Longstanding FT readers will remember the noble tradition instituted by my predecessor, Edmund Penning-Rowsell: an annual tasting of all eight Bordeaux first growths and equivalents at 10 years old, the age at which they have traditionally been regarded as broachable.
After Edmund died in 2002, the tradition fell into abeyance for several years. One of Citibank’s more generous bons viveurs resurrected it in 2007, when a group of us tasted the 1997s, and I reported on the event here. The fact that during that evening he introduced us to the term “subprime” provides a clue as to why the exercise was not readily repeated.
Since then prices for first growths have risen stratospherically and it is a sign of the times that we had to rely on a star in the east, Hong Kong wine merchant and restaurateur Paulo Pong of Altaya Wines, to revive the tradition a few years ago. Earlier this month saw our third first-growth dinner with Paulo, who kindly supplied most of the wines. Two gaps in his UK collection were plugged by Stephen Browett, owner of London’s biggest fine wine trader, Farr Vintners. Two years ago we tasted the 2001 first growths, one year ago the 2002s and this year it was the turn of the controversial heatwave vintage 2003.
In the Penning-Rowsell days, many a bordeaux enthusiast would treat themselves to the occasional first growth. But now they have so definitively drawn away from the rest of the pack in terms of pricing, I have assumed that the number of collectors with an active interest in first growths has reduced considerably.
However, three such comparative tastings also offer some perspective on the general success of these three vintages, and on how each of the eight first growths performed in the early years of this century.
First the mechanics. The key ingredients are a bottle each of Châteaux Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour, Mouton, Lafite, Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Petrus. Normally one might run to a back-up bottle of each in case of a faulty cork, but with Petrus 2003 at £2,000 a bottle and even the cheapest of the wines tasted, Ch Haut-Brion 2002, about £300 a bottle, that would be wildly extravagant. Anyway, no one puts more effort into cork quality control than the first growths.
The next important ingredient is a top-quality wine glass for each wine and each taster, so that we can keep refilling and comparing how the wines develop in the glass – a good guide to how they are likely to develop in the bottle.
And then, of course, there are the tasters. Of the original team of six who tasted together more than 20 times, Edmund and Meg Penning-Rowsell are no longer with us, but Daphne and Michael Broadbent (who set up and ran Christie’s wine department for decades) managed to attend both the 2001 and 2002 tastings, even though Michael dislikes blind tasting. The Broadbents were all set to come to the recent 2003 tasting when he suffered a pacemaker-related electric shock, so their places were filled at short notice by two wine professionals, one of whom agreed to be the vital person who would decide which wine went into which numbered decanter.
Vintage total score
When it was first presented in spring 2004, many sang the praises of the 2003 vintage because it broke so many records: the hottest summer and earliest vintage for centuries, together with record levels of sugar and tannin. But one thing most 2003s lacked was balance. The sugar levels were often the result of dessication, rather than genuine ripening through building up flavour compounds, and they were so high that yeasts often struggled to complete their fermentations. Acid levels, by contrast, were so low that growers were allowed to add acid. Many grapes suffered sunburn, particularly the thinner-skinned, earlier-maturing Merlot grapes. Christian Moueix, then in charge of Pomerol’s most famous all-Merlot wine Petrus, warned that if vines had been grown in the less manicured, more “natural” ways of 30 years ago, they would have been more protected by leaves from the fierce sunshine and would probably have fared better. No 2003 was produced by Petrus’s new Pomerol rival, Le Pin.
It was generally agreed that the most successful wines were the ones made from old Cabernet Sauvignon vines grown on water-retaining soils, such as those at the northern end of the Haut-Médoc. Tastings of many of the lesser 2003s have suggested that these red bordeaux should be drunk earlier than most other vintages. But our tasting included all three of the supposedly finest Pauillacs in the most propitious soils: Latour, Lafite and Mouton.
And indeed, these were the wines that stood out for all six of the tasters, particularly a richly dramatic Mouton and a monumental but already broachable Latour. Lafite was my third favourite: it was far from a blockbuster but its freshness and elegance made it supremely atypical for the vintage. Haut-Brion, where the harvest started as early as August in 2003, produced another wine with admirable freshness on the finish. Margaux may have suffered by being served first. Lightly sweet, it took a while to open up in the glass and had a rather drying note on the end. It may well be worth keeping this longer, even though most of these wines were easy to appreciate already.
In some ways the Ausone, one of our three right bank wines, was the most youthful of the 2003s, so tight and dry was it on the finish. We happen to have some of the opulent, loose-limbed Ausone 1983 in our cellar; the contrast could hardly be greater.
As for the other top St-Emilion, Cheval Blanc, this particular bottle was the real disappointment of the tasting – simple, lightweight and dull. I usually love Petrus but I found a clove-like note and heaviness that made this 2003 vintage less than appetising. The left bank definitely triumphed over the right.
However, as Edmund was always at pains to point out, our tasting was based on a single bottle of each wine – and bottles can vary.
To read a selection of Edmund Penning-Rowsell’s bordeaux assessments from the FT archive, click: