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Staying Power

Sebastian Payne MW

The Society’s chief wine buyer Sebastian Payne MW, contemplates how developments in winemaking have influenced styles of Claret. Is there such a thing as a Golden Age for Bordeaux? Will the modern, riper styles of Claret age as well as their predecessors?

I was born in 1947 and have been in the wine trade all my working life, having a reasonably wide experience of Claret vintages of the last sixty years, with much more occasional forays into the earlier part of the last century. I tend to think of vintages in decades. Weather-wise the sixties and seventies were generally cooler than the eighties and nineties. Yes, I remember that the summer of 1976 was so hot that the clay, on which London sits, shrank and lots of houses sank and could not be insured. The exception proves the rule. The seventies were, in fact, a modern-day low point for Claret, with some honourable exceptions. But the reasons for this were as much to do with nurture as with nature.

Part of the mystique of wine is the notion of the vigneron as guardian of his or her terroir in tune with the elements and with many generations of experience of back vintages. There is some truth in this. The most enjoyable bottles of Claret I have drunk are memorable because they were both delicious and individual, with a special sense of place. Margaux 1953, Palmer 1961, La Mission Haut-Brion 1966, Trotanoy 1966 are just four examples. I could name many more recent vintages. Nevertheless, the wine industry, like most businesses, is fundamentally market-led. We get the Clarets we deserve. Your local farmers’ market will only survive if you patronise it. Wine faults are much less common than they used to be, because customers will not accept them. Luxury brands sell for ridiculously high prices because rich people like buying exclusive, expensive things poorer people cannot afford. The world is much less patient than it used to be, so winemakers release young Clarets with fierce dry tannins that may ‘come round’ after 20 years at their peril.

Christian Moueix and his son Edouard insist that grapes are picked when ripe but still fresh.

A number of Clarets from the outstanding vintages of the late 1940s, like 1947, were volatile because cellars were not equipped with cooling equipment. You had to dash out and buy ice to put in the vats at the last minute. I remember a 1953 Talbot which was undergoing malolactic fermentation in bottle. Bordeaux winemakers did not understand malolactic fermentation until Professor Peynaud (Bordeaux University’s Competition from New World wines has been another market-led influence on Claret. In general people like wines made from fully ripened grapes. We understand now the importance of phenolic ripeness, when pips as well as flesh of the grape are fully ripe. Classed-growths tend to pick later than they used to in order to achieve this. Didier Cuvelier of Léoville-Poyferré claims that Michel Rolland’s recommendation to him to do this was the single most important piece of advice that has contributed to the consistent excellence he has achieved in his wines in the last decade or so. When I make the rounds of Bordeaux châteaux to taste the latest vintage, winemakers will draw my attention to the smooth and silky tannins in their wines, achieved by picking at phenolic ripeness. They will then point out the tannin index is remarkably high, ensuring good structure and long life and add that one hardly senses it because of the abundance of ripe fruit in balance. They may talk less about the levels of alcohol and acidity in their wines. The date of picking remains a matter of great debate with Christian Moueix for example, insisting that you must pick grapes when they are ripe, but while they are still fresh, and others preferring the long ‘hang time’ which can give and smaller properties did not use machine harvesters (put to such intelligent use today at admirable properties like Pey La Tour).

This is progress. 1978s, even the most admired wines like Palmer or Pichon- Lalande, have always had a slightly green streak of under ripeness. The tannins in 1975 and in 1986 (the most overrated vintage of the decade) have always shown an aggressive strength. Nowadays they are better managed.

Though this extra ripeness makes wines more appealing earlier than they used to be when first tasted, a note of caution should be introduced here. Claret, like people, usually goes through an awkward ‘teenage’ period. The initial bloom and charm of the fruit transforms into secondary aromas and flavours that will make a wine more complex. Depending on the vintage this period can last from between four to twelve years after the vintage, particularly in the so-called great vintages.

I loathe vintage charts because they encourage vintage snobbery and can mislead. I have so often seen good wines of underrated years, like, say, 1999 and 1997 give drinkers more pleasure than great years like 1995 or 1989 opened too early when they were going through their teenage years.

One hiccough in the general march of progress needs a mention: cork quality. Nearly every cork I have ever drawn from bottles of Claret of the forties, fifties or sixties had done its job perfectly.

However, at the end of the seventies and during the eighties, there was a distinct falling-off. This coincided with worldwide increase in wine drinking and demand for cork, and also the mismanagement of the cork forests during the Portuguese revolution. I believe we have now come through this bad patch but it was infuriating for wine producers and drinkers while it lasted.

There is no reason at all why a classed-growth Claret made this century or in the last couple of decades will not last 30 to 40 years.

Balance is and has always been the key. Lighter vintages mature sooner and reveal less complexity with ageing, though I am still surprised how well Clarets of such years as 1993 or 1981 have aged in my own or The Wine Society’s cellar. But there is no reason at all why a classed-growth Claret made this century or in the last couple of decades will not last 30 to 40 years, if you want them to do so. They have good structure and a lot fewer faults than many of their predecessors. Just avoid the unbalanced monsters!

This is an extract from an article which originally appeared in Decanter magazine’s Bordeaux supplement last year (decanter.com)

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