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1993 and 1994 Bordeaux
Bordeaux lovers are patiently awaiting the arrival of the 1995 vintage, which was purchased in historic numbers on a futures basis -- lots of money up front for wines that had been described in print by writers and trade buyers who had tasted them from barrel in France. Those wines won't be here until late this year or early in 1998. In the meantime, Bordeaux's mixed bounty from 1993 and 1994 is now available in the market, and the question arises whether there are some well-priced bargains to be had while the wait for the 1995s proceeds.
The answer is yes, but making the right choice is a hazardous task. Those who are looking for a sure thing may be persuaded to be content with Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux-style blends (Meritage wines and proprietary red blends, such as Pahlmeyer, Insignia, etc.) from California's excellent 1994 vintage. While these wines for the most part don't deliver the combination of restrained power, finesse and compelling elegance found in the Bordeaux first and second growths from good years, they certainly will satisfy those who appreciate delicious, ripe fruit and supple textures. Nevertheless, California is not Bordeaux, so the search is on.
Poor little 1993. It was at best a mediocre, not-really-ripe Bordeaux vintage affected by lots of unwelcome rain at harvest, and then subsequently all but forgotten as the hype for the 1994 vintage began to gush from the wine review periodicals and newsletters. Soon, nobody was talking about the 1993 Bordeaux at all (except to fold it in with 1991 and 1992 as the last component of an inferior vintage trio), and prices dipped for the consumer. Yet, there wasn't any great rush to pick up these discounted bottlings that began to arrive in the spring of 1996, and many are still to be found on merchants' shelves. More importantly, many made their way onto restaurant wine lists.
The hype for the 1994 vintage began during the summer of that year, as French growers exulted in the warm, sunny weather of June through August. Now, finally after three miserable years, they had enough heat to get the grapes ripe, something California growers take for granted. But this joy and anticipation were dashed in September when, just as in the previous year, rain drenched the vineyards at harvest. Nevertheless, unlike 1993, the grapes were at least ripe when the rains came. The ability to sort out good barrels or batches of wine from the bad in the winery enabled Bordeaux winemakers to produce acceptable cuvees, although not of the quality originally expected during the previous summer.
Perhaps the best way to convey in an overall sense what these two vintages offer is to compare them to earlier vintages with which the Bordeaux lover is acquainted. Thus, generally, 1993 is reminiscent of the light-bodied, early-drinking wines produced in 1981, while 1994, which produced wines with more tannins and better concentration of fruit, resembles 1983.
That said, of the two years, the 1993s are certainly destined to be consumed early, since they offer little hope of improving much in the cellar. This is why restaurants, recognizing a good value in what might be termed a "sleeper vintage," stocked these wines that the consumer generally ignored, much as they did with 1980 red Burgundy and Bordeaux from 1979 and 1981.
The most successful 1994 Bordeaux are those that contain high percentages of Merlot in their blends, since growers were able to harvest most of this varietal before the rains hit, while the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon took the brunt of the weather.
The Vintners Club panel separately sampled representative wines from both these "eclipsed" vintages, with the emphasis in the 1993 tasting on first growth wines, while in the 1994 tasting, the highest-rated wines were second growths. The results indicate, as suggested above, that if the Bordeaux lover requires a wine for consumption now, 1993 is the best bet, especially if bottles are discounted by merchants seeking to clear their shelves for incoming inventory. The wines from 1994 may be consumed now with hearty food, and will gain some complexity over the next five years or so, but many will never lose their tannic edge.
The tasting notes below will focus on only the best wines from the two vintage tastings. Among the less-than-impressive wines in the 1993 tasting were eleventh-place finisher Chateau Ausone (St.-Emilion $68.50), 10th-place Chateau Pichon Baron (Pauillac $25) and 9th-place Chateau Beauregard (Pomerol $27); the 12th-place wine was unfortunately the result of a corked bottle.
In the tasting of the 1994s, the panel was unimpressed by 12th-place Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse (Pauillac $16), 11th-place Chateau Les Ormes de Pez (St.-Estephe $17), 10th place Chateau La Lagune (Haut-Medoc $21) and 9th-place Chateau Kirwan (Margaux $22).
FIRST PLACE WINES
1993 Chateau Haut-Brion, Pessac-Leognan ($57)
Slightly restrained nose of black currants, toasty oak, violets, plus a dusty quality that some described as mineral. A big wine, as would be expected from Haut-Brion, with medium-full tannins, lots of black currant or cassis fruit, a pleasant earthy note and a velvety texture. Somewhat angular now in structure, requiring at least a couple of years of cellaring.
1994 Chateau Leoville Barton, St.-Julien ($37)
Another big wine, both in terms of tannins and body, offering complex scents of spicy, ripe cherry-berry fruit, tobacco leaf, smoky oak, green olive and vanilla. The flavors replicate the nose and are highly extracted.
SECOND PLACE WINES
1993 Chateau Cheval Blanc, St.-Emilion ($55)
A very pleasant, seductive wine offering fragrant, appealing scents of vanilla custard, ripe cassis, and mild herbaceousness. Bold, yet classy, flavors of plumy black fruit have fine depth and concentration. A thoroughly elegant wine with a long vanilla-tinged finish. Approachable now.
1994 Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac ($39)
Deep, dark color and a wonderfully appealing nose of black cherries, cassis, plum and vanilla, plus notes of tobacco leaf and violets. Luscious and mouthfilling, offering lots of plumy cassis fruit with excellent depth and concentration, a hint of herbaceousness and evident new oak. Superbly elegant in every way; defies the vintage. The large percentage of Merlot (35 percent) certainly accounts for the wine's success in this vintage. Commonly referred to simply as Chateau Pichon-Lalande.
THIRD PLACE WINES
1993 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac ($55)
Forward, fragrant, appealing scents of toasty, smoky oak, ripe black cherry-cassis fruit and a hint of bell pepper lead to similar flavors on the palate, enhanced by a hint of mint; complex and delicious, although not quite as concentrated as the Cheval Blanc.
1994 Chateau Lynch-Bages, Pauillac ($25)
Comparatively restrained, yet complex, nose of cassis, wild mushrooms, tobacco leaf, leather and dusty cocoa, enhanced by toasty oak. Only moderately rich with medium tannins, the wine offers pleasant sweet cassis fruit and evident oak. Approachable now.
FOURTH PLACE WINES
1993 Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac ($24)
Pleasant, slightly earthy nose of black cherries, cassis and blueberries, clove-cinnamon spice, and lots of vanillin oak, with subtle hints of cigar box and violets. Luscious and supple in the mouth with medium tannins, offering delicious black cherry-cassis fruit with fine depth and moderate concentration, a hint of herbaceousness and evident new oak. Drinking wonderfully now.
1994 Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Baron, Pauillac ($26)
Located within walking distance of Pichon-Lalande, Pichon Baron, as the estate is commonly called, usually produces a bigger, less elegant wine than its neighbor. The 1994 Pichon Baron shows a bit of earthiness in the nose, along with a touch of mint, green olive herbaceousness, black cherry-cassis fruit and considerable oak char, which are replicated on the palate in flavors that have moderate depth and concentration. A touch of chocolate shows through in the short finish.
FIFTH PLACE WINES
1993 Chateau L'Angelus, St.-Emilion ($40)
Shy, pleasantly herbaceous nose offering cassis, cedar, violets and a hint of warm spice. Medium-full tannins make the wine seem somewhat hard and tough at this point, although a couple of years in the cellar should take off some of the rough edges. There is sufficient red berry fruit here to last out the tannins, but overall the wine shows more power than finesse.
1994 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Pessac-Leognan ($30)
Toasty oak dominates the nose, resembling roasted coffee beans, with pretty cherry fruit and a hint of mushrooms rounding out the aromas. Tight with medium-full tannins, the wine's cassis-berry fruit is dominated by oak and shows little indication of development potential. Drink now with hearty cuisine.
SIXTH PLACE WINES
1993 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac ($63)
Shy nose of bell pepper herbaceousness, dusty cherry-strawberry fruit, toasty oak, plus a hint of earthiness. Pleasant flavors of cassis, bing cherry and cranberry are enhanced by peppery spice. An adequate wine, but not up this producer's normally superb standards (especially at this price); a victim of the vintage.
1994 Chateau Calon-Segur, St.-Estephe ($25)
Pale in color and shy in aromas, this wine is basic claret, offering simple cassis in the nose and on the palate without much depth or complexity, enhanced only by a shy cedary note. Soft, medium tannins. Quaffable now.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.