IT is in the DNA of human beings to keep striving upwards, focusing on the best, usually to the exclusion and neglect of the lesser lights, those below the Firsts and the Grand Crus. It is necessary to consciously and deliberately re-align one's horizons downwards.
I have recounted in previous columns the pleasure and delight provided by least expected wines, e.g. Vieux Chateau Certan 2007, Lynch Bages 2004 and many more. Their en primeur and current prices compared with the Firsts doubled the pleasure and enjoyment these "lesser lights" gave! An invitation, therefore, to dinner at which my host proposed a wine list of six non-Firsts 1990 Bordeaux wines was non-refusable. The wines: Chateaux Cos d'Estournel 2nd Growth St Estephe, Grand Puy Lacoste 5th Pauillac, Gruaud Larose St 2nd St Julien, Rauzan Segla 2nd Margaux, Magdelaine Premier Grand Cru Class (B), and L'Eglise Clinet, Pomerol. The only commune not represented was Graves.
1990 opened the decade with a bang, echoing the bang made by the 1989 vintage which closed the decade of the eighties. It was also the third of the great trilogy 1988-1990, a trilogy which aroused considerable debate: "Which of the three was the best?"
Early opinion opted for the 1990 although in the early ensuing years some opinions, notably French, voted for 1989 above the 1990. There was general agreement that 1988 was the least of the three, the most closed.
Today, almost a quarter century later, general agreement has it that 1990 continues to hold its place as the first among equals, with 1989 closely following, while 1988 has proved to be, for those patient enough, a very good to great classic vintage. It was with this understanding of the relative qualitative valuations of the 1990 that we approached this sample tasting of the six 1990s.
COS D'ESTOURNEL 1990
A dense deep brown colour with reddish tints. Rather darker brown than I had expected. Reassured by the freshness of the lovely aroma of ripe berry fruit. The taste of very ripe berries hits the palate first; a deep dense-bodied wine, a touch smoky, with still a little touch of oak - rather surprising at this age. Very good clean lengthy finish. Very good and fully lived up to expectations.
GRAND PUY LACOSTE 1990
Similar colour to the Cos. Bouquet of blackcurrant fruit with prominent cedary tones. Medium density wine, good ripeness of blackcurrants, with cassis, and prominent cedar on the palate. Very long finish. Classic medium-weight Pauillac.
GRUAUD LAROSE 1990
Very dark reddish brown with pale rim. A light aroma, very Bordeaux character with cassis and cedar, with great freshness. On the palate, medium density body, with pronounced blackcurrant and cassis flavours, very long. Very good indeed. Also representative of its commune Saint-Julien.
RAUZAN SEGLA 1990
Medium-dark brownish red, with a very fragrant nose, very much Margaux character. Medium-density, palate of very well concentrated ripe fruit, very complex, and very long. A very different palate in contrast to the Pauillac (Grand Puy Lacoste) and the St Julien (Gruaud Larose). The Margaux pedigree was well displayed by the perfume of the bouquet.
This Chateau had a series of owners before finally in 1994 it was acquired by the Wertheimer group, owners of Chanel. This 1990 was made in the pre-Chanel era and its showing here showed why it was classified Second Growth in 1855.
Showing its age in its colour - quite dark brownish red, the brownest of the six. However the freshness of its lovely perfumed bouquet belied its colour, and re-affirmed the freshness of the wine. Medium-bodied, with good concentration and density, just a touch of plumminess, good length on finish. Very good indeed.
L'EGLISE CLINET 1990
Deep reddish-brown. Very plummy on bouquet and palate, very Merlot in character; it lacked balance though. The only one of the six which did not show well.
A very interesting and instructive tasting. All the wines with the exception of the L'Eglise Clinet showed very well indeed. All were at their peak, and looked good enough for a few years more - five or more. Considering that they are already 24 years old, that takes them to their 30th year. But unless the intention is to see how long they will last, it would seem prudent to drink them up in the next few years to enjoy them while they are at their best.
I believe the same longevity assessment would apply equally to the 1989s although their lesser degree of acidity might mean they will age a little faster than the 1990s. As for the 1988s, they are at last beginning to awaken from their slumber and are just starting to show quite well.
This assessment of the state of maturity applies almost equally to the Burgundies and the Champagnes. The 1988 Burgundies, Bordeaux and Champagnes I have drunk have been very impressive. Not fully mature, nonetheless quite approachable and really classic wines in the old tradition. A 1988 Dom Perignon drunk recently was magnificent. I think all of them - Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne - still have a few more years to go before reaching their peak which should be really splendid.
A dessert wine to sweetly round off the tasting? A suitable sweet wine would almost certainly have to be Sauternes, a classic, almost automatic choice - and one I too would have picked decades ago. But curiosity from reading about dessert wines which last a century led me to Vouvray moelleux decades ago.
I had read about Gaston Huet's Vouvray Moelleux 1947, long-lived as a result of its great acidity as well as sweetness, and went out to look for it. So I made my way to the Loire and to Jean Bardet's two-Michelin-star restaurant in Tours, the principal town of the Loire, in June 1991. I could not find Huet's Vouvray Moelleux 1947, not even in the Domaine itself, so settled for the 1959s.
GASTON HUET. One of Vouvray's greats who sadly died in 2002. When I visited him in 1991, the estate (biodynamic) was run by his son-in-law, Noel Pinguet. The estate is now owned by the Hwang family which also owns an estate in Tokay. Huet's wines have the reputation of lasting centuries. And are seriously underpriced! (Jancis Robinson)
VOUVRAY CLOS DE BOURG MOELLEUX 1959, GASTON HUET
A beautiful glistening deep gold, very striking. A heavy honeyed aroma, full and lush. Great honeyed sweetness on the palate, good density, a very long finish, leaving a very refreshed palate although I did not detect much acidity on the palate which showed a well-botrytized wine, medium-bodied, very honeyed taste, very fresh. The after-taste feels like you have had a very sweet candy.
Vouvray comes from the Chenin Blanc grape, a varietal blessed with very high acidity, which gives it its freshness and longevity. To preserve this acidity, Vouvrays do not see any oak at all and do not go through malo-lactic fermentation.
Bunches of botrytized grapes in a picker's basket look awful - shrivelled-up grapes covered in white and grey mould. An education in itself to see these bunches and then later to drink the wine made from these grapes. I realised that some mould deserve respect!