In August 2016 I had the great pleasure of presenting two Library Tastings in the Board Room of the Villa Maria winery, Montgomerie Rd, Mangere. This came about thanks to the kindness of Export Manager Ian Clark, and owner Sir George Fistonich. The other tasting, 1998 Southern Rhone Valley wines, has been reported on here. As planning for this 1986 tasting proceeded, one further pleasure was to have several younger tasters confide to me that this would be their first serious opportunity to assess a Bordeaux First Growth. By 'serious' they meant blind, among other relevant wines. Such moments are very special, to people who love wine.
The tasting turned out to be a great thrill for most participants. The two First Growths were in sparkling form, Gruaud-Larose lived up to its reputation for the vintage, and New Zealand's 1987 Stonyridge Larose from Waiheke Island was clearly and dramatically among the top four wines of the tasting. We used the 1987 vintage for all the New Zealand reds, because the year was much better than 1986, so the local wines had a better chance of competing. The Stonyridge has from the outset been a sensational wine, illustrating for all those with the experience to appreciate it, that New Zealand could indeed make world-class cabernet / merlot reds. At the other end of the scale, another 'famous' Auckland district wine, The Antipodean (which is rarely if ever assessed blind) showed how easy it is to fool New Zealanders in wine matters. As always, the wine rankings were taken while all bottles were still blind, decanted into 12 identical bottles, and presented in numbered bags.
The top four wines in the 1986 / 87 Bordeaux blends Library Tasting at Villa Maria winery, Mangere, August 2016. From the left: 1986 Ch Margaux, 19.5, near-perfect claret; 1986 Ch Mouton-Rothschild, 19 +, slightly cedary; 1986 Ch Gruaud-Larose, 18.5 +, amazingly rich yet not in the slightest bit heavy; and 1987 Stonyridge Larose 18.5, simply remarkable.
Robert Parker (in his 2003 book, Bordeaux) says of the 1986 vintage: The year 1986 is without doubt a great vintage for the northern Medoc, particularly for St Julien and Pauillac. Our tasting will offer one Saint-Julien and two Pauillacs. Our First Growths include 1986 Mouton Rothschild and Ch Margaux, the former considered by most informed commentators to be (Decanter, May 2006): the star of the vintage, with some claiming it could be a 1945 in the making ... Parker has time and again given it a perfect 100-point score, not to mention a drinking window up to 2096. Other strong performers include ... Ch Margaux ...
As the years have gone by, views and ratings have changed. Here is a contemporary view from Jeff Leve:
Critics at the time were enamored with 1986 Bordeaux wine, when they first tasted them. But time has not been kind to most 1986 Bordeaux wine. The fruit has fled over the past few decades and with few exceptions, only the brutal, hard tannins remain. 1986 Bordeaux wine has power, structure and concentration, but most lack charm, elegance or softness. 1986 Bordeaux wine is a stern, old school Bordeaux vintage that fans of what is known as "traditional Bordeaux" enjoy.
It is undeniable that a few great wines were produced. The best 1986 Bordeaux wine came from the Cabernet Sauvignon based wines from the Medoc, especially in Pauillac and St. Julien. Chateau Mouton Rothschild tastes like a 4 year old wine. And this is after close to 4 decades of age! It's a stunning wine and is the 1986 Bordeaux wine of the vintage! Gruaud Larose is sublime as is Leoville Las Cases and Rauzan Segla. There are a few others, but the good wines are far and few between.
So at the very least, since we have both the Mouton and Gruaud-Larose, we have an interesting tasting before us.
But why, it may be asked, am I offering 1987 New Zealand reds alongside 1986 Bordeaux. The only substantive reporting on the New Zealand 1986 and 1987 red wine vintages at the time was in National Business Review. There after several thorough comparative tastings I reported that (paraphrased): 1987 was a turning point in the evolution of 'claret' styles in this country. Up till then, there had been only Tom McDonald's 1965 McWilliams Cabernet Sauvignon, maybe the 1969, and the 1982 and 1983 Te Mata reds to demonstrate that we could in fact ripen cabernet ± merlot winestyles to Bordeaux standards in New Zealand. The key wine involved in reaching those conclusions was 1987 Stonyridge Larose, which we have in this tasting tonight. Accordingly the 1987s seem the obvious New Zealand wines to run against 1986 Bordeaux.
For the Bordeaux, interestingly, Wine Spectator (which has the best-annotated vintage charts in the business), still rates the vintage 95, and says: Powerful, intense and tannic; best in Médoc. Steven Spurrier is one of the wisest wine-heads in the UK nowadays, and when it comes to Bordeaux has for many years been the guiding light at the UK's Decanter magazine. This is Decanter's summary of the 1986 vintage in Bordeaux:
A dry, hot summer held the promise of another great vintage until heavy rain at the end of September forced the harvest date back while swelling the grapes to produce a crop even larger than 1985. The natural exoticism of Mouton met these conditions head on to produce the wine of the vintage, but for most of the rest, Broadbent noted in 2001 that 'they might, just might, turn out well ... they are, of course, 'food wines' and unlikely to go over the hill without plenty of notice'. The Wine Society was more positive: 'Powerful, long-lasting classic wines for laying down; very fine Cabernet in Pauillac and St-Estephe, some superior to 1985 but with less obvious charm.' This was my view and I bought quite a lot. D'Angludet and the more chunky Lascombes from Margaux had flesh to match the tannins, while I noted a Monbrison (a good Margaux cru bourgeois) as 'a classic inky claret' on New Year's Eve 2006; recently, my last bottle still showed depth and vigour, but little Margaux charm. A Léoville-Barton opened in February 2013 was strikingly young still, but still packing an iron fist. The best 1986 Médocs will keep Left Bank addicts interested for another decade, while Merlot fans should give them a miss.
Broadbent, Michael 2002: Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine. Harcourt, 560 p.
Cooper, Michael 1990: Pocket Guide to New Zealand Wines & Vintages. Hodder & Stoughton, 256 p.
Cooper, Michael 1992: Buyer's Guide to New Zealand Wines. Hodder & Stoughton, 280 p.
Decanter (compilation), 2013: 1980s a Médoc lover's guide www.decanter.com/features/1980-s-a-medoc-lovers-guide-245983
Kelly, Geoff, 1989: Various articles in National Business Review.
Leve, Jeff: 1986 Bordeaux Wine Vintage Report and Buying Guide. www.thewinecellarinsider.com
Parker, Robert 1991: Bordeaux. Simon & Schuster, 1026 p.
Parker, Robert M., 2003: Bordeaux. Simon & Schuster,
Penning-Rowsell, Edmund 1985: The Wines of Bordeaux.
Penguin, 606 p. Various Editions 1969 – 1985.
Peppercorn, David 1986: The Wines of Bordeaux. Mitchell Beazley, 144 p.
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW (subscription needed)
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker alone for this tasting (subscription needed)
www.thewinecellarinsider.com = Jeff Leve
www.winespectator.com/vintagecharts/search/id/25 (subscription needed)
THE WINES REVIEWED:
# The first price given below is the current wine-searcher value, which gives an indication of the broader market estimation of the wine now. Where available, the original purchase price is given in the text following.
Ruby and garnet, fractionally deeper and redder than the Mouton, the deepest colour. Bouquet is enchanting. Here in contradistinction to the Mouton, the cassisy berry is in the ascendant, with a depth and complexity even after 30 years including a suggestion of violets florals. For most people the purity of bouquet was stunning, but a couple of experienced tasters felt this particular bottle showed slight impairment. In mouth the comparison and contrast with the Mouton was spectacular, even at the blind stage these two wines showing a complexity and nobility of the fruit / oak interaction which eclipsed the other 10 bottles. The quality of cassis-oriented fruit on palate here is magical, the fruit dominating the oak but still totally shaped by it. The palate is nearly as concentrated as the Mouton, with the aftertaste enormously long on berry, and cedary oak too, but much less so than the Mouton. Comment in the room suggested 1986 Ch Margaux is distressingly variable in bottle, sadly, so every opening is a prayer of hope, and chance. This is the best bottle I have seen, by far. For the group, this wine was almost as clearly top wine as the Mouton, nine votes for favourite or second place, but it spoke more clearly as being of First Growth quality, eight thinking it so. Total balance in this wine seems near-perfect, and good bottles will cellar for another 10 30 years easily. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, still remarkably red, the second deepest wine. Bouquet to first impression is overwhelmingly cedary, cedar of superlative quality, quite magical in a vinous context, but immediately a little voice says, yes but, I want my great clarets to smell of grapes first and foremost. The purity and alcohol zing on bouquet is enchanting, the given alcohol being the usual French nonsense for the era. It is in mouth that this wine suddenly expands fourfold, to become sensationally velvety, all embracing and enchanting. Now one can taste the cassis, browning a little now, which coupled with supreme poise, finesse, and elegance, the combination of berry and cedar in mouth lasts and lasts, with needless to say a divine but cedary aftertaste. Acid balance seems perfect, the wine having freshness right through. Since it seems not quite perfection on bouquet, though, for scoring I side more with Robinson. Perfect now, but will cellar many years, 20 +, drying all the while. By a small margin, the favourite wine for the group, 10 first or second places, but only six ranking it a First Growth, interestingly. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, identical in hue to the Margaux but fractionally lighter, the third deepest colour. Bouquet is strong, not quite perfect, initially a faintly varnishy edge on the cooperage deflecting attention from the quality of beautifully cassisy berry. Once it has taken a breath of air, there is great purity and lift, a clean aromatic bouquet with good freshness, contrasting with some of the wines placed earlier in the presented line-up of 12. This wine too commanded more attention on palate, showing astonishing concentration of berry shaped by oak, fractionally richer than the Ch Margaux, a little more oaky too, but the tannins though evident softening beautifully. It is closer to the Mouton in style than the Ch Margaux Parker's estimation of the wine seems spot-on. It is the finest Gruaud-Larose I have seen. Four people rated this their top or second wine, and seven thought it a First Growth. Cellar another 5 20 + years. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, the second-lightest wine. Nothing light about the bouquet however, this wine almost epitomises the claret style: great aromatic cassisy freshness and excitement with apparent sweetness and lift. Clear cassis melds with cedary oak to achieve a total vinosity that escapes the Gruaud-Larose (on bouquet) and even the too-cedary Mouton. Nett impression on bouquet doesn't quite carry through to palate, but largely because of the company on the day. The Mouton, Margaux and Gruaud-Larose are spectacularly concentrated examples of fine claret as as it used to be understood, whereas the Stonyridge is more standard-weight classed growth. The integration and melding together of berry, oak and acid is superlative, the wine seeming totally in harmony with itself. On the long aftertaste the fruit tapers just a little. A lovely bottle, at a peak of perfection (still), showing beautifully on the day. Martin Pickering, the current Stonyridge winemaker, commented that he doubted their remaining bottles cellared on Waiheke Island would shows the freshness this Wellington-cellared bottle displays. This has frequently been my experience, over the years. The 3.5° mean temperature difference between Auckland and Wellington has an enormous impact on the way wines mature and stay at a peak in cellar. Six people had this as their second-favourite wine of the evening, 11 of the 21 thought it Bordeaux, and four thought it a First Growth. It is results like this, in a rigorously blind tasting for 21 people, half of them winemakers, that confirm Steven Spurrier's view expressed a few years ago (in Decanter), that when it comes to challengers to traditional Bordeaux red wine styles, New Zealand cabernet / merlots can (at best) most closely match fine Bordeaux relative to cabernet / merlots from the rest of the world. In the entire post-war period in New Zealand through to 1998, this 1987 Stonyridge Larose takes its place with 1965 McWilliams Cabernet Sauvignon, and 1982 and 1983 Te Mata Coleraine, as one of the four greatest New Zealand red wines of that entire era. A great achievement. There are not many bottles left now; those in cool cellars will hold a few more years. GK 08/16
Garnet and ruby, midway in depth. Never did a bottle more dramatically illustrate the benefits of decanting and air. Freshly opened this wine was massive and dull. Yet it fairly quickly cleared to reveal dramatic cassis perhaps the definitive example of cassis in the tasting, the wine being nearly 100% cabernet sauvignon. In mouth there is not quite the harmony of the top cooler-climate wines, the thought of acid adjustment being apparent, but the pinpoint ripeness of the cabernet is simply a delight. It contrasted vividly with the Ch La Lagune, where there is evident sur-maturité, blackberry being the dominant fruit note. Length of flavour is good though oak handling is to a max, but considering the era in the new world, all pretty good. I did hear a winemaker mention brett, but I am disinclined to believe it. Anyway, in a dinner context that thought would not upset at all just vinosity / complexity. Lovely wine, so much what I expect from West Australia, and thus contrasting vividly with the recent vintages of Vasse Felix cabernets shown recently in Wellington, and reported on in an article on the Negociants Tour, July 2016. Five rated this wine their first or second favourite, 14 thought it from France, and nobody thought it Australian. You can't ask for a better result than that. Cellar 5 25 years, also to lose tannin. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, below midway but one of the redder wines. In setting up tastings, I like the first wine in the blind line-up of 12 to be totally a representative (or at least illustrative) example of what the tasting is about. As so often, in examining the wines following decanting, Ch Grand-Puy-Lacoste seemed ideally suited to this task. Bouquet epitomises 'concept claret', beautiful cassisy berry browning now, elegant cedary oak, delightful freshness and excitement (in a measured way), simply an attractive cabernet / merlot displaying Bordeaux magic. Palate is similar, evident cassisy berry, perhaps a little one-dimensional alongside the Stonyridge Larose let alone those rated more highly, but a lovely glass of mature wine. Cellar up to another 15 years, to lose tannin. Being first wine in the lineup, the most invidious position in any tasting, it did not rate in the favourites ranking at all. GK 08/16
Garnet and ruby, exactly the same hue as the Villa Maria, but deeper, just above midway in depth. Bouquet on this wine is big, soft and ample, clearly plummy rather than cassisy, so thus clearly merlot-dominant rather than cabernet-dominant. I used it in the sequencing of the wines, as a breakpoint after variously ripe to under-ripe cabernet-dominant wines, to lead into the more harmonious final group. Palate is equally soft, round and velvety, illustrating the Saint-Emilion / Pomerol style well, in a field dominated by cabernet sauvignon-led wines. You feel it is all just a bit too ripe to show the floral subtlety merlot can at best display. Nonetheless three people rated it their top wine, which makes perfect sense if a less aromatic kind of claret is the preference. Two thought it Australian, but 11 correctly sheeted it home to Bordeaux. At a peak now, probably a risk of losing freshness if kept much longer. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, one of the redder wines, just below midway in depth. Working down from the top-ranked wines, a big change in the quality of bouquet at this point. Bouquet here is soft, ripe and warm, almost thoughts of blackberry ice cream with the vanillin evident from new oak, the fruit clearly over-ripe in terms of cassis and cabernet, the dominant notes being blackberry and stewed plum. Balance in mouth is fleshy, no other word for it, not the sophistication of elevage of the wines rated more highly, but all in all a good mouthful of ripe fruit. I suspect Broadbent would have used his useful term 'foursquare' for this wine. On the group ranking assessment, one second place, but as to location, people were not sure, but maybe French on balance. Fully mature, but will cellar 5 15 years yet. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, a good hue but the lightest in depth. Bouquet is intriguing, showing a freshness and aromatic edge that is more appropriate to a serious red from the Loire Valley than to New Zealand or Bordeaux. Delving deeper, there is some cassis character, but clear red currants too, and thoughts of red plums all browning now, not black plums at all as in L'Arrosée. Palate is softer, richer and more supple than one feared on bouquet, with beautifully subtle oak. The analogy with a good Loire Valley red in maturity seems even more apt. Though it is red berry-dominant, the wine magically avoids the overtly under-ripe cabernet characters several other wines in the tasting show. The total ripeness and pleasantness thus shares the stage with the Stonyridge, for the New Zealand wines in the tasting, but in a totally different style of achievement intriguing. No first or second places, most correctly identified it as New Zealand. Fully mature now, no great hurry but best finished up. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet. In contrast to the Goldwater, bouquet on this red is redolent of the first faltering footsteps of cabernet / merlot blends in New Zealand. There is a considerable volume of fresh berry, and hints of cassis, but also suggestions of stalks and an aromatic edge too. In flavour the wine is lighter in body, red currants dominant with a hint of cassis, but also just a trace of sweet ripe red capsicum. Total acid is beautifully tailored, perhaps showing sophisticated management of the wine in elevation, for the flavours suggest higher total acid. The nett pleasantness of the wine in a food context is quite good, despite the lack of ripeness. Nonetheless, five tasters rated it their least wine of the tasting, so my interpretation should be seen as on the 'positive' side. Fully mature, again no hurry but nothing to be gained by keeping it. GK 08/16
Garnet and ruby. One sniff and this wine is out of line for the Bordeaux blends theme of the tasting. Bouquet is baked, hot climate cabernet over-ripened beyond any concept of cassis, blackberry or plums, more raisins and beef extract, yet with an odd dried herbs / spicy note, in a 'fruity' setting. Flavour is soft, ripe, rich, round and furry, ample gentle tannins, a perfectly pleasant hot-climate wine style, but one totally lacking the magic and challenge that better cabernet / merlot blends from the Napa Valley can achieve, in tastings of this kind. So, a disappointment, in this context. Curiously, most thought it from New Zealand. Fully mature to fading now, best finished up. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, remarkably red, towards the lighter end. Bouquet is clean, lean and fragrant, with the tell-tale character absolutely bespeaking critically under-ripe cabernet sauvignon in mature wines: the smell of cigarettes stubbed out in an ashtray, smelt the following morning. Other bouquet characters include hints of browning red currants, cooked rhubarb stalks, and red peppers. Palate is an intriguing mix of all those characters, coupled with highish acid and unusual concentration (for the era) in New Zealand. It is as rich as some of the classed growths, noticeably much richer than the Villa Maria, but there is little point in concentrating critically under-ripe and thus completely inappropriate flavours. The nett achievement of this wine was crystal-clear to tasters, a full two-thirds of the group rating it the least wine of the 12. Where it came from was another matter, all four countries being offered. Interestingly, though this tasting was presented in Auckland, and nearly half the tasters were winemakers, not a single person had tasted this much hyped 1987 Antipodean alongside other Auckland bordeaux blends such as 1987 Stonyridge Larose, 1987 Goldwater Cabernet / Merlot / Franc, and the other New Zealand 1987 Cabernet / Merlot representative of the era, in this case the Villa Maria (not all Auckland fruit). Fully mature to fading now, best drunk up with pizza. GK 08/16