It May Be hard to believe that at $10 a bottle 1976 red bordeaux wines are among the better values in today's market. But some are. Their fruit, finesse and complex savory flavors are pleasing. What troubles one is their low extract (they equaled the previous record-holder for overproduction, the 1973s) and low acidity (the summer heat was exceptional). While they resemble the '73s, they are better wines but not nearly so good as the 1962s or '71s with which they are often compared in transatlantic reviews.
The search for good values requires comparisons. One will find Italian and Spanish reds that are more reasonably priced, but they will be quite inferior to the '76 bordeaux wines in complexity and finesse. Even comparably priced offerings from California with better extract and balance than the '76s will generally show less complexity and finesse. To my taste, these qualities produce a superior match of wine with food.
So I come to compare the '76s against other available bordeaux vintages. The superior '75s are both scarce and costly. The '74s are widely available. They have been left to lay on retail shelves, and thus still bear the more attractive prices of yesteryear. The reason why the wines have moved slowly is that the vintage is afflicted with a hollowness somewhat reminiscent of the '67 vintage. Yet it is well worth the effort to go back and try to find fruity exceptions -- such as Greysac, Montrose, La Conseillante and La Mission Haut Brion.
The '77s and '78s are not yet available but promise little relief. Reports generally confirm that the '77s are inferior to the '76s but more expensive. The '78s are more highly regarded but are presently so expensive that retailers have been slow to order them.
The primary question concerning the '76s is their price. Those living with memories of bygone price levels will find the '76s priced too high. But when compared with other wines offered to the cunsumer, the better '76s provide good value. One is understandably tempted to wait for a return to "normal" prices, but current French quotations translate into prices substantially above $10 a bottle. So even if there is a softening of the market, it may not mean much to the local consumer.
The fact is that many consumers with $10 to spend on a bottle of wine have been avoiding the '76s. One major reason for this is that they are early-maturing wines. Somehow consumers have come to identify quality with longevity. How silly to pay $20 to $50 for a bottle of wine to be drunk in our senility or, more probably, by our heirs. Yet we seem reluctant to pay even half those prices for a wine to drink tonight or next weedend.
We have it backwards. The '75s ought to be cheaper than they are because they will take so long to mature. The price of the '76s can be justified because they are early maturing.
Which are the better '76s? The following evaluations are a synthesis of five different blind tastings given over a three-month period. The wines are listed in order of perference. However, it is more important to note the category and how I described the wine than where it fell within a category because many rankings were quite close. As with all newly arrived wines, some may have been "travel sick" longer than others. La Lagune has shown remarkable improvement in the last few months; Palmer, some. It is hoped that other late-bloomers will appear in the days ahead. Wines showing such improvement were given the benefit of their later showing in my evaluations.
Finally, wines of low acidity should be drunk young, when the tannins are present to provide a kind of balance that acidity normally provides. If one waits for the tannins to subside, the wine will be rather flat and dull. Thus, several '76s may get no better than they are today. In contrast, the better '76s generally had good acidity and should improve the next few years. OUTSTANDING
Montrose -- On the basis of the last four vintages, this chateau is one of the very best regardless of classification. This '76 is the best '76 tasted to date. Dark color; good tannin and acid balance; strong backbone; complex, fruity, savory character; will be an elegant wine in five years or so.
La Lagune -- Also on a hot streak, this chateau offers a complex, complete, well-balanced '76, displaying the perfumed, fruity, raspberry nuances for which the chateau is known. Presently, the most enjoyable '76 and, at $8 a bottle, a wine to buy.
Figeac -- This wine tastes like what the reports promised: full, generous, chewy, savory, complex -- a good mouthful. Huge nose, long finish.
Lafite -- A very good wine and a very good Lafite but grossly overpriced and probably sold out. Lovely, expansive, cedar, "lead pencils" nose. Unusually good color for Lafite. Complex "truffles" flavors; typical finesse. ABOVE AVERAGE
Gloria -- Intensely savory, complex nose; very good fruit, long finish, rather forward.
Branaire -- Voluptuous "cassis" bouquet and complex layers of fruit but slightly too low in acid.
Nenin -- Good stuffing; solid structure, rich, fruity, well balanced, typical Pomerold fullness.
Cos D'Estournel -- More backward than most, yet an expansive fruity nose shows on airing; long finish, complex, but a little heavy on wood; good promise and a favorite of several knowledgeable tasters.
Palmerr -- Delicious, complex, savory nose and taste but finishes abruptly:
most tasters rated this average, but I was impressed by its staying power. Good wine but not the superb wine that one hopes for from this chateau.
Pavie -- Quite unusual nose, flowery and sweet; well-balanced; straightforward, intensely fruity flavors -- everything you would hope for in a cru bourgeois. Too bad it costs so much.
La Mission Haut Brion -- Huge nose, weedy; precocious, easy-drinking, lacking typical La Mission backbone; intense raspberry flavors with a savory aspect.
Ducru Beaucaillou -- Tastes more like a young Bordeaux should taste and thus understandably a favorite of many; unusually tannic for a '76, fairly good acidity, execllent balance, will survive its peers, not for near-term drinking. aHowever, low extract, watery quality portend the development of no more than a "nice little wine," somewhat like the '67.
Brane Cantenac -- Delicious savory, weedy, complex flavors marred by low acidity. Tannin provides some balance now, but that should diminish in time.
Pichon Baron -- The typical hardness of this wine balances well with this soft vintage; complex fruity flavors but, again, low acidity.
Grand Puy Ducasse -- Pauillac "cigar box" flavors and cabernet mint, a little clumsy, rather forward.
Cissac -- The only wine in this group with too much acidity, but only slightly so, which yields a very long fruity finish and a lighter than average body.
Greysac -- At only $4 a bottle, this wine provides good value. It has very good fruit, good concentration, only a slight lack of acidity but basically without the breed of the top growths.
Langoa Barton -- Huge perfumed nose, pleasant "cigar box" flavors compete with unpleasant unctuous "off" flavors; quite unbalanced.
Lascombes -- Barely average; easy drinking, soft, unfocused style redeemed by attractive fruity and savory aspects. No future.
Pichon Lalande -- The raptuous, deep, cedary bouquet raises false hopes. Again the culprit is a woeful lack of acidity. Yet some knowledgeable tasters have rated this one of the best. BELOW AVERAGE
(Without Comment) -- Lynch Bages, Gazin, Leoville Lascases, Smith Haunt Lafite, Haut Bailey, Duhart Milon, Garraud and Hautes Combes.