Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Red Bordeaux Vintage 1997
The consumer who bought 1997 Bordeaux futures is now in an uncomfortable situation. Money that could have been earning interest in a bank account was instead paid in spring 1998 to a merchant for the privilege of securing a supply of the wine of one or more of the consumer's favorite estates. Now that the 1997 vintage is available at retail for current evaluation, that decision can be characterized as ill-advised.
As a whole, the wines of the vintage were grossly overpriced -- both in terms of fair-market value of what is in the bottle enhanced by the reputation of the chateau, as well as the quality of the 1997 vintage.
Even though the crop was smaller in contrast to the huge harvests of 1995 and 1996, suggesting to those who keep track of these things as elements in the decision whether to buy futures that supply would be tight, it turned out to be a lesser year than 1996. If both those essential facts had been known to the speculator before plunking down hard cash for the 1997s, it's more likely that the buyer would have sought out remaining stocks of the better 1996 vintage, many of which were then selling 30 to 40 percent below prices for the 1997s.
Based on the wines in the Vintners Club panel tasting listed below -- which included second through fifth growths, but no first growths -- the vintage can be characterized as serviceable, but not exciting, offering medium-bodied wines that are average and accessible for the most part, with delicate, fruity aromas and flavors. Some were much too lean for tasters with a California palate.
There are better wines among the first growths, which are much more selective in their harvesting, but the prices are nevertheless excessive for what you get. The best wines in this category -- Ch. Haut-Brion, Ch. Margaux and Ch. Mouton-Rothschild -- are much more accessible than usual, and generally lighter in body and extract than one would expect.
Assembled for the tasting panel were 12 wines from the 1997 Bordeaux vintage obtained at retail, with prices ranging from $20 for a cru bourgeois to $65 for second growth Cos-d'Estournel. The prices were discounted in many cases from the futures prices, simply because the wines were not moving well at retail. While most of them are "smaller" than usual, they can be considered food-friendly wines because of their good acidity and moderate tannins.
1997 Chateau Haut-Bailly, Pessac-Leognan, cru classe ($33)
Pleasant scents of cherries and cassis, shy oak spice and dried herbs. Medium body and medium tannins with similar flavors. This wine is not as generous as the estate's wines from a better vintage, but would be a good accompaniment to braised beef.
1997 Chateau Lynch-Bages, 5th growth, Pauillac ($52)
Muted nose of white pepper, raspberry and cassis, tobacco leaf and toasty oak. Medium body with medium-full tannins that seem excessive for the modest fruit. Disappointing wine from this fine estate, although it had its fans on the panel.
1997 Chateau Leoville Poyferre, St.-Julien second growth ($38)
Pleasant scents of glove leather, lightly charred oak and shy cassis are
replicated on the palate, but the flavors are overshadowed by medium-full
tannins and some astringency. A touch of earthiness on the palate leads to a slightly harsh finish.
1997 Chateau Montrose, St.-Estephe second growth ($54)
A well-made, appealing wine offering pleasant scents of Bing cherries and
cassis, slightly smoky oak and a touch of brown spice. Elegant and soft on the palate with lots of cassis-cherry fruit, a hint of smoke and an oaky note in the finish.
1997 Chateau Cos-d'Estournel, St.-Estephe second growth ($65)
Certainly the best concentrated wine in this flight, this fine Cos exhibits a
pleasant, distinctly herbaceous, bell pepper-like nose of black currants,
chocolate and smoky oak. Good structure and fine tannins show off the generous fruit, and the moderately fleshy palate is plump and velvety.
1997 Chateau Haut-Batailley, Pauillac fifth growth ($24)
Fragrant, mildly herbaceous nose of black cherries, cassis and glove leather. Medium-bodied with ripe, medium tannins offering slightly dusty black fruits. Good length to the flavors.
1997 Chateau Lafon-Rochet, St.-Estephe fourth growth ($24)
Shy nose of berry fruit, vanilla and a hint of minerals. The palate seems lean and angular and offers only modest fruit and medium-full tannins.
1997 Chateau Grand-Puy-Ducasse, Pauillac fifth growth ($20)
Somewhat weedy nose of tobacco leaf, shy cherry-cassis fruit, oak char and vanilla. Comparatively tough and chewy with medium tannins, the wine's modest flavors focus on black fruits and dried herbs. Short finish.
1997 Chateau Calon-Segur, St.-Estephe third growth ($25)
Scents of cherries and berries plus some toasty oak. On the palate, the wine is washed out and light, and offers no depth. It's doubtful the wine could stand up to food.
1997 Chateau Tour de Pez, St.-Estephe cru bourgeois ($20)
Quite smoky in the nose, almost sausage-like, which comes across on the palate, where the fruit is stingy and quite overwhelmed by the oak. Bitter finish.
1997 Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Pessac-Leognan ($34)
Not quite as disappointing as its ranking suggests, the wine exhibits ripe
fruit for a change, along with toasty oak in the nose and similar flavors that
have moderate weight and depth and are accented by a subtle green herb note.
1997 Chateau Vieux Fortin, St.-Emilion ($21)
Again, a better wine than suggested by its ranking, offering pleasant, fruity
cassis scents. Soft and moderately fleshy with medium tannins, the wine's ripe, red cherry-cassis fruit is enhanced by a touch of green herb. While not particularly deep or complex, it's a good, near-term wine that should work nicely with simple fare.
Virtually visit the Vintners Club at www.vintnersclub.com
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.