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The Bordeaux 1983 claret vintage followed a torrid summer that caused severe rot, but was saved by a fine, completely dry harvest in September: not much less than the then record 3.5m hectolitres in 1982.
But after that year’s great success there was comparatively little demand for the similarly priced ’83s, which since have always been overshadowed by their predecessor. En primeur buyers who expected to make a profit have been sadly disappointed. The duty-paid, delivered first-growth prices ranged from about £360 to £415 a dozen, but can now be bought at auction for £300 plus 10 per cent buyer’s premium, although Cheval-Blanc and Mouton-Rothschild are around £375, and Ch Margaux that has a special reputation sells for more than £400. Petrus of course, was hors concours.
However, that does not reflect the quality of the wines, which, lighter than the ’82s, are much more developed and mostly make excellent drinking today: no small recommendation for fine-vintage claret. This was demonstrated in the annual tasting dinner of the ten-year-old first growths, attended by six people, including two Masters of Wine.
The bottles were opened at least one hour in advance, and the right-bank wines about two hours. The usual sequence was followed, from Haut-Brion to Petrus. But, as often, there was a problem over the Haut-Brion for, at 10 years old, it frequently has not developed its potential, and seems a little severe compared with the more ample Medocs. Yet, when a few years ago the same group tasted the 1945s and the 1961s, Haut-Brion was narrowly second to Lafite on both occasions.
Here, then, are my notes, made at the table, followed by representative comments from the other five. As the colours were all full, with Margaux and Petrus exceptionally deep, but Ausone less so, comments on these have been omitted.
Haut-Brion. Closed Grave nose, good fruit, flavour not yet complete, but perhaps near best – nose sweet, soft, nice weight of flavour, touch of iodine; clear, crisp nose, less intense than in some vintages, delicious now, not sure about future; good tannin, good length, very enjoyable tonight; lovely sweet nose, delicious but lacks backbone; soft and gentle.
Margaux. Fragrant, rich nose, full taste, plenty behind it, but will still develop – crisp, fruity nose, lovely scent, flavour tannic, full-bodied, good length; glorious aroma, supple yet powerful flavour, masses of fruit, almost youthful; lots of tannin in mouth, but luscious fruit; wonderful nose, unyielding palate, drink end of century; somewhat undistinguished taste now.
Lafite. Distinguished Medoc nose, elegant, typical taste, at best but will continue – bricky, harmonious nose, good fruit, excellent weight, with length, tannic; dryer on nose than Margaux, like most could be drunk already, satiny finish scented; plenty of fruit, good dry finish, delicious wine; less intense than Margaux but elegant nose, dry on palate, but good finish, delicious wine; attractive, drinkable.
Mouton-Rothschild. Nose not very developed, but velvety flavour, very drinkable, but lacks concentration – dusty nose at first but spicy, but good fruit, fragrant finish; good colour, slightly odd nose, reminiscent of soy sauce, acidity pronounced, but very long, perfume grew in glass; lots of fruit on palate, but less intense than Lafite, falls away in mouth; clarety nose, not very open, nice sweet palate, easy drinking; rich, sweet attractive.
Latour. Closed but rich nose, big wine, the most tannic of all, but will develop, and the one with the most potential – classic nose, slightly chocolatey sweet, good texture; lovely fruit; the most powerful of the lot, sweet, full and rich, flatteringly fruity for Latour, very long; sweet and powerful on the nose, huge, tannin and extract on palate, but drinkable and a pleasure to drink; blackcurrants, big tannin with dried-fruits flavour; very young nose and taste, fruity and rich.
Ausone. Sweet and rich, agreeable but not very distinguished – autumn leaves nose, nice, open-knit texture; more acidity needed, attractive but slightly sludgy; sweet on nose and tasted rather glyceriney; nose almost gamey, tasting like a cough mixture; very sweet, not much body.
Cheval-Blanc. Rich, fruity engaging nose, sweet, round and fruity, but lacks finish – good but restrained nose, sweet, good texture and length; rather simple though, well-balanced, thick, velvety, somewhat ’82-like in build, with acidity that Ausone lacked, but less depth than Cheval-Blanc usually has at this stage; charming nose, deep Merlot fruit, silky taste, very well-balanced deep warm, round flavour, good but hard finish, tastes brought together in synthesis, but perhaps a little dull.
Petrus. Very rich, but unconcentrated nose. Pomerol-style taste and fruity but lacks intensity – bricky, cheesy nose, full flavour but lean for Petrus, very tannic; Earl-Grey tea flavour, but quite unresolved, slightly locked-in; not porty but most beguiling, quite floral nose, very firm and generous in the mouth, lovely length; closed nose, medicinal flavour; interesting but fades on the palate, slight weakness at centre.
After all glasses had been refreshed, the order of preference was taken: from one to eight, with the lowest number top. Although all agreed that there was no bad wine among them, the difference in ratings were more marked than usual.
One taster marked three wines equal first, and Petrus particularly disappointed two tasters. This is how they finished: 1 Latour, 2 Mouton-Rothschild, 3 Margaux and Cheval-Blanc equal, 5 Lafite, 6 Haut-Brion, 7 Petrus, 8 Ausone. My own number one was Margaux, followed by Latour.
Ten-year-old wines may vary from bottle to bottle, and only one bottle of each wine was opened.