1978: Appalling growing season. At the end of August chateaux owners were in despair. Complete disaster loomed. Then, suddenly, the weather improved with a September blessed with cloudless skies and unbroken ripening sunshine through to the start of harvest just after the first week in October. It was, in the many times repeated words of Harry Waugh, ‘the year of the miracle’. But could a last minute reprieve make up for the previous miserable conditions? Michael Broadbent, 2002
Conclusions from the tasting:
For anyone taking an interest in older bordeaux, the nett impression one would gather from from the Net is, that the wines of the ‘70s are now pretty sad, and almost to be bypassed. The first thing to say in riposte to that is, quite simply, in that era, claret and bordeaux were not expected to be big, weighty, and ‘impressive’ – in the way they are now, after a whole generation of wine assessment so very much influenced (for better or worse) by the American obsession with size and ripeness in wine.
The best of these 1978s are simply beautiful wines, the best of them so fragrant that as the blind bottles passed round the room, as people poured their 30 ml measure each, you could see this look of astonishment and delight, wow, that wonderful smell, on nearly every face. This is rare, in any wine tasting. But by the same token, even the greatest of these wines is not a ‘big’ wine, by modern standards. It fell to the interloper, Sassicaia, to be the sturdy wine of the day.
The top five wines scoring 18 points or more in this tasting. From the left, 1978 Ch Grand-Puy-Lacoste, smaller-scale but showing a wonderful harmony of cassis-led smells and flavours all browning now, with fragrant cedary oak, the palate soft and harmonious, 18; 1978 Ch Pichon Lalande, not quite as perfectly ripe as the Grand-Puy-Lacoste but a little richer, very much 'classic claret', 18 +; 1978 Sassicaia, bigger and riper than any of the bordeaux, a little burly, but well-liked, 18.5; 1978 Ch Latour, a wonderful bouquet showing great ripeness and classic claret style, still good richness, fully mature, a well-liked wine, 18.5 +; and the top wine for me, 1978 Ch Leoville Las Cases, an extraordinary volume of bouquet, followed by perfect mouth-filling ripeness of all varieties, not the richest wine but the most elegant and complex, 19.To judge from this tasting, with wines bought at release and cellared since then in near-ideal ambient under-house conditions in Wellington’s excessively modest climate, 1978 bordeaux are now all à point for drinking, even the most serious labels. Being not as ripe as wines from modern vintages considered good, these 1978s present complex and informative bouquets, adding greatly to the pleasure of assessing them – and drinking them. Note these bottle are all from the cool Wellington climate. Auckland bottles (for example) would probably smell and taste considerably older.
Information provided for tasters:
The world was cooler place in 1978, and the 1970s as a whole were particularly modest in Bordeaux. Broadbent rated the vintage ***, a late cool vintage saved by fine weather in later September and October. He considers 1978 better than 1979. Robert Parker rates it 87 – 88 mostly, and 1979 similarly. In contrast, the vintage was highly regarded in Burgundy, the best since 1971, ***** from Broadbent, but less from Parker (who wasn't so good with Burgundy), and if anything the Rhone was more highly regarded, with the usually understated Broadbent ***** again, with words like 'astonishing' and 'absolute perfection'. Parker scored the Rhone Valley 97 – 98, the highest ratings he has ever given the district – until 2010. Broadbent has Barolo at ***** too, and Parker 97. So there should be some attractive if fully mature aromas and flavours in this set of wines.
Most of the information given to tasters for each wine is now in the italicised ‘admin’ section for each wine. Where possible in the notes for the wines below, I have sought to give an early comment, Broadbent where available, then for this tasting I am adding in a Clive Coates' assessment, for though he is not as clinical as I prefer, he has tasted an enviable amount of Bordeaux ! Then finally, a Parker summary, to tap his now magisterial overview of the last 50 years of Bordeaux vintages. This step has highlighted how very individual and fraught wine-writing is: in the excerpts which follow, often there seems no hint they are talking about the same wine. So the old rule applies: there are no great wines, no fixed attributes in wine: each bottle is itself, after this passage of time. So every tasting like this is an adventure, setting out in the hope that certain bottles will be the very best they could be, having regard to their age … now 40 years old.
NB: for nearly all the bordeaux notes, the Parker views are his thoughts on the youngish wine. The other reflection that occurred in preparing these notes is: how few reviews there are on-line now about the 1978 vintage. Only Parker has comprehensive knowledge of the vintage. Yet 1978 is not so long ago. It seems extraordinary that so often, Wine Spectator (and even Jancis Robinson) have nothing to say, with all their resources and connections. A wine friend of mine (in Hong Kong) writes, in response to the invitation on my website, how weird it is that good 1978 wines are being offered for public tasting in Wellington, New Zealand.
Note that for those few wines displaying alcohols, just how great the change in wine style has been in the last 40 years, as the American preference for fully-ripe to over-ripe wines came to dominate both consumer taste ... and therefore, wine-making approaches, world-wide. At the same time global warming made it easier to achieve full ripeness or (all too often) over-ripening. Temperate-climate wine-lovers can only hope the pendulum principle will apply to this issue.
Broadbent, Michael 2002: Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine. Harcourt, 560 p.
Coates, Clive, 2004: The Wines of Bordeaux. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 720 p.
Parker, Robert 1991: Bordeaux. Simon & Schuster, 1026 p.
Parker, Robert M., 2003: Bordeaux, Fourth Edition. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1244 p.
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW, subscription needed for reviews
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker and associates, vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
www.winespectator.com = vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
THE WINES REVIEWED, CABERNET / MERLOT (bar one):
1978 Ch d’Angludet, Margaux cru bourgeois
1978 Ch Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac Fifth Growth
1978 Ch Latour, Pauillac First Growth
1978 Ch Leoville Barton, Saint Julien Second Growth
1978 Ch Leoville Las Cases, Saint-Julien 2nd Growth
1978 Ch Montrose, Saint-Estephe Second Growth
1978 Ch Palmer, Margaux Third Growth
|1978 Ch Pichon Lalande, Pauillac Second Growth|
1978 Ch Pontet Canet, Pauillac Second Growth
1978 Pine Ridge Cab. Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa V.
1978 Pio Cesare Barolo, Piedmont
1978 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia, Tuscany
Ruby and garnet, a glowing and totally appropriate colour for 40-year-old claret, the third deepest wine. This was the wine which, as it was passed round and poured, produced an absolutely sensational volume of infinitely beautiful cedar plus berry plus browning cassis aroma. The strength of this bouquet, including its near-floral notes (but fading now, naturally) is unusual, and not found so easily in the warmer years. Palate follows perfectly, neat, perfectly shaped, not weighty but showing pinpoint ripeness of all components. This fragrant, mouth-filling beauty of flavour is something one hopes for in all bordeaux, and so rarely finds. Even on the aftertaste, sweet fruit continues, still fragrant and nearly aromatic though cabernet sauvignon is a lower percentage than usual, this year. Four tasters rated this their top wine, two their second favourite, and in contrast to all the other ‘better’ wines, nobody thought it California or Tuscany, at all. It spoke of classic Bordeaux to everybody. A thrill. Fully mature, but no hurry. GK 10/18
Ruby and garnet, the second deepest wine, close to the Las Cases but fractionally older. This was the other great bouquet in the set, again perfect ripeness of the claret varieties, nothing pinched. It is not quite so berry-dominant as the Las Cases, the cedary oak a little more noticeable. In flavour one was hard put to know whether the Latour or the Las Cases was the richer wine, the Latour having a much higher ratio of cabernet sauvignon but also more new oak, both factors making it hard to be sure. The main thing is, like the Las Cases, this is a lovely balanced example of ripe Bordeaux, from a year in which that was hard to achieve. Again, this wine is fully mature, but will hold its form probably longer than the Las Cases. Three people rated Ch Latour their top wine at the blind stage, and seven their second-favourite. Intriguingly, four thought it could be the Sassicaia. GK 10/18
Ruby more than garnet, clearly the deepest and most youthful wine. And bouquet matches the colour impression exactly, clearly bigger and riper than any of the Bordeaux, but at the same time, not so complex, fragrant, and nearly floral as the best of them. The high cabernet sauvignon comes across as clear cassis, bigger and riper than the other wines but still exciting, with quite big oak. In mouth the impression of size on bouquet is instantly confirmed, nearly a suggestion of Australian ripeness, almost too much sunshine and new oak, but it was not apparent if there had been a tartaric acid adjustment, the finish being gentle and attractive. The wine is remarkably in-style for the grapes, but seemed more modern in every respect, bigger, riper, just a little burly. This confusion of impressions resulted in the wine being top-rated by only one taster, but no less than eight had it as their second-favourite wine. In a Bordeaux-themed tasting, that is an interesting and thoughtful response. 1978 Sassicaia will cellar for another 20 years, at least, corks willing. GK 10/18
Ruby and garnet, close in hue to the Las Cases but less rich, just above midway in depth. The volume of bouquet nearly matches Las Cases and Latour, clearly one of the top three bordeaux sensu stricto in the tasting, very fragrant. On very close examination, you wonder if there is slightly more tobacco, and less cassis-related aromas, with oak similar to the Las Cases. Flavour is rich but slightly fresher than the top wines, just a hint of less-than-perfect ripeness in the grapes, not quite so cassisy, but it would be mean-spirited to say that it is stalky. It epitomises what is now called ‘the classic claret style’ – which to many people now means under-ripe, but to others, simply refreshing. Four people rated Ch Pichon-Lalande the top wine of the evening. It is now fully mature, but should hold this form for some years. GK 10/18
Garnet and ruby, glowing, above midway in depth. The bouquet is glorious classic Grand-Puy-Lacoste, back in the days when it had a wonderful cedar-led quality to it, as if it were pure cabernet sauvignon, but raised in Rioja. Recent vintages are not quite so distinctive. Below the cedar is perfectly ripe cabernet, riper than the Pichon-Lalande, cassis-led but browning now. Palate is soft, round, harmonious, fragrant on the cedar yet not oaky, but somehow not as complex and exciting as the fractionally less-ripe Pichon. Different people would therefore rate these two wines quite differently, as to which was the better. This wine is very much the taste of how things used to be – intriguing. I placed Grand-Puy-Lacoste first in the blind tasting of 12 wines, to emphasise the concept of harmony in older wine. Accordingly, since it is near-impossible for the first wine in a line-up of 12 to ever be rated the top wine, there were no top places, but there were two second. Fully mature, but no hurry. GK 10/18
Ruby and garnet, above midway in depth. This wine smells for all the world as if merlot were dominant or nearly so, a softer, more plummy, less aromatic dark red fruits quality, with gentle cedary oak totally in the background. Palate is a little less than the bouquet, good plum fruit with no hint of under-ripeness, but just a suggestion of plainness relative to the wines rated more highly. This may simply reflect a lower ratio of new oak. One person had d’Angludet as their top wine, and three as their second-favourite – but there were also three people thinking it the least wine. This observation shines an interesting light on both the other wines in the tasting, and the wonderful way in which good wines converge / become harder to discriminate amongst, when they reach the 40-year point. Fully mature, no hurry. GK 10/18
Garnet and ruby, below midway in depth. To judge by other reviews of this wine in recent years, 1978 Palmer should have been one of the highlights of the tasting. But by the time of the actual presentation, an almost subliminal TCA note had become apparent – on inquiry, to two only of 21 tasters. The wine was still very fragrant, seemingly merlot-dominant, with the palate showing a beautiful fine-grained elegance, with gentlest oak. But the flavours were short: a perfect example of a wine scalped by TCA. One will have to hope the next bottle redeems the wine's reputation. Even so, four tasters rated it their top wine of the evening, and one their second. A wine at full maturity: hard to estimate remaining life on this sample, but likely to be as for the Pichon Lalande. The score is after 24-hours in the glass, with 100 mm² of Gladwrap®. GK 10/18
Garnet and ruby, a hint of amber to the rim. Bouquet is delightfully fragrant, but totally different from the Bordeaux blends. Here in one sense there is sweetly fragrant best caramel toffee, and in another sense the raspberries and tar of classic Barolo descriptions – but the red fruits all totally browned now. Likewise the palate could not be more different from the silken fine-grain elegance of the better clarets: here there are the inimitable furry tannins of Barolo / nebbiolo totally to the fore, plus higher acid, yet all beautifully integrated and long, in its distinctive ‘older-style Barolo’ flavour. It will hold this form for years, fading gently to become ever more autumnal. Three first places, but also two least, I imagine simply because it was so out of style in the tasting. GK 10/18
Garnet and ruby, the second to lightest wine. Bouquet on this wine is enchanting, in the sense it is still nearly floral though browning, and smells beautifully ripe, but in a very petite way. This was not at all my impression of 1978 Montrose, from memory. There is a clear aromatic cabernet sauvignon / cassis component which is delightful, plus a whisper of brett, positive at this level. Palate is indeed petite, but still the impression of ripeness and elegance, and gentle cedary oak, persists. For a wine from the the coolest of the classed-growth zones in the Medoc, this is a good achievement in 1978. Tasters did not enjoy the small-scale harmony of this wine as much as I did, no positive votes, four least. But I am not dissuaded from my score, the wine being so ‘correct’, at 40 years. In the context of a meal, you could drink a surprising amount of this, very agreeably. Nearing the end of its run, even from a cool cellar, and this may be a particularly happy bottle. GK 10/18
Ruby and garnet, midway in depth in the field. Bouquet is immediately ‘different’ in the set. After interpreting the wine this way and that (to myself), I ended up wondering if in those early days for the winery, they might still have had some redwood cooperage, for there is clear resiny note on bouquet. There are also good red fruits, not explicit as to variety on bouquet, but smelling warm climate. Palate shows plenty of red plummy fruit browning now, both oak flavours and the more resiny suggestion of non-oak cooperage, with perhaps both tartaric adjustment, and a few grams residual sweetness to the finish. It fitted into the tasting sufficiently well to attract two first-place votes, and one second, but also six least-favoured votes, perhaps on account of the resin notes. Fully mature now, but yet again one has to note the absurdity of so much American wine writing, as conditioned by a ‘consuming’-obsessed society, where nine years after vintage this wine was described as ‘at or near its peak’. Sad. GK 10/18
Ruby and garnet, above midway in depth. Initially opened and for the first 24 hours, there was a dull ‘wooden’ quality about this wine. The following day it had breathed up markedly, to reveal rich well-browning berryfruit much influenced by old cooperage. Palate confirms, the wine qualitatively big and ripe, but the fruit flavours let down by irredeemably old cooperage, as if the wine saw no new oak at all. This may well be true, in the fading days of the Cruse era. How different Pontet-Canet is today. The wine is fully mature, but has the ripeness and richness to hold its tanniny form for some years yet, given breathing. Intriguing to have two wines in a tasting at this level so clearly let down by the quality of cooperage. GK 10/18
Ruby and garnet, the lightest wine. This wine smells quite different to the field, a reminder of much New Zealand cabernet sauvignon 20 and 30 years ago, very fragrant but the volume partly due to a touch of methoxypyrazine, bespeaking insufficiently ripened fruit. Behind that is red rather than darker plums all well-browning now, cedary oak made more noticeable by the edgy effect methoxypyrazines have on the aroma, and a hint of brett. Palate shows good fruit richness, but yes, a clear stalky under-ripe streak right through the wine, and all a little acid and oaky. Like the Pontet-Canet, this wine passed almost unnoticed by the group, neither impressing or offending. It is fully mature / starting to fade, and best finished up. GK 10/18
1978 Ch Canon-la-Gaffeliere, Saint Emilion, 11.5%; $117 cork; Me 55%, CF 40, CS 5; around 18 months in barrel, percentage new then not clear, in later ‘80s moved to 100% new; R. Parker, 1998: The 1978 is fully mature, and given this wine's inclination to behave like a burgundy and die quickly, it is best drunk up. Light ruby with some browning, this round, soft, fruity wine is one-dimensional and light, but cleanly made. Anticipated maturity: Now - probably in serious decline, 75; www.neipperg.com
1978 Babich Cabernet Sauvignon, probably all Henderson, 11.5%; $ – cork; CS 100%, 18 months French oak; www.babichwines.com
1978 Montana Cabernet Sauvignon Marlborough Private Bin, 11.8%; $ – cork; CS 100%; 12 months in French barriques; Peter V Hubscher Selection; no relevant website.
1978 Nobilo Cabernet Sauvignon, Huapai, Auckland district, 10.5%; $ – cork; CS 100% probably; understood to be 2 years in French oak, a high percentage new; no relevant website.