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Monday Manifestos
Dipping A Toe Into 1988 Bordeaux

By Charles Olken

Some time ago, back in my grad school days, I was introduced to really good wine. Today, I might have described those Bordeaux beauties in fancier, more complex, wine-geek terms, but back in the day, it was simply “really good wine”. I returned to those roots last Friday night in the company of a tasting group to which I was invited as a guest. Not a “sing for your supper” guest, mind you, but simply as a friend of a friend.

And in tasting those older wines, now nearing their twenty-fifth birthday, I was reminded why one cellars wines until they get old and have changed their spots. And I was equally reminded that some of them will not make the journey very well even as the majority of these highly renowned wines should certainly have been expected to do.

I am guessing that not many of you have 1988 First Growths in your cellars, and, at least for the time being, I won’t discuss each wine directly. With wines of that age, which no one is going to go out and buy at this point, the lessons have more to do with what one can expect and how those expectations are never fully met.

As a general statement, it is my impression that the bulk of the wines were still more tannic than one would expect and that, despite perfect cellaring and intact corks, nearly half of the wines had begun to dry out. In this I was a little bit surprised because my experience is that California wines of the same age and pedigree are still doing fine at an equivalent age. While there is no universal truth in that declaration, it is, from my perspective as one who drinks a fair bit of older California Cabernets (the fault of having too many in the cellar), reasonable to expect highly regarded wines from top vineyards and producers to stand the test of time.

In part, we are talking about a Bordeaux vintage that has always been a bit of an enigma, but it is not a vintage that was poorly regarded. So perhaps, the greatest lesson is that one cannot judge the vintage and its prospects when it is young. The most pertinent recent California parallel comes in the side by side vintages of 1973 and 1974. With a few notable exceptions, the more highly regarded 1974s faded before the somewhat less highly regarded 1973s. Very few would have made that prediction when the wines were in their youth.

A second parallel between those older California wines and the Bordeaux we tasted the other night is that you never quite know which wines are going to fade. The late Louis M. Martini, in the very first Connoisseurs’ Guide interview ever, told us that he believed there were no great older wines, only great older corks. Even accepting that statement as a bit of hyperbole meant to educate the neophytes that we were back in the early 70s, there is something of a parallel in the mixed rates of maturation of those older Bordeaux. Even though these wines were First Growths, they were mo more consistent than any other set of older wines. And that constant peril for older wines that one has cellared for ages in want of a special occasion reared it ugly head last Friday as well. One wine, the Mouton, was horribly and unremittingly “corked”. It actually showed a bit of rounded fruit underneath the disfiguring mustiness, but it was undrinkable nonetheless. It happens, and that is why we usually have reserve bottlings in reserve when we are tasting older wines.

The other side of the equation, the good side, also was apparent. The favored wine in the tasting, the Cheval Blanc, was both open and sturdy at the same time. It clearly has room to hold for years yet. Only a couple of others were pretty much finished, and, most would at least hold in good condition for a bit as well. The marginal wines may have been curiosities, not great statements of grandeur, but the top wines had found that magical level of depth, vitality, complexity and inner sturdiness that is the reward when a wine has aged the way we want it to age. In that finding, at last Friday night’s tasting, I am reminded again why I have old wines in my cellar. When they are right, they are as special as special gets in wine appreciation. And when they are not, they cost only a few dollars and a bit of electricity.

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