty well to the month (October 2016). And of the 12 wines tasted on the night, spanning 1916 to 1972 and (for the Bordeaux) none great vintages, no less than 9 of the wines were rated top wine of the tasting, by at least two of the tasters. Tasters therefore found much to enjoy, despite a less-than-stellar wine-list. This was highly satisfying. Details in the text.
Five exciting wines from the 100-year-old claret and other old wines tasting, from the left: 1916 Ch Mouton (now Ch Mouton Rothschild), 17 +; 1953 Bodegas Bilbainas Vina Pomal Reserva Especial, 18 ½; 1962 Ch Gruaud-Larose, 18 +; 1966 Bodegas Bilbainas Vina Pomal, 19; 1969 Ch Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 52, 18. No two people would score wines this old in the same way, so much more than usually, the scores reflect one person's considered view, on the night.
Another quite different but extraordinary conclusion I drew from this tasting arose from preparing the handout. One pays so much (in New Zealand dollars) to subscribe to certain favoured wine websites, that one has the unreasonable hope they will always have something to say about the wines one is interested in, on the day. But for this tasting, I found to my astonishment that Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding at jancisrobinson.com had not reported on a single one of the 12 wines, presumably simply because (one assumes) the French wines are from lesser vintages. One has to ask, therefore, how winewriters leading such privileged lives, with their tasting fare so biassed to the finest wines from the finest vintages, year after year, can in fact relate to the the needs of the average taster in the street. I guess the short answer is, they do not seek to – as admittedly even I don't. But there is an underlying concern, all the same, and it overflows into the way, the level at which, wine scores are pitched. Robinson and Harding are notoriously 'hard' in their marking. Sometimes you feel this 'waiting for nirvana' approach is becoming unrealistic. By the same token it has to be said that Robert Parker, notwithstanding his well-documented hang-ups about / predilection for size and ripeness in wines, has nonetheless over the years been a good deal more catholic in his approach to, and documenting of, lesser vintages. Long may this continue.
The Introductory material given to participants is now incorporated in the 'admin' section of my wine review format, below.
The Invitation – The Wines:
In vintage order this time. There are no second bottles. If anything is severely corked / deteriorated, we will use Reserve bottles. For this tasting, the old wine will be presented, irrespective, to taste a 100-year-old wine, even if defective.
1916 Ch Mouton (now Ch Mouton Rothschild), Pauillac, then Second Growth
1962 Ch Gruaud-Larose, Saint-Julien, Second Growth
1966 Ch Mouton Baron Philippe (now Ch d'Armailhac), Pauillac, Fifth Growth
1966 Ch Pontet-Canet, Pauillac, Fifth Growth
1967 Ch Haut-Brion, Pessac, First Growth
1967 Ch Lynch Bages, Pauillac, Fifth Growth
1972 Ch Haut-Brion, Pessac, First Growth
SPAIN – RIOJA
1953 Bodegas Bilbainas Vina Pomal Reserva Especial, Rioja
1955 Bodegas Bilbainas Clarete Fino Vieja Reserva, Rioja
1966 Bodegas Bilbainas Vina Pomal, Rioja
1966 Hardy's Cabernet Sauvignon Bin C626, McLaren Vale & Coonawarra
1969 Ch Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 52, Nagambie Lakes / Goulburn Valley, Central Victoria
A word of explanation about such a wine-list. First, how do you price it. The wine-searcher valuation on the old Mouton (now Ch Mouton Rothschild) alone is $4,382 – and some of the others are not insignificant. Secondly there is a risk the bottle will be corked or otherwise defective. Cork issues were much less common then, when handwork and pride in workmanship were still the norm. Thirdly, what do you put alongside it. Some 1966s seem the obvious first thought, being exactly a 50-year stepping stone. And Mouton-Baron-Philippe is closely related.
To counter-balance the corked risk, the tasting will include probably the finest wine in my cellar, 1953 Bodegas Bilbainas Reserva Especial. Those who have tasted this wine agree it is is astonishing. Should both those disappoint, I have taken out 1970 Ducru-Beaucaillou, an exquisite wine, but frail now. It will not be part of the tasting, if the 1953 is good. So one way or another, there should be something memorable.
1916 was not a great vintage, so for the other wines, it seems appropriate to collect some lesser-year oddments from the cellar, and present those too. So – three first growths (though a careful member of our tasting group has reminded me that Mouton was not a first growth, in 1916 !), 7 Bordeaux all told, the youngest 1972, and 3 Riojas the youngest 1966. And then, a couple of old Aussies, from the dawn of straight cabernet wines in Australia, one 1966, the other 1969.
The logistics of preparing old bottles with corks in variously difficult (and time-consuming) states are such that I must decant them at leisure, at home. My decanting approach is extraordinarily conservative, compared with what I have seen others do, but there is still the risk such old wines may have over-aired by the time of the tasting. Conversely ... I also clearly recollect that the sister bottle of the 1916, tried about 1986, was much better the next day. So as always, it is damnably hard to know how much air to give a wine.
Over to you. I hope this tasting will intrigue you.
Broadbent, Michael 1980: The Great Vintage Wine Book.
Mitchell Beazley, 432 p.
Broadbent, Michael 2002: Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine.
Harcourt, 560 p.
Hanson, Anthony 1982: Burgundy. Faber and Faber, 378 p.
Johnson, Hugh 1966: Wine. Thomas Nelson, 264 p.
Parker, Robert 1991: Bordeaux. Simon & Schuster, 1026 p.
Evans, Len 1973: Australia and New Zealand Complete Book of Wine. Paul Hamlyn, 528 p.
Halliday, James, 1985: The Australian Wine Compendium.
Angus & Robertson, 576 p.
Lake, Max, 1966: Classic Wines of Australia. Jacaranda Press,
Parker, R 1991: Bordeaux. Simon & Schuster, 1026 p.
Penning-Rowsell, Edmund 1985: The Wines of Bordeaux.
Penguin, 606 p. Various Editions 1969 – 1985.
Read, Jan 1982: The Wines of Spain. Faber & Faber, 267 p.
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker alone for this tasting
THE WINES REVIEWED:
# The price indications below are current values, from wine-searcher, not the original purchase price.
Glowing ruby and garnet, a glorious old-wine colour, just below midway in depth. The quality of bouquet on this wine is extraordinary, wonderful sweet saturated berry and lightly vanillin oak, like some heavenly amalgam of great burgundy and fine Margaux (such as Ch Palmer), but slightly more vanillin. Flavours are no less beautiful, berry dominant over oak in contrast to a number of these wines, the most perfect supple fruit: rich, reasonably concentrated yet subtle, not at all heavy or oaky in texture. This is sensational wine, and it has taken 50 years for it to to become so. Hugh Johnson, in his seminal work Wine, published in 1966 by Thomas Nelson, spoke of the value which the traditional wines of Rioja and Dao then offered. I am running two sections together here, but the nett impression was this: The growers of Rioja are longing for someone to appreciate what they have to offer They are certainly to be counted among the world's best red wines There is no question of better or less good vintages, as they only issue vintage wine when they are happy about it. Recent vintages are rarely seen, because the wine needs a long time in wood and bottle to mature it. It starts life black and hard, as French wines used to be before economics started to interfere with them [ They ] have a quality which is found in the wines of Bordeaux which is not to say that they are like claret the quality of hardness when they are young, the result of thick dark grape skins full of tannin Hardness and blackness do not sound particularly attractive qualities. Commercially they are reckoned to be a dead loss. In a way they are good signs: they mean that the wine should last for years, eventually becoming (probably, if not certainly) very much better than a softer and paler wine ever would 20 or 25 years will probably see it at its best. Since these wines cost so very little they are the obvious ones to lay down in large quantities for anyone who has the space, to see eventual results quite out of proportion to the outlay.
For its first 30 years, this wine was simply 'sturdy'. How vividly I recollect it being patronised by wine aficionados of the 1980s in Wellington, when I proudly ran it in blind tastings. And now, at the 50-year point, this wine has reached its full flowering. Thank God I bought two cases of it, after first assessing it, influenced as I was by Johnson. I have to say, forlornly, that the Vina Pomal of today does not offer the same potential. This wine is yet another treasure imported by one of the most discriminating New Zealand wine merchants of the New Zealand 1960s and 1970s, the late Dick Maling of Christchurch. No hurry at all, the wine is absolutely stable over 24 hours. I hope some readers still hold this wine. Five people rated it their top or second-favourite wine, and slightly more thought it French than Spanish. GK 10/16
Also glowing ruby and garnet, if anything faintly more ruby than the 1966 Vina Pomal, well below midway in depth. With a little breathing, bouquet is rich, sweet, wonderful berry still, but so entwined with vanillin oak it is hard to know where one stops and the other starts a tremendous volume of bouquet. Flavour is not quite as exciting as the bouquet, the wine being richer than the 1966, but not quite so vibrantly alive. It is as if all those years in barrel are finally catching up with the wine, as the fruit fades a little, and the oak is now becoming more noticeable. The intriguing thing is, you can hardly tell it is American or French oak after all these years: both have vanillin when all is said and done, it is just that Quercus alba has more. All that said though, the wine is wonderfully alive at 63 years of age, as shown by its expanding in the glass from decanting time through to presentation time, and then remaining unchanged for many hours, more than 24, thereafter. The fruit on the aftertaste is astonishing. I suspect this wine is approaching the limits of its plateau of maturity, but there is no hurry. Hopefully some Christchurch wine enthusiasts who remember Dick Maling will still hold the wine. This was clearly the favourite wine for the group, eight people rating it their first or second wine. Hardly anybody thought it Spanish, highlighting how the American oak factor melds away with time. GK 10/16
Ruby and garnet, the colour quite extraordinary, showing more red than most of the wines, only the 1967 Ch Haut-Brion being fresher. Bouquet is classic mature claret, clear-cut cassis browning now, clear cedary oak more noticeable than the Tahbilk, all fragrant and enticing. Palate follows perfectly, except the oak is just starting to gain the upper hand, as the fruit fades. The balance is not therefore quite so perfect as the Tahbilk, the nett impression being of a slightly tannic wine, but still amazingly 'youthful' for 54 years of age. And the purity of berry flavour is a delight, whereas the trace of essential oil lets the Tahbilk down very slightly. Three people rated it their top or second wine, but whether it was French or Spanish was a moot point. This presumably reflected some doubt about the relatively high new oak. The wine is fully mature, with nothing to gain by holding it longer. GK 10/16
Garnet and ruby, clearly less red than the Spanish three, above midway in depth. Bouquet has a subtle but distinctive essential oil component to it, reminiscent more of lavender or salvia than mint or eucalyptus. Not everybody saw this character, so it was subtle. The dominant note on bouquet is lovely soft ripe plummy fruit, not really cassis, somewhat softer and perhaps reflecting the percentage of cabernet franc in the vineyard, which was not recognised at the time. Bouquet leads to a rich ripe palate showing exquisite balance of berry to oak reflecting the lack of new small wood in the Tahbilk winery then. Leaving aside the aromatic note on bouquet (and palate), the wine showed the kind of fruit one would hope for in a ripe year Bordeaux, but only the 1962 Gruaud-Larose came close to matching this wine. These old Tahbilk Special Bin wines are national treasures, showing an emphasis on style and beauty (in wine) elsewhere soon to be displaced in the Australian wine industry by a more technology-led approach to winemaking. Not everything Roseworthy and the Australian Wine Research Institute have contributed to the Australian wine industry has been positive for those who seek beauty in wine. Fully mature, but no hurry in a temperate-climate cellar. Two people rated this their top or second wine in the tasting, and three-only thought it might be Australian highlighting how distinctive and international the quality of the wine is. GK 10/16
Attractive ruby and garnet, right in the middle for depth, fractionally the deepest of the three Bodegas Bilbainas wines. This is the third of the Spanish trifecta that scooped the pool (for me) in this old wines tasting. Bouquet is deeper, richer, and more oaky than the other two Bilbainas, yet still soft, vanillin and enticing. Flavour is conspicuously less rich and more oaky than the 1953 Pomal Reserva, and more oaky and less exquisite than the 1966 Pomal. On this wine, there is a suggestion of the citrus and vanillin character characterising American oak, as so often found in Rioja wines. Palate shows the same wonderfully soft tannins of tempranillo-dominant wines, now all at perfect maturity. Finish is fractionally shorter than the other two, the vanillin rich oak finally dominating over berry, yet the nett impression is still pleasing. I liked this wine more than the group: contra the other two Spanish wines, nobody had this as their first or second place, and it was more clearly recognised as Spanish. GK 10/16
Palest garnet, mostly tawny amber in fact, the faintest flush / remnant of palest browning red to the very centre, much the palest wine, like a 25-year-old Volnay. Bouquet is clean, sweet, and cedary, alive and appealing but not exactly showing any berry. Palate is astonishing for two things: the wine has remarkable body / 'fruit', and there is no hint of stalks or high acid. It takes a certain amount of imagination to find ghostly browning remnants of cassis, since cedar is the main smell and flavour. But the wine has such remarkable body and presence in mouth, it is in fact not difficult to feel there is berry-fruit as well. Tasters seemed well-pleased with the condition and taste of the wine, no less than four (of 20) ranking it their top or second wine of the tasting. Certainly my anxiety in opening a bottle valued at more than $4,000 was replaced by sheer joy on finding there was no hint of TCA or spoilage, nor any noticeable VA. Ullage of 44 mm was less than the 1972 Haut-Brion or 1962 Gruaud-Larose, both being old-pattern bottles with long necks, so not strictly comparable.
It is worth recording how the wine opened up, for those who one day may wonder how long to breathe an old wine. Right from the moment of removing the original cork (which had the consistency of colby cheese and threatened to fall into a thousand crumbs as soon as one started to lift it: an Ah-So ended up the preferred tool), the dominant smell was cedar. My decanting is extremely conservative, the wine being simply slid as gently as possible from from its bottle into a burgundy bottle, for this wine cutting off the pour at 675 mls in the receiving bottle (pre-marked). The wine is not touched again until the tasting. The dregs are assessed immediately following decanting, along with the 11 others. By the time of the tasting, say five hours later due to the vicissitudes of the original corks, travel etc, the wine had developed a ghostly but clear-cut berry quality, lightly fleshing-out the sweet cedar. The wine was a delight, at that point. That harmony held for several hours, still being apparent by the time I was home, and had written more detailed notes near midnight, say 10 hours after decanting. 24 hours later that berry quality had faded, and the wine was now pretty well the same as its first opening, sweetly cedary, perhaps a little softer, still with remarkable body / texture in mouth, but now a cedar edge showing slightly more. The key to the longevity of this wine must be the very high dry extract / richness, reflecting a low cropping rate. A great experience. GK 10/16
Garnet and ruby, the deepest wine. Bouquet is the most out-of-line in the set, there being a clear aromatic oil component much less subtle than the 1969 Tahbilk. It is a bit harsh to describe it as euc'y, the aromatic quality after 50 years being more like very strong lavender. Behind that is surprisingly rich berry, nearly cassis but more browning plums, and cedary oak. There is much more new oak than the Tahbilk. In mouth this is the biggest wine, a lot of fruit, almost fleshy, and even at that time, there is added tartaric acid, making the palate spiky alongside the much more natural-tasting Tahbilk. In its sturdy way, it is in remarkable condition. Among the French, the 1962 Gruaud-Larose is by far the closest comparison, being just as rich but finer and less chunky. The last 1966 New Zealand McWilliams Cabernet Sauvignon (the only New Zealand wine of the time one could compare with the pioneering Hardy wines) I had a year or two ago looked light and acid, in comparison with this Hardy's. It is a great shame the Australian wine industry has not treasured the heritage of certain labels, such as this one. No hurry at all with this bottle, at the 50 year point, except the cork was not of great quality. Five people rated this their top or second wine, and more thought it French than Australian a great result. GK 10/16
Ruby and garnet, clearly the reddest wine, and the second deepest. Initial impression on bouquet is very flattering, clear-cut browning cassis, cedary oak then maybe is there a hint of stalk ? Palate and flavour do not follow quite so well, there being quite good berry, but then a rather phenolic / varnishy oak component (more than stalk) which makes the wine short and hard. Slightly elevated acid adds to that impression. Body and richness is better in a sense than the 1966 Pontet-Canet but then you start to think some of the apparent body is in fact chaptalisation. If only the oak were of better quality. The nett result is quite good for a 1967. Others were less critical than me, three ranking this their top wine, four all-told with second places, and it was clearly seen as French. No hurry with this wine, but it is on the decline. GK 10/16
Garnet and ruby, well below midway in depth. This wine was placed adjacent to the 1916 Mouton, in the hope some family similarity would show through. But bouquet was not the strong point of this wine, there being a clear stalky slightly rank component initially, almost hinting at TCA. In discussion with the Hawkes Bay winemaker who came down for this tasting, we ended up thinking, more under-ripe cabernet. And it dissipated. Palate is very much better, silky fine-grain and beautiful oak, almost cassisy berry (though faded) with less stalk than feared, the wine a classic lean 1966, showing exactly the style Broadbent so eloquently describes, though not a big wine. Aftertaste was particularly evocative, classic claret. Three people had this as their top or second wine, most thinking it French. Hard to score, the wine being smaller than the 1967 Haut-Brion, but showing considerably more finesse. Fully mature, but no hurry to finish up. GK 10/16
Garnet and ruby, midway in depth. This wine scarcely changes, over the years. Bouquet retains the slightly clogged / locked-up quality it has had right from first tasting in 1971, presumably reflecting a lack of both new oak and careful barrel maintenance, under the previous more-quantitative Cruse regime. Actual richness is quite good, and that impression continues into the taste. Perceived ripeness is excellent for the year if only the richness of flavour were not let down by hard and coarse tannins from the oak, plus some suggestions of brett. But at 50 years, you can hardly complain about brett, when the physical fruit remains so good. Nett impression is of a sturdy plain charmless wine, yet clearly quality bordeaux if that is not a contradiction in terms. Fully mature now, and on the downward slope. Nonetheless, three people rated it their top or second wine, and it was clearly seen as French. GK 10/16
Garnet and ruby, above midway in depth. Bouquet is clean but odd, showing both a confectionery note rather more than berry, and a phenolic quality, on a stalky base wine. Palate further emphasises the under-ripe stalky component, with a very phenolic edge. There is not much berry as such, more the hollow impression of 'fruit' from chaptalising, and some cedar. Total acid is on the high side, which coupled with the phenolic streak, gives a fairly negative nett impression. There is no comparison with the 1967 Haut-Brion. Nobody had this as their top or second wine. It is still perfectly serviceable QDR claret, in its style, but it should be finished up, with pizza, not with visitors. GK 10/16
Light garnet and faded ruby, the second lightest wine. On bouquet the wine shows great purity, but astonishing under-ripeness, total methoxypyrazine, exactly like the 1976 Montana Cabernet Sauvignon Peter Hubscher Reserve wine, from Marlborough. The under-ripeness is beautifully varietal ! Flavour is relatively good, in its leafy and very stalky way, reflecting very high-quality oak, skilful chaptalisation, and exquisite winemaking, but there is no hiding the green flavours and elevated total acid. Astonishing a First Growth would release this wine under their top label, so a highly interesting wine in one sense. Michael Broadbent's bottle must have been markedly less than ours. Nobody rated this their first or second wine, and it was clearly seen as French. Drink up. GK 10/16