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Vintage 1995 Bordeaux a Quarter of a century on

Chateau Lynch Bages 1995 - classic, lovely 1995

1995. Life was not so much rosier back then. The US was rocked by domestic terrorism in Oklahoma and Japan was horrified by sarin nerve gas attacks on the underground railway. The Bosnian war ground on and Nigeria was kicked out of the Commonwealth for human rights abuse. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minster, was fatally shot, and the US suffered a heatwave over 100 degrees. And just to add something new, the US government shut down as the two parties couldn’t agree on a budget, the workers furloughed. It would seem the world was almost as hopeless then as it is now. We certainly haven’t advanced much.

But in Bordeaux there was more optimism. 1988-1989-1990 had been hailed as the great vintage trio of century, though many 1988’s were too austere, tannic and fruitless and have aged into old husks, bones poking through, flesh all gone. But 1990 certainly kicked of the decade in opulent, sunny richness. In comparison, 1991 was forgotten, 1992 and 1993 were pretty awful, and 1994 is now past its prime. So the Bordelais, always searching for another ‘great vintage’ to sell, were keen to proclaim it. And in 1995 and 1996 they trumpeted another superstar duet.

I was in my younger thirties in Paris, and most wine was still cheap (looking back on it, cryingly cheap). Even though pretty much at the bottom of the corporate ladder, I could afford a mixed case of premier cru Bordeaux en primeur every year, something that now would be unthinkable. But 1995 saw a big rise, and I recall the firsts coming out in France at 400 Francs, or 500 pounds a case (of 12). At the time that was expensive, whereas now you’d pay that in a decent vintage for one bottle. Even taking into account the effects of compound inflation, well, you can understand why top Bordeaux chateaux now have beautiful new marble chais designed by world famous architects and sharply suited public relations directors. The luxury consumer brand world has moved in and on, and most of us have been sadly left behind.

But I still have some of those 1995s lingering in the cellar, now worryingly precious and complicated to drink. Should we open this today, or keep it for another special occasion, and with whom? I mean do we know anyone to whom we can afford to serve wine at almost 100 euros a glass? Etc etc, the all too frequent conundrum these days with any big label wines. Ironically, for those who want to drink as opposed to speculate and invest, the mounting values of your cellar increase the stress and decrease the pleasure.

1995 saw a moderate winter, a decent spring with ample rain, a normal bud set, but then a long, very hot and dry summer, even if back then nobody really spoke about global warming. In September a lot of rain appeared which led to an earlier harvest of big proportions. That should have set off the odd alarm bell, but as the first ‘promising’ vintage since the fabled 1990, the Bordelais shouted, and the critics bowed. Again, one would have to say plus ca change et plus c’est la meme chose…

The result was that, as said, prices rocketed, in some cases doubling, and the critics encouraged us all to buy buy buy. And so, to my modest extent, I did. Having arrived in France in 1991 just after the 1990 sales campaign, this was the first cellerable vintage. Well, that’s what we were all told.

But were they? Even now, the remnants of marketing remain. IdealWine scores the 1995 red Bordeaux as 18/20 and drools:

‘An exceptional vintage across all the Bordeaux appellations. A dry and sweltering summer produced perfectly mature grapes. Following an abundant harvest, the châteaux rigorously selected the grapes and fixed limited yields so as to optimise concentration. Highly consistent wines, rich, unctuous and perfectly-balanced.’

Well, you always need to be a little wary of a sales pitch. Having picked up a fair number of them, I’ve had the opportunity to judge over the years, and it’s been an interesting ride.

There have been many Bordeaux vintages where the word ‘classic’ appears, normally something that should raise an eyebrow. If you also see the word ‘austere’ then caveat emptor. 1975 was the first example I can recall, coming again after the good 1970, decent 71 and simply awful 72,73,74. Once more, the sales machine needed a good vintage and thus it was anointed, but the tannins were often out of balance and the majority of wines were tough and became nastier with time as the tannins stayed rock-like and immutable and the fruit (such as it was) eroded and faded. Though I think much better, the 1986s were also fiercely tannic for years, though many did ‘come round’ eventually and the 1988s as said were equally unfriendly.

I recall as a youngster in my 20s going to wine tastings in London at the International Wine & Food Society, I think set up by Andre Simon, and there was a bizarre old lady (well, I thought she was old…), who always wore a green visor and talked about her ‘45s and whether they would ‘ever come round’ before she died. I rather suspect they did not.

Of the 86’s, a decade ago we were invited by our Norwegian friends to their 50th birthday dinner in Bergen, and Andre asked me to be the sommelier. The last two wines (of a remarkable series) were the 100 point 1986s, Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild. At a quarter of a century old we expected something truly inspiring. As it was, the Mouton was tight, tough, closed and akin to trying to taste concrete. I have the empty bottle as a salutary reminder on a shelf above my head as I write. I can’t remember a bottle with so much expectation and so little delivery. Just bad timing or an unlucky 75cl? Either way, deeply depressing. Too bad if you’d paid a fortune for it.

Mouton-Rothschild 1986, the remnants of a disaster.

As for the Lafite, the crowning glory, as I decanted it with slightly shaking hand, I felt a spasm of foreboding and then that creeping, well, galloping sense of disbelief, disappointment and anger. A horrible sinking of the stomach. Surely, surely not?

We left it in the decanter and tried, retried and retried, with increasing desperation but always the same result. Corked to death. Even mounting inebriation and bonhomie could not alter the fact. Foul.

As an aside, Andre wanted to tip it down the toilet immediately in a fit of outraged disgust, but I grabbed the bottle, stuffed the cork back in, wrapped it in clothes and put it in the suitcase to fly home, hoping that it would not leak. It didn’t. We contacted Lafite, sent them the bottle and after chemical analysis they apologised and replaced it. That’s what I call service and respect for clients. When the Norwegians were next in Paris (not knowing that I had saved the offending bottle), I served them their unknown replacement blind. It was magnificent. As for the Mouton, well they will be celebrating their 60th now and I know they have one extra bottle left of the hallowed pair…

Of the 1988, I had a case of Latour that I bought for two hundred pounds, I kid you not. It was tough, tannic and without any charm in its youth. Around age 20 it developed some of that famed ‘walnut’ character but was still angular and ungiving. Ah yes, it needed more time to come round… by 30 it was, in my opinion, losing what fruit it had and becoming even grumpier, positively surly. You are supposed to drink for pleasure, not the label.

I sold the rest. I read an esteemed critic rave about it of late, saying it will improve for a decade or more. Perhaps so, but if a wine has not the fruit to balance the tannins at 30, where is it going miraculously to materialise from?

So back to 1995, another vintage that was less than charming in its adolescence. Have they blossomed into adulthood, shed some of the gruff tannin and softened into something enjoyable? Has the added complexity of age mellowed the arrogant forcefulness of youth?

It is, I think, very much a matter of being selective in whom you believe and what you taste. Of course, the sellers wish to sell, and at current prices many buyers are too embarrassed to be disappointed, so will enthuse even if they find the wines rather disconcertingly tough in reality. As wine prices escalate evermore, I find the emperor’s clothes syndrome more prevalent - who dares stand up and say this mega wine is not actually much good and nowhere near worth its price?

In general, my experience of the 95s has been of an old school, tough year where the sun and drought seems to have caused thick skins and often heavy, unripe tannins, and perhaps the rain diluted the fruit – many wines start off nicely in the mouth and then end hard. They seem to struggle to attain that lovely soft, mellowed maturity. Some do have good fruit, and now the secondary tastes you hope for – cedarwood, cigar box, earthiness, but the finish remains rustic. Some are now probably past their best and merely held up by an unforgiving structure. In a word, austere.

We found Leoville-Barton to be struggling and probably losing its fruit by the time it hit its 20s. Across the river, Angelus was highly rated, but in a blind tasting that we held here a few years ago of 95 Leoville-Barton, Angelus, Mondavi Reserve (Napa) and Luigi Bosca Finca Los Nobles (Mendoza Argentina) the two Bordeaux came last, and the Angelus was so extracted that everyone thought I’d thrown in a ringer, some saying it must be syrah! It was, of course, the most expensive of the quartet.

Chateau Cos d'Estournel 1995

Cos d’Estournel was lovely, as usual, though I think now it’s heavier percentage of merlot is ageing fast and its exotic, oriental spices diminishing. If we move up a step on the ladder and switch more to cabernet franc and hop across the river to the right bank, Cheval Blanc last year was impressively ripe and rich, the finish perhaps a little abrupt, but definitely showing its class. I have one sacred bottle of Ausone, but as it is the only one I possess, I am not sure when to drink it and consign my cellar to emptiness. That stress again.

Chateau Cheval Blanc 1995, proper St Emilion 1e cru

Of the firsts, we have drunk Margaux on May 17th for the past few years (our daughter’s birthday, you can probably guess her name) and, well, it’s not great. Sorry to say it, but I think the vintage is winning over the fruit and I just sold the last bottles as I reckoned that for the price one can do better. It’s one of those wines that you can decant, you can swirl, wait, hope and try your very hardest to find something to like, something to exclaim about, but deep down you know the wine is not up to it and you are disappointed. Better to bite the bullet, sell and get something with a lesser label from a better vintage.

Chateau Margaux 1995

But it’s not all negatives. No, no. Geography does count. Don’t ask me why, but the highpoint seems to be in Pauillac. Lynch Bages and Pontet Canet could not be more classical (in the best sense) with ripe plummy fruit, earthy cedar, good acidity and, now, blessedly soft tannins. Nothing 1995 on the finish. Grand Puy Lacoste was similar, though the fruit was very cassis, blackcurranty and on balance I think I prefer the more rounded dark blue fruit of PC and LB. But all three are delicious, balanced and I would estimate at their prime. Exactly what makes mature Bordeaux such an elegant, compelling wine.

Pauillac 1995 in all its glory: Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pontet-Canet, Latour

If there is a step up, it’s Haut Brion (my favourite Bordeaux for its reliable elegance, softness and beauty) and Latour, though I have to admit that the finish on the HB last time was not the longest or softest. When I last tasted Latour this weekend, we’d already downed the GPL and PC plus dinner, so my palate was perhaps not at its freshest, (wine is, after all, to be drunk and swallowed, not just sniffed and spat), but the savoury walnut taste was distinct and you could sense layers of flavour. A wine with lots of life left. The quintessence of Pauillac a quarter of a century young.

And just look at the alcohol. True beauty does not need heavy make up to last for decades.

Chateau Latour 1995, a beautifully modest 12.5% alcohol. Perfect.

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