Listen to this article
Nineteen-seventy-three was a “might-have-been” vintage. After a good, early flowering it was clear that the vintage was likely to be a big one; and though July was wet, August and the first half of September were very warm indeed. In Bordeaux expectations were high as the vintage approached.
I recollect attending on 11th September an evening party in the courtyard of Cos d’Estournel – in front of those Chinoiserie-architecture cellars – given by the then new proprietor, Bruno Prats. Tout Bordeaux Vinicole was there and it was very warm. A vineyard owner said to me: “If this weather continues it will be a great year.” But it didn’t. On the 15th the heavens opened, and there was severe hail affecting Haut-Brion and La Mission-Haut Brion; and when the vintage began on the 25th the grapes were swollen, the juice diluted. The red wine crop was a postwar record of 2.48m hectolitres of moderate wine that had arrived at the wrong time.
The investment speculation boom that had sent fine claret prices sky-high for the four previous vintages suddenly collapsed that summer and they were further lowered by the ‘energy crisis’ that autumn.
So when the 1973s came on the market in spring 1974, prices tumbled. The first-growth prices were down to FFr50,000-52,000 and Latour did not offer its wine at all en primeur.
As a result of all this the 1973s took a long time to ‘find their feet,’ especially as the following vintage in 1974 was also very large on an overloaded market: 2.24m hl of red wine. There were a good many claims in Bordeaux that the 1974s were better than the 1973s, but for the most part they have turned out hard and charmless, whereas a number of the 1973s have developed into light, but agreeable wines.
Readers pertinacious enough to read this column regularly may recall that, except for uncommonly poor vintages such as 1972, it has been the custom here to record the results of tasting the first-growths of each year when they have attained a seniority of ten years old. For in Bordeaux it has been a tradition that fine bottles of a good vintage need at least ten years before being opened – a tradition unfortunately not greatly adhered to nowadays.
Nevertheless, the ‘ten-year rule’ does provide an opportunity to assess what should be among the best clarets of each vintage after they have had a fair chance to develop. So this time it was the turn of the 1973s, and six of us – the maximum number to ‘look’ seriously at a bottle – sat down to sample seven first-growths (all but Ausone, that I did not possess and which anyhow was not then judged to be first-growth standard).
The six included a Master of Wine, a woman wine-writer, a restaurant proprietor, a don and wine steward of an Oxford college, my wife and myself.
At the end, after refreshing the glasses, we voted our preferences from one to seven, the lowest number being the best, the highest the least good. The comments, made at the table were mostly my own, with additions from the notes of others. On the whole there was general agreement as to the order, although the Oxford don, a dedicated Medoc-drinker, downgraded the Cheval-Blanc, though not the Petrus.
Here, then, are the notes on the wines in the order in which they were served.
Ch Margaux. Good colour for the year, though brown on the rim. Quite a flowery bouquet as to be expected from this château. Taste initially quite fruity, but dry and thin at the end. ‘Watery,’ was one comment; ‘was it heavily chaptalised?’ another.
Ch Haut-Brion. More colour than Margaux, and looks younger. Very little nose at first, and surprisingly dumb, but the “bricky” Graves nose developed in the glass, and this showed on the palate, with more body than the Margaux, though it lacked flesh. There was some divergence of opinion on this wine, with three drinkers putting it in the higher (better) end of the list, others at the lower (less good) end.
Ch Lafite. Fair colour and a refined bouquet, but very light on the tongue and lacking substance and follow-through. Other comments included: nose faded fast, artificially sweet taste, distinct absence of fruit, tails off. In view of the standing of Lafite, it was unanimously agreed to be disappointing.
Ch Mouton-Rothschild. Big deep colour, reluctant nose, and a most “unlikely” one for Mouton, although one taster found it “meaty.” Some acidity noticeable, but a good drink that held well in the glass, but lacked charm. Long taste and might have another year or so in hand. Agreed to be untypical Mouton-Rothschild.
Ch Latour. Very big deep colour, the fullest of all, with no brown at rim. Surprisingly closed on the nose (all wines had been decanted at least an hour before serving, the later-tasted ones longer). Full flavour, excellent balance. The first wine to show its breeding; no sign of confection. The only wine so far likely to improve. “Even-keeled, but low-keyed,” all placed it high on their list of preferences.
Ch Cheval-Blanc. Very good colour, but watery at edge. Gentle but sweet aroma that came out of the glass to meet one; the only wine that did so, charming and fragrant. Deliciously sweet seductive flavour, soft and “spicy.” A bouquet of violets. A very well-constituted wine, with a minority report from Oxford: “slightly thin, but a long-lasting taste.”
Ch Petrus. Big colour, full all the way, and much deeper than Cheval-Blanc. Aroma very restrained and disappointing. Flavour rather dull, “tight” and lacking distinction. Good finish its most satisfying qualify, but “unexciting.” Petrus can usually be relied on to produce an above-average fruity wine in even a moderate vintage, and more had been expected of it. So all but one taster was disappointed.
When it came to the vote Cheval-Blanc’s charm placed it decisively first with five of the six putting it first (9), though in the long run Latour was almost certainly the best wine (13). Petrus came third (22), followed by Haut-Brion as fourth (25), Mouton-Rothschild fifth (28), Margaux sixth (34) and Lafite seventh (35). Lafite was the most disappointing, for Margaux was known to be in a poor period.
Finally, it needs to be said that these views were based on one bottle of each wine, drunk on a single occasion. Different opinions and placings might arise on other bottles and other occasions.