A tasting of bordeauxs held recently by the Decanter Club helped illustrate the fallacies in the old 1855 classification. Then, the ch.ateaux of Bordeaux were rated according to the price of their wines and the condition of
their vineyards. Only four were chosen as "first growths" -- the best. They were the ch.ateaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion. (Ch.ateau Mouton- Rothschild has recently been elevated from second-growth status, an extraordinary political achievement by Baron Philippe Rothschild.) Since 1855, many ch.ateaux in the classification have changed radically, as has their wine. Some is worse and some is much better; the purpose of the tasting was to show how closely some of today's second growths challenge the Big Five.
The wines chosen for this tasting were the '78 and '79 vintages of Ch.ateau Ducru- Beaucaillou, from St. Julien; Ch.ateau L,eoville- Las Cases, also a St. Julien; and Ch.ateau Pichon-Lalande, a Pauillac -- theoretical contenders for first-growth status. All showed exceptionally well, the '78 Pichon-Lalande being the favorite, with its full, smooth complement of merlot and docile tannins. Whether the wines matched the power of the first growths was not absolutely decided, as you might imagine. The real surprise was the difficulty some tasters had in distinguishing between the two vintages, and the remarkable forwardness of the praised '78s. They were heralded then as big, intense wines that could not be drunk before the next presidential campaign and preferably long thereafter.
Well, they may be ready a lot sooner. I opened a bottle of my own '78 Ch.ateau Gloria (not ideally stored, granted) and found it velvety and full, without the rough tannin expected. The possibility of tying into te '78s earlier than forecast is good news for those who hate waiting and bad news for those who expected greater things.
The '79s will be ready even sooner, but lack the depth of '78s. Those readers wanting an elegant -- and economically feasible -- bottle of bordeaux now should buy an '80. (Buy several, because they are relatively cheap and going fast.) My tasting of some locally available '80s, including some reasonably priced second growths, revealed charm and complexity from a vintage generally considered disastrous. The good '80s are real clarets, the traditional English word for lighter, fruitier bordeauxs; the lesser '80s are anemic and boring.
For some power and varietal intensity, I recommend the '80 Cos d'Estournel (St. Estf heat and puckering potential from unresolved alcohol and tannin, but the fruit is perfect. For less money and a little more mellowness, try the '80 Ch.ateau d'Angludet (Cantenac), with a ch nose and a lot of punch and flavor. The '80 Meyney (St. Est it has good depth and is a great bargain. The '80 Ch.ateau Le Bon Pasteur (Pomerol) has the softness of the merlot but good flavor and a nice finish.
The '80 Leoville-Las Cases has good fruit and intensity, but will be hard for a while. The '80 Ch.ateau Latour-Haut-Brion (Graves) had good aromas and flavor and seemed a bit short, but is still a good claret for the money. The only clear losers I sampled were the '80 Gloria, thin and pale, and the second growth of renown, Ch.ateau Gruaud-Larose, both from St. Julien. The latter had a youthful color and an off nose. The fruit was not up to even the traces of tannin, and the wine had no staying power.