Conclusions from the tasting:
This whole tasting (presented at Regional Wines, Wellington, in late August 2016) was a revelation, to me. With detailed background information presented to participants, summarising the views of Broadbent, Coates and Parker, I have never before felt quite so let down by people who have influenced me greatly. Particularly this was the case with Broadbent's assessment of the wines, the greatest surprise of all. I tend to think of him as almost infallible. But for the 1978 and 1979 wines, it is almost as if, having initially been quite kindly disposed to the two vintages, after a few disappointments he has taken a snitch to them, and then was hard-put to find good things in them in later years. Parker too seems to me to over-react, so much wearing his must-be-California-ripe hat, that some wines which are simply refreshing in a European context, and wonderfully fragrant and food-friendly, he pans. Whereas on this occasion, Clive Coates who I have always rather regarded as epitomising the previous / traditional English school of wine (waffle) writing, for these wines his words shine through loud and clear.
None of these wines was completely past it, as any casual reading of the compilation of tasting notes in the handout would suggest. And, the most recent of those tasting notes is 14 years before our tasting. They are not big wines, true, but there is far more to wine than simple size, weight, and impact. These wines pursue the small-is-beautiful approach, especially now, 37 or 38 years down the track. As such, they are infinitely more food-friendly than so many of the more highly-marked hefty and fashionable latter-day offerings. It is fair to say tasters derived much pleasure from them, nine of the 12 wines attracting at least one first or second-place vote from participants.
The top five wines from the 1978 / 79 Bordeaux Library Tasting: 1978 Ch Pichon Lalande, 18; 1978 Ch Leoville Las Cases, 18; 1978 Ch Palmer, 18 ½; 1978 Ch Latour, 18 ½; 1979 Ch Margaux, 18 ½ +. The remaining wines were clearly on a smaller scale.
In the notes which follow, the introductory 'admin' section for each wine gives the orthodox view. Preparation of the notes coincided with the Parker website being revamped, with temporary loss of access to older reviews. My excerpts may not best reflect what the site now has to say. This section is followed by my current evaluation, those views influenced at times by the 20 tasters the bottles were shared with. The wines were presented blind, and rankings were collected before IDs became known.
The Tasting Invitation:
Once upon a time, in the days before wines came to be rated on their size and weight, tasters were greatly intrigued by the two vintages 1978 and 1979 in Bordeaux. The 1960s and 1970s after the benchmark 1961 vintage had been variable, shall we say, with commentators desperately (it seems now) trying to find virtues in any half-decent year. And the better years were so widely spaced, for example 1970, then modest indeed till the tannic 1975s and hot-year 1976s. So the pleasantly ripe and 'typical' pair of back-to-back vintages in 1978 and 1979 attracted quite a lot of interest. Nowadays the 1979s in particular are seen as being on the small side, but the best of both vintages are still showing some charm.
This tasting will provide the rare even then, and much rarer now, opportunity to compare five of the best-known classed growths of the Medoc,
in matched pairs, 1978 vs 1979. This should give a great feel for the similarities and differences between the two years. To make up the 12, as a treat, we will have two First Growths, 1978 Ch Latour and 1979 Ch Margaux. This makes the tasting more expensive (but, I assure you,
valued well below wine-searcher), yet provides an opportunity to check two of our wines which even then were aspiring to be super-Seconds (or near-First-Growths), namely Ch Palmer and Ch Leoville Las Cases, and see how they measure up against the real thing. And any opportunity to taste Ch Palmer and Ch Margaux from the same year alongside each other iBs to be welcomed.
The 1978 and 1979 vintages:
The world was a cooler place in 1978, and the 1970s as a whole were particularly modest in Bordeaux. Broadbent rated the 1978 vintage ***(*) in his 1980 great book, (paraphrased) a late cool vintage saved by fine weather in late August through September into October.
By the 2002 edition he had re-rated it to ***. He considers 1978 better than 1979, where the (fortunately, again) dryer weather late in the season was much less extended. The 1979 vintage was too late for his first book, but in the 2002 edition he rated 1979 2 stars. Wine Spectator is not quite so severe, rating 1978 at 87: Drink, structured, fleshy and complex; and 1979 as 83: Drink, supple, fruity and delicate.
Where possible in the notes for the wines below, I have sought to give an early comment, Broadbent where available, then for this tasting I am adding in a Clive Coates' assessment, for though he is not as clinical as I prefer, he has tasted an enviable amount of Bordeaux ! Then finally, a Parker summary, to tap his now magisterial overview of the last 50 years of Bordeaux vintages. This step has highlighted how very individual and fraught wine-writing is: in the excerpts which follow, often there seems no hint they are talking about the same wine. So the old rule applies: there are no great wines, no fixed attributes in wine: each bottle is itself, after this passage of time. So every tasting like this is an adventure, setting out in the hope that certain bottles will be the very best they could be, having regard to their age ... now 37 or 38 years old.
Broadbent, Michael 1980: The Great Vintage Wine Book. Mitchell Beazley, 432 p.
Broadbent, Michael 2002: Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine. Harcourt, 560 p.
Coates, Clive, 2004: The Wines of Bordeaux. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 720 p.
Parker, Robert 1991: Bordeaux. Simon & Schuster, 1026 p.
Parker, Robert M., 2003: Bordeaux, Fourth Edition.
Simon & Schuster, New York, 1244 p.
www.robertparker.com ( all Robert Parker, for this review )
THE WINES REVIEWED:
Values given are current from wine-searcher, then the original price is given later in the 'admin' section, where available.
1979 Ch Grand-Puy-Lacoste|
1978 Ch Grand-Puy-Lacoste
1978 Ch Latour
1979 Ch Leoville Las Cases
1978 Ch Leoville Las Cases
1979 Ch Margaux
1979 Ch Montrose|
1978 Ch Montrose
1979 Ch Palmer
1978 Ch Palmer
1979 Ch Pichon Lalande
1978 Ch Pichon Lalande
One of the fresher ruby and garnet hues, just above midway in depth. It is the bouquet that particularly enchants on this wine. Here is all the beauty of a cabernet-led wine, (still) nearly violets florals on cassisy berry and remarkably youthful (considering), contrasting vividly with the more conventionally powerful Ch Latour. As you taste the wines, you realise that the Latour reminds of many Penfolds Australian wines, bowling you over with powerful oak but can you in fact taste the fruit as easily. Whereas this Margaux is essence of perfectly ripe cabernet sauvignon, and the oak is discreetly supporting, enhancing and lengthening the fruit, but never dominating. Simply a beautiful wine, not a big wine, but with some years in hand yet. Group results were interesting, none rating it the top wine, a couple their second, but interestingly, more thought this wine a First Growth than any other. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, nearly as fresh as the Margaux, but deeper, the deepest wine. Bouquet is powerful, but as already alluded to in the Ch Margaux review re the thought of oaky Penfolds reds, is the impact and power for the right reason ? So you taste carefully. The ripeness in the cabernet is fractionally deeper / riper than the 1978 Las Cases, but you just wish you could taste the cassis as clearly as in the Margaux. On balance the Latour is both richer and riper in its berry than the Las Cases, and despite the oak, the fruit simply cannot be ignored. Oakniks would rate this wine higher than the Ch Margaux. Plenty of life left here, even 15 years, but it is likely to become relatively more oaky. As is commonly the case with (beautifully) oaky wines, 6 people rated this their top or second wine. GK 08/16
Soft garnet and ruby, the second to lightest colour. This wine is simply extraordinary. It seems for the last 50 years I have been reading about venerable wine men (always men) confusing burgundy with claret: the notion seemed scarcely conceivable to me. But now I believe it. This 1978 Palmer has a floral / roses perfume like a slightly cedary Clos de Tart, followed by a supple silky palate which is simply grand cru Cote de Nuits. This is now a beautiful supple wine, soft, fully mature, delicious. No great hurry, though. Three people rated it their top wine, none second. A wonderful experience. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, the second deepest wine. Bouquet epitomises 'concept claret', more particularly the Medoc, with an incredible volume of cassisy berry and other dark fruits melded with cedary oak, wonderfully fragrant. Palate shows perfect balance for a medium-weight-only west bank wine, the berry softening the cedary oak and the oak lengthening the fruit wonderfully. But yes, you could wish for a little more plumpness / flesh, at this point, for the tannin is starting to show. Ripeness is near-perfect for temperate climate cabernet, not quite matching the top three. Fully mature, can only lose flesh now. Six people rated this their top or second wine. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, well below midway. Bouquet is not below midway, however, being voluminous, very fragrant but not quite perfectly correct. At first I thought the oak was a bit of assertive and unsubtle alongside the Las Cases cedar, but later I suspect it is Steven Spurrier's green-tinged fragrance coupled with quite strong oak which gives the wine so much impact. It is certainly one of the most concentrated, the palate being rich and satisfying, and long. Both the '78 Las Cases and this wine owe much of their bouquet to this fractionally under-ripe trait which both Parker and Broadbent comment so adversely on (and with which we are well-familiar in New Zealand), yet the fruit is good. You have to ask, would an equally over-ripe wine be so refreshing and food friendly. Fully mature, yet the concentration will allow this Pichon to live as long as the Latour, 5 15 years. This wine was well liked by the group on the night, eight people rating it their top or second wine. GK 08/16
Garnet and ruby, below midway. Bouquet has the lovely cedary oak that so characterises older generations of Grand-Puy-Lacoste, all much softer and less aggressive than the oak in the Ch Latour. In mouth there is pleasant ripe berry, but not anywhere near as concentrated as the wines marked more highly. Ripeness is fractionally greater than the 1979 Las Cases, but fruit weight is less. Nett achievement is of a classically-ripe mature claret, though those hunting for the character could still say it is a bit under-ripe. This will hold several years yet. One second-place vote. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, fractionally redder than the 1978 Las Cases, well above midway in depth. The 1979 Las Cases makes explicit what the 1978 merely hints at. There is a similar volume of clearly cassisy berry and lovely cedary oak, but the 1979 smells fractionally harder, firmer, and faintly stemmy. Palate confirms, a leaner wine, with now clear suggestions of stalky flavours, yet still showing good berry and balanced oak. The whole nett impression is still fragrant, reasonably gentle in its tannin structure, long-flavoured, and food-friendly. Fully mature, drying a little. No first or second places. GK 08/16
Garnet and ruby, deeper than the 1978, just above midway in depth. Alongside the extraordinary 1978 Ch Palmer, this wine is much more like the other clarets. As with the 1979 Las Cases, there is a taut firmness to the berry / oak interaction which hints at stemmyness, even though the wine is beautifully fragrant. Flavour is somewhat harder again than the 1979 Las Cases, and the descriptor 'stalky' now seems appropriate or hints thereof. Fruit weight is good, and the wine will hold this style for some years yet. It is markedly less ripe than the 1978 Grand-Puy-Lacoste, but slightly more concentrated. Cellar 3 8 years. Two second place votes. GK 08/16
Garnet and ruby, below midway. Bouquet is an amalgam of cedar and berry, very fragrant but like the Ch Latour (but on a much smaller scale), a worry that the oak is doing most of the talking. Palate however is quite a drop down from the wines rated more highly, there simply being a lack of fruit (as Parker notes), and a firmness resting on both stemmy tannins and cedary oak. Nett flavour in this tannic style is fractionally riper than some of the wines marked more highly, so it is a hard wine to score. And, the wine is not actually weak. Confusing. This will hold for several years yet, in its style. No votes. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, clearly redder than the 1978 Grand-Puy-Lacoste. Again there is plenty of volume in the bouquet, but the berry is firmed by a clear stalky note, which the oak firms up even more. Palate is fairly rich, richer than the 1978 Montrose, but the fruit is laced-through with stalky hard tannins. Here you can see quite clearly what Parker is on about, and agree (to an extent depending on your climatic perspective). Still a few years life left in this one. Tasters liked the concentration, the wine achieving five first or second places. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, again clearly redder than the 1978 Montrose. In the tasting, this wine was TCA-affected, though not so much as to obscure its attributes. It breathed off completely in 24 hours. It is close to the 1979 Pichon Lalande, fragrant cassisy berry with stemmy / stalky tannins, but not quite as stalky and acid as the Pichon. Though clearly the least wine on the night, its positioning here is a more accurate guide, for good bottles. Fully mature. GK 08/16
Garnet and ruby, the lightest wine. Bouquet is odd on this wine, there being fair volume, but also just a suggestion of scrambled eggs made with parsley. You couldn't definitely say it was reductive, though. On tasting, the parsley side adds a nearly green note to the stemmy / stalky flavours. Even though there is still reasonable berry, this wine does clearly illustrate the modest ripening of the year, with total acid noticeably up. In that style it is reasonably concentrated, and thus secured four first or second-place votes. Mature now, but no great hurry. GK 08/16