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60 years of classic Clarets: Lay and Wheeler tasting  

Tuesday 8th March 2005 

I get quite a lot of e-mails inviting me to tastings, but this one was different. Could you spare an hour of your time to come to a tasting featuring some classic clarets, back to 1947, with names like Lafite, Las Cases, Ausone, Haut Brion and Yquem in the mix? Only eight journalists invited. And we’ll arrange it for a date to suit you all. Let me think. That’s a tough one, dude.

So I turn up at the Lay & Wheeler wine bar on Cornhill. In front of me 10 classic bottles, nicely decanted. The reason for the tasting is that Lay & Wheeler have managed to secure the contents of a significant European cellar to sell. They’ve inspected it and come away amazed at the breadth of the collection and the condition of the bottles, which date back to the 1840s, although Lay & Wheeler have opted to sell only the wines from 1928. And they are offering customers the rare chance to buy old, well cellared wine by the bottle. This is good news for those who fancy a bit of benchmarking, or who have a case in storage and want an idea of how a well-cellared example will be maturing.

The key thing that sets this offer apart from many others is the impeccable provenance. If you are buying old wine, you are taking a risk. But the risk is much diminished if you know for sure that the wine has been well cared for. Just a small gap in the verifiable history of a wine is enough to increase the purchaser’s risk substantially. Almost all these wines have been in the same cellar since they were released by the Château.

Of course, the 10 wines we tasted here represent the barest sampling of the total offer (full details of which I’ll post on Friday). But trying these wines – and seeing the good condition that most of them are in – has sorely tempted me to dabble in some fine old Bordeaux. I enjoyed all of them: the fascinating thing about Bordeaux is the range of styles and also the vintage differences. I feel a bit guilty about showing a slight preference for the rather modern-styled Cos, but I can only go by my impressions on the day, and not by reputation. Besides, what do scores mean? The stylistic impressions, which I hope I convey in my notes, are at least as important.

Aside: the '61 Palmer we were due to try was corked.  

This wine sale commences on Monday 21st March at 8.00 a.m.
Tel: 0845 450 1589

Château L’Eglise Clinet 1966 Pomerol
Mature, perfumed, earthy spicy nose is perhaps a little oxidised, but showing elegant earthy character. The palate is smooth and mature with a lovely savoury spiciness. This is an impressive mature claret for current drinking – I wouldn’t hold it much longer. Very good/excellent 92/100

Château Trotanoy 1989 Pomerol
Good colour. Firm, assertive savoury nose with a taut, spicy richness. Fine and quite elegant. The palate is nicely structured with elegant savoury red fruits and smooth-yet-firm tannic structure, with earthy undertones. Delicious wine beginning to evolve nicely. Very good/excellent 92/100

Château Ausone 1985 1er Grand Cru Classé, St Emilion
Lovely forward voluptuous nose: really open and perfumed with lots of sweet spicy fruit. The palate is elegant with nice woodiness combined with very open, slightly spicy fruit that displays a tarry edge (new oak influence?). Delicious weight and balance here: a very seductive style. Very good/excellent 94/100

Château Lafite-Rothschild 1947 1er Cru Classé, Pauillac
How do you assess a wine like this? Slightly cloudy (even though the bottle had been standing up for three days: some advise that with very old wines like these ideally you don’t want to disturb the sediment at all, so you take them from their horizontal position in the cellar, transfer them to a decanting cradle and uncork them without letting the bottle reach a vertical position: once these old sediments are disturbed, sometimes they never settle again). It’s a brown/orange colour with a reddish core. Very evolved nose is a bit Madeira-like with acidity evident and an earthy, spicy character, although there’s still some fruit sweetness. Very mature, but still alive. The palate is spicy and complex with a lovely savoury, earthy edge, displaying hints of caramel and tar together with fruit sweetness. There’s lingering lemony acidity on the finish, that again reminds me of an old, dry Madeira. Still drinking nicely with great length and intensity. Very good/excellent 94/100

Château Léoville-Las-Cases 1970 2ème Cru Classé, St Julien
Quite a deep colour. Lovely expressive, firm taut nose. Savoury yet complex and inviting. Still tight-wound with dark fruits evident and a savoury, earthy edge. The palate is concentrated and dense; it’s still quite youthful with really impressive, firm structure. The acidity and tannic structure leaves it a bit austere on the finish, but this is a lovely, serious clart. Needs quite a bit more time. Excellent 95/100

Château Haut-Brion 1983 1er Cru Classé, Pessac-Léognan
Dramatic open nose: sweet, herby, chocolatey notes combine with some dark, tarry, fudgey complexity. It’s distinctive, and quite hard to describe. The palate is chewy and rich with a minerally, tarry, spicy character to the open dark fruits. Really lovely, earthy, spicy structure on the palate. A delicious thought-provoking wine. Very good/excellent 93/100

Château Léoville-Poyferre 1985 2ème Cru Classé, St Julien
Classic open nose: lovely earthy, spicy, generous fruit. Deliciously perfumed, with almost perfect balance. Chewy and spicy on the palate with lovely structure to the fruit. A wine drinking perfectly at the moment with nice freshness and structure. It’s not utterly profound, but how often do you find a claret that is drinking at its peak? Very good/excellent 93/100

Château Cos d’Estournel 1986 2ème Cru Classé, St Estèphe
Lovely dark, tight complex nose. This is a different style of wine, with wonderfully dark, spicy fruits, some sweetness and a delicious earthy, minerally edge. Quite beguiling. The palate is structured and full with lovely smooth tannins and nice, dark earthiness under the fruit. Complex, long and elegant. I think I’ll check out more of the 1986 vintage. Excellent 96/100

Château Filhot 1971 2ème Cru Classé, Sauternes
Very dark brown/orange colour is initially a little off-putting. But don’t worry; the wine’s fine. Alluring, deep, ripe exotic nose with hints of barley sugar. Sweet, smooth, focused nose of waxy tropical fruits, barley sugar and a lemony edge. The palate shows some raisiny, sweet richness and waxy, spicy, vanilla and lemon notes. Nice acid. A complex, harmonious wine with good poise. 1971 was a good vintage for Sauternes: the Yquem is excellent this year. Very good/excellent 93/100

Château d’Yquem 1990 1er Cru Supérieur Classé, Sauternes
Deep yellow colour. Quite tight and a little shy on the nose: sweet lemony, herby fruit dominates. The palate is very concentrated and intense, with complex tight apricotty fruit, some vanilla notes, lots of sweetness and a spicy structure. Fabulous density and fullness, but this is not a wine you want to be opening now: a lot of the potential is currently latent. Still, a fantastic effort; one for the future. Excellent 95/100 (last tasted in 2002 with consistent notes)

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