Bordeaux lovers fret over vintages. On wines of great years they squander bundles--but opinions vary about what's a great vintage. Even in years where there is debate they still buy enough wine for bragging rights.
The 1980s put Bordeaux lovers to the test. There were so many great vintages and so many very good ones that Bordeaux freaks lost sleep worrying whether they had the cash for a cache of every top wine.
The decade started with the very good, relatively lean vintage of 1981. Then came high praise for the '82s, delight with the opulent '83s, unbridled excitement for '85s, joy over the classical '86s and discreet pleasure over the value of the underrated '87s. Only 1984--not a \o7 bad \f7 vintage, really--was left in the dust.
Never before in history had a single decade produced so many excellent vintages in Bordeaux. Some attributed it to global warming, but whatever the reason, cellars that held just a few bottles of Bordeaux a decade ago were suddenly bulging when the ultimate challenge hit: the 1988s.
That vintage of Bordeaux, rated highly by wine merchants, hit U.S. shop shelves last year after the 1989 and 1990 vintages had already been declared great, both in quality and quantity. This raised a serious problem for Bordeaux lovers: what to buy?
Those with fiscal muscle bought First Growths--Mouton, Lafite, Latour--even at $70 to $100 a bottle. The rest looked for the less well-known Bordeaux, knowing prices would be lower, especially since there was a huge amount of excellent wine coming right behind, the 1989s and 1990s.
To test the quality of lower-priced 1988 Bordeaux, a Times tasting panel sampled a range of Cru Bourgeois-level wines, which sell for no more than $17 a bottle. The results of our blind tasting indicate that it's best to stick with firms that are well known and run by top wine people. The top six wines of the two dozen sampled were from front-line, quality producers.
One clear message was that any property in which Jean-Michel Cazes has a stake is one to watch. The wines placing second and third in our evaluation of two dozen wines were from Cazes, one of Bordeaux's most dynamic personalities over the last decade.
Here are the results of the panel, which included wine writers Bob and Harolyn Thompson, consultant Michael Rubin and Craig Williams, winemaker for Joseph Phelps Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Prices are what we paid for the wines at supermarkets and retail wine shops.
1. 1988 Chateau Meyney, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Estephe ($17): This property, part of the respected Cordier line, was the most expensive as well as the best wine we sampled. A complex red currant, violet/spice aroma expands with airing to reveal lush fruit in the mouth. This fine, elegant, fruity wine should age nicely. It's a good buy.
2. 1988 Chateau Les-Ormes-de-Pez, Grand Bourgeois, Saint-Estephe ($15): This property is operated by Cazes. The rich herbal notes and grand fruit show the classy structure of his wines. Good value.
3. 1988 Michel Lynch, Bordeaux ($8): The sleeper of the tasting and a true bargain. It has a deep cassis and spice (is it anise?) aroma and concentrated fruit. A bit one-dimensional now, this wine should develop depth with another two years in the cellar. Shockingly good for the money. Another Cazes wine; more about it below.
4. 1988 Chateau La Cardonne ($10): This Merlot-based wine is from a large property (240 acres) owned from 1973 to 1990 by Domaines Barons de Rothschild and still managed by that family. The deep aroma of cherry, herbal notes and oak is appealing, with ample richness; a lighter, more delicate finish. Good value.
5. 1988 Chateau Plagnac, Cru Bourgeois ($9): Another Cordier property; the tarragon-herbal elements are strong, but a plum and mint character was interesting.
6. 1988 Chateau Canon-Moeuix, Canon Fronsac ($13.50): This property is owned by the respected Moeuix family. The wine is floral and earthy with a faint chalky note in both aroma and taste. Tasters felt it would smooth out and age well.
7. 1988 Chateau Lagarenne, Bordeaux Superieur ($8): Violets and spice, a complex wine with an earthiness, decent fruit and tart finish. Good value.
Others tasted (not ranked, all 1988 unless noted):
1990 Chateau Bessan Segur, Bouhier, Cru Bourgeois ($5); Chateau Camensac, Fifth Growth, Haut-Medoc ($14)--moldy aroma; Chateau Valrose, Bordeaux Superieur ($4); Chateau Bouscaut, Cru Classe de Graves (Pessac-Leognan) ($14)--ungenerous; Chateau Greysac, Grand Cru Bourgeois ($9); Chateau Puy-Blanquet, Grand Cru, St.-Emilion ($11)--green, stemmy, awkward; Chateau Larose-Trintaudon, Cru Bourgeois ($9)--poor showing from this largest vineyard in the Medoc (388 acres), moldy cardboard smell; Chateau Martinet, Grand Cru, St.-Emilion ($10)--pale, simple, thin; St.-Emilion Baron Philippe ($13)--a brand from Baron Philippe de Rothschild's La Barronier facility in Bordeaux, which bottles this and other wines such as Mouton-Cadet.