The setting at Bordeaux Index’s Bordeaux Ten Years On tasting is always the same. In the pleasant, light room on the top floor of the Hatton Garden office, Monica Schuster discreetly prepares a delicious lunch, Michael Schuster buzzes about in an apron, the bright boys that are the hallmark of this excellent company drop in and out. And the wines, 67 of them today, every first growth, Petrus, Ausone, St Emilion, Pomerol, the Medoc from top to bottom, the Graves. It’s always a fascinating tasting, and something of an institution – the 02s last year were brilliant. Next year will be wonderful.
But the 2003s… the 2003s are Bordeaux laid bare – all the pomp, all the bombast, the fantastic prices – in this tired vintage shown to be so much hot air. Decanter’s Bordeaux correspondent Jane Anson happened to ring when I was halfway through and she audibly snorted when she heard I was doing the 03s.
To call the vintage patchy is like saying Mike Tyson had an up and down career in the ring. There are some very fine wines – Figeac, Clinet, Troplong Mondot, L’Evangile, Palmer (especially), a raft of Pauillacs, Cos, La Mission Haut Brion, all the first growths (Margaux is a delight).
The best have lovely smoky, savoury aromatics, sweet ripe tannins, sweet black fruit and an enduring freshness. The Pauillacs are especially good, with ripe juicy fruit, fresh tannins. I loved the Pichons, Baron with floral, almost violet aromas, Comtesse with wonderful fresh herbaceousness. Petit Mouton was pretty, also with exotic violets and good dry gripping tannins.
But if I were a sommelier I’d be intent on getting them off the list as soon as possible. Even the very best are settling into their dotage, the tannins aren’t going to get any fresher, the fruit is just on the point of raisining. These wines are evolved, I said it again and again – you can see it in the colour of many, a fine old powdery brick red, hues you expect in wines twice the age. Apart from a handful, none is worth keeping more than a year or two at the most.
The best are the relatively reasonably priced wines – good for Tuesday evening supper. Domaine de Chevalier with its big spicy nose, bright tannins and refreshing length, Smith Haut Lafitte, Haut Batailley, GPL.
Then there are the shockers. Pavie, about which all I can say is that the Brits were right (I remember the war of words between Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker, reported on Decanter.com - JR called it 'ridiculous'; RP called her 'reactionary' and always taking 'nasty swipes' at Gerard Perse, the lamb). The colour is a porty purple, the nose is beef stew laced with marmite, the tannins with an oaky banana-peel dryness that sits under your top lip and sends you gasping to the water jug. And this at almost £200 a bottle. Tired, meretricious – tasting it was like being propositioned by a raddled hooker in the Bois de Boulogne, all sharp elbows and sagging knees. As Samuel Beckett once said, possibly not about Pavie, a bony old ghost of a whore.
In that shocker list I have to include Ausone and Petrus. Never have I tasted wines so expensive that offered so little. Surely the price (Petrus at £17000, Ausone £9,500) has to be notional? Who on earth would buy them? Yet I see on Liv-ex that cases are still changing hands. Ausone has a meaty, earthy nose that promises something, but the fruit has fallen off and the tannins are drying. It’s just not going to get any better. Petrus is old, old, old, with nice sweet tannins on the attack and interesting sour plum fruit, but the length is dry, and tired.
Half the wines are dead or dying. There was often good promise from the nose which fell sadly on the palate, where hard dry tannins were completely out of kilter with soft spongy fruit, or no fruit at all. St Estephe, generally reckoned a winner in 03, wasn't showing well. Apart from Cos d’Estournel (St Estephe only in name anyway) I found the fruit raisined, the tannins drying. Cos for me was one of the best of the day, lovely dense sweet tannins with exotic damson and plum along with sweet hints of strawberry and raspberry.
The atmosphere was muted. All the big names were there – Neal Martin, Julia Harding, Oz Clarke, Sebastian Payne – but there wasn’t the normal buzz you get at this tasting. There were a few raised and rueful eyebrows over the spittoon. BI's chief Gary Boom put his head round the door (did I imagine it or was he looking a bit sheepish?), Gareth Birchley popped in and out, trailing a whiff of the racecourse, as he does, and deftly parried questions about who exactly buys these wines nowadays.
A tasting of curiosities, fascinating to experience, but you wouldn’t want to own any of them.
My top wines (with price by the case, in bond)
Chateau Troplong Mondot, St Emilion Grand Cru Classe £550
Smoky, savoury nose with dense damson and blackberry fruit. Fine ripe grippy tannins, juicy acidity. Very fresh and attractive. Drink now
Chateau Figeac St Emilion 1er Grand Cru Classe £660
A lovely nose of real depth with smoke and savoury notes. Meaty, truffley palate at first, then plums, cassis, some spice. Very good dark sweet juicy tannins leading to fresh finish. Drink now – 2 years
Chateau Clinet, Pomerol, £575
Savoury aromas of spicy sour plums and damson. Good dry fresh tannins. Fruit still open and fresh with juicy acidity. Drink now – 2 years
Chateau L’Evangile, Pomerol, £700
Meaty, bacony nose with salty plum and good earthy heft. Dense and tight but with freshness and bright, even lifted fruit underpinned by good tight juicy tannins. Attractive, Drink now – 2 years
Chateau Palmer 3rd growth Margaux £1100
The nose promises much with sweet and spicy notes of turkish delight and violet, rather exotic. Sweet juicy evolved tannins, redcurrant, raspberry, cassis. Very pretty. On downward curve but lovely for all that. Drink now – 2 years
Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste 5th Growth Pauillac £390
Fresh open nose with damson and blackcurrant fruit. Good dry open chalky tannins. Juicy, very attractive. Drink now – 2 years
Chateau D’Armailhac 5th Growth Pauillac £420
Lovely savoury note with sweet black fruit. Good open palate with juicy raspberry, strawberry and plum. Pretty. Drink now – 3 years
Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron 2nd Growth Pauillac £1000
Very sweet delicate nose with almost floral aromas. Juicy tannins slightly drying. Very good, almost luscious with cassis, cedar, some cinnamon spice. Drink now – 5 years
Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse 2nd Growth Pauillac £1175
Very fresh open delicious nose with bright firm fruit. Almost leafy herbaceousness giving freshness; licorice, cassis and bright acids. Very good. Drink now – 5 years
Chateau Petit Mouton Pauillac £1350
Open nose, smoky and meaty. Knitted tannins with very bright fruit, sweet plum and damson, tobacco leaf and parma violets leading to dry, fresh length. Very good. Drink now – 3 years
Chateau Margaux, 1st growth Margaux £4975
Possibly the finest of the firsts. Very bright sweet dense nose with toast and cedar, some spice – cloves – and wonderful savouriness on the palate, damson, blackcurrant, red fruits, and mouthwatering juiciness and acidity, fine-grained tannins. Opulent and luscious. Drink now – 10 years