A Century of Bordeaux: The Threes 


“Three is the magic number.”

So rapped De La Soul in their inimitable style back in summer 1989 as they doused hip-hop in D.A.I.S.Y.-age psychedelia, their catchphrase now tinged with melancholy since three rappers became two. Three is a number loaded with significance and symbolism. The Holy Trinity in Christianity, The three Jewels of Buddhism and the Celtic triad in Celtic. Time is divided into the past, present and future. There are three dimensions…a few more after too much vino. Many things come in threes: Musketeers, Brontë sisters, Bacon triptychs, Amigos, MacBeth witches, pyramids at Giza, Roman graces and Greek harpies. De La Soul aside, three is a perfect formation for a band: Nirvana, Bee Gees, Motörhead, Beastie Boys, The Three Degrees, and to make Antonio happy, yes, Rush. Now there’s an eclectic playlist for you.

When it comes to Bordeaux vintages ending in the magic number, well, it gets a bit dicey. While some deserve their halo: 1953 and, to a marginally less extent 1983, are not just ordinary but deserve spanking with a wet plimsoll for foisting awful wines upon oenophiles. It’s a rum lot: 1933 (terrible), 1963 (the pits), 1973 (meh) and their modern-day equivalent, 2013 (no thanks). Even those lauded upon reception, such as 2003, are divisive, and, as I shall explain later, its reputation has been questioned in recent years. Looking at vintages ending in three overall, I notice a proclivity for either excessively hot vintages, some infamous like the aforementioned 2003, but also in lesser-known ones like 1923 and 1933 that would have forced vines to shut down. Or they are very wet seasons like 1963 and 2013. One hopes that the inchoate 2023 will find some kind of middle ground. So far, so good.

As tradition dictates, instead of revisiting a Bordeaux vintage ten years on, a useful juncture to see how its alumni are progressing, I embrace all wines with significant birthdays back an entire century. No doubt, Vinous readers are hankering for an update on the 1923s. If you want to read the minutiae of each growing season, you can read my recently published “The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide 1870-2020”. That said, my book is already rendered incomplete thanks to the bevy of wines in this article all tasted after the deadline, so you ostensibly have a heads up for the expanded edition.

I will leave readers to peruse individual tasting notes and summarize vintages one-by-one from youngest to oldest.

2013 – This is the most recent vintage where even the Bordelais, primed to rhapsodize ad nauseum, could not crank out euphemisms during the primeur campaign. The best they mustered was claiming that the wines were not vegetal thanks to a sunny July, a brief respite during an otherwise sodden summer. In fact, were it not for a return of inclement conditions slap-bang in the middle of picking, it could have potentially been a half-decent vintage.

But it did.

After ten years, it is true that tasting through over 50 wines at Bordeaux Index’s annual 10-Year On tasting, vegetal and underripe wines are few and far between. Yet unequivocally, most lack structure and complexity, feeble and uninteresting, like meeting a boring person at a party and being unable to extricate yourself from a dull conversation about interest rates. Nevertheless, some of 2013’s better wines serve as easy-drinking clarets. The problem is that by this time, the Bordelais were ratcheting up prices year-on-year by rote, so whereas the 2013s could and should have been heavily discounted, they were not the bargains that would have shifted units. Even the best will not mature into anything interesting, and nearly all should be drunk in the near future…if there is no alternative. It’s not a catastrophic growing season in the mold of 1977 or 1992 because technology allowed them to salvage unspoiled fruit. It’s just a vintage that can be described in a three-letter word…meh.

But hold the press! There is one exception: Sauternes. I know, I know. What’s the point? You love ‘em but rarely buy ‘em. I specifically requested châteaux to send samples of their 2013 for a quick horizontal during primeur and found many pleasant surprises. No powerful or mind-bogglingly complex Sauternes, yet they are imbued with purity and elegance. Given market prices, these are in a fine spot at the moment and are worth seeking out.

2003 – The infamous season beset by merciless summer heat when temperatures hovered above 40° Celsius and fell just a few degrees at night. I remember staying in Bordeaux several times that summer and sweating like a sausage on a barbecue during stifling nights. Consequently, vines had run out of energy by August and, as I witnessed on the Right Bank, began shedding leaves, incidentally, something that did not occur in 2022. Robert Parker, then at the height of his powers, rightly praised the wines in the northern Médoc, particularly in Saint-Estèphe and Pauillac, the former advantaged by water-retentive clayey soils and the moderating waters of the yawning Gironde. The poster boys? They were Montrose, Cos d’Estournel, Latour and a couple of others that fought back against the heat and triumphed.

Returning to the 2003s after twenty years, as I predicted at the time, the best wines that promised much are already beginning to flag. The last five years have not been kind in terms of their evolution, so even its anointed superstars are starting to look comparatively static, with freshness and precision draining away on finishes. Even a magnum of mighty 2003 Latour felt slightly de-energized compared to bottles tasted previously. It’s as if the wines are heading down a cul-de-sac. Wines that sometimes excel in their primary phase are less exciting as they stumble into secondary aromas and flavors. There are a couple of exceptions. The 2003 Pontet Canet was one of the few where I felt like I’d like to imbibe more than the tasting, ironically, a year before they introduced biodynamics. The First Growths are fine, even if some are drifting further from their previously touted 100-point scores.

Of course, one must mention that cause célèbre, the 2003 Pavie. I became tired of the Parker vs. Robinson being repeatedly dredged up. Quite simply, revisiting the wine at the château, no, it doesn’t taste a bit like Amarone, and neither is it a wine that I hanker for, the finish a bit dry and ferrous. There are better vintages of Pavie out there, but none ignite the same level of pugilistic debate or yawns.

1993 – This vintage has always been a bit of a mystery, purposefully forgotten, like a corked wine you opened for a special occasion. It was actually a decent warm summer, the vintage and hopes, at a low ebb after the previous two seasons, derailed by wet conditions at harvest. The wines were seen as better than the previous two years but were always obdurate, tannic and hard. Many were bereft of charm, sensuality and flair, with just a handful of exceptions, notably Palmer and Lafleur (the former will appear in a forthcoming standalone article). Proof of the lack of affection for 1993, few estates elected to show a 1993 at the Académie du Vin dinner, opting for 1983 or 2003 instead, even 2013! During my rounds, I only tasted one, a magnum of 1993 Trotanoy that was tough but worth seeking out. I’ve sneaked in a 1993 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon served blind at a “Three” dinner – even that didn’t exactly acquit itself well.

1983 – The most intriguing amongst vintages ending in the “magic number” insofar that the feted 1982s overshadowed it. Yet some of the follow-up wines were exceptional, notwithstanding that the Margaux appellation profited more in this year than the previous one after it was deluged with less rain. Not that I need proof, but three or four blissful encounters with the 1983 Château Margaux suggest that it is reaching a lofty peak that flirts with perfection. Talk about hitting the ground running. This was the first vintage Paul Pontallier had complete control over. Likewise, the 1983 Palmer makes a formidable Batman and Robin duo effortlessly brilliant and can match the First Growth pound-for-pound. Unlike some 2003s, their battery cells still have plenty of energy. That energy is tangible in these two wines, and they will cruise at altitude over many years. One surprisingly good showing was for the 1983 Ducru-Beaucaillou. Oddly, it’s a vintage that avoided me until a bottle was served blind at the “3” dinner. This little gem is drinking perfectly at the moment.

Overall, at 40 years, some of the wines that I relished in the earlier days of my career, when many were a fraction of the price of the 1982s, are beginning to fray at the edges. Some are turning quite savory, and ferrous finishes are beginning to dry. It should be remembered that at this time, many now lauded estates were suffering hangovers from the Seventies. The viticulture was frequently rudimentary. Deselection was minimal since it predates the proliferation of Second labels. At the same time, wineries were equipped with oversized and oft-antiquated vats, all overseen by cellarmasters, some of whom had been there since the war with modus operandi set in the same concrete as they superannuated vats.

Essentially, 1983 is a vintage that I remain fond of, yet you must tread carefully because some of the wines are now past their best and approaching the ends of drinking windows.

1973 – On paper, this could have been a fine vintage. Examining the growing season, it would have been, were it not for the large volume of fruit and somewhat shoddy practices endemic in both vineyards and wineries. The only glimmer is from one or two Pomerols that did not rush out and pick prematurely. This was proven by a 1973 Gazin that surprised a few notable winemakers around my table at the Académie du Vin soirée who had raised eyebrows when I announced that I would fetch it. As is often the case, a rum vintage for the reds implies a better vintage for the whites. Frankly, I have tasted few dry white Bordeaux, but the 1973 Château de Fieuzal Blanc was not bad at all, perhaps more a curiosity than a Pessac-Léognan that I would choose to drink again. Yet it certainly contained adequate freshness and intrigue after 50 years. Then again, I’d probably rather the wonderful 1973 Rivesaltes VdN from Philippe Gayral served at the same dinner, another that stowaway from outside Bordeaux sneaked into this report.

1963 – A washout. I was hoping that one or two might dare proffer a bottle from this vintage, but nobody did. Only a few estates actually released a Grand Vin this year. Head down to the Douro Valley for joy. I’ve included a 1963 Taylor’s Vintage Port that appeared at the “Three” dinner.

1953 – One of the great post-war vintages, second only to 1959 that decade, bottles were pretty common when I set out my career. But the banal fact is that many have been drunk in the last 20 years and are less frequent. A warm and clement August gave the fruit the boost it needed, and then a relatively later harvest was undertaken in dry conditions, a large crop that prompted some mavens to incorrectly suggest they wouldn’t last. Tap “Bordeaux 1953” into the Vinous search engine, and you will see that I’ve populated the database with a number of Clarets in recent years. To this, I add another five. The best wines continue to emit great pleasure, for example, a magnum of 1953 Poujeaux at the Académie event that was one of the wines of the night and a 1953 Calon-Ségur, my contribution to the “Three” dinner, stout and dense as always, yet fresh with a lovely grippy, quite saline finish. It was a golden era for that Saint-Estèphe. The 1953 Beychevelle might have suffered inappropriate storage at some point in its life, and I suspect there are superior bottles out there. Don’t ignore Sauternes, for the 1953 Coutet showed exceptionally well with delineation, focus and depth. Provenance is critical at this level of maturity, but all these acquitted themselves well and suggest that the best will show the 2003s what longevity is.

1943 – This war-time vintage can surprise on the rare occasions that they surface. It was a warm summer beset by violent storms, strong enough to destroy some fruit trees, and of course, there was hardly any sulfur to treat consequential rot. Yet despite the backdrop of war, lack of food, manpower and so on, some bottles have been commendable. Three added to the database here: a timeworn but fascinating 1943 Laville Haut-Brion, the oldest that I have tasted from this Pessac-Léognan (now La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc), a 1943 Haut-Brion that is not quite as divine as another tasted a decade ago, plus a 1943 Suduiraut that was complex and energetic.

1933 – Bordeaux was amidst the post-Depression doldrums. Although if you examine the minutiae, it was actually a hot vintage when I suspect many vines shut down so that fruit failed to reach phenolic ripeness. It was an inconsistent vintage. That said, had it not been immediately overshadowed by 1934, I feel it would have been cast in a positive light. Most wines were consumed in their youth, so they were seen less often than a cheap Chambertin. Nevertheless, two wines surfaced at the “Three” dinner: the Saint-Émilion, the 1933 Côte Pavie Moulin Saint-Georges, a bit ragged and timeworn, and the Château La Nère, a sweet wine from Haut-Loupiac, superior in quality, sporting a pleasant tanginess.

1923 – There are currently three wines on the Vinous database from this vintage, which is probably three more than most. This is another vintage in the line of 1933 and 2003 when there were heat spikes to the extent that observers at the time witnessed yellowed leaves falling to the ground. It is therefore considered a weaker vintage in an otherwise fecund decade. Doubling the tally in the database, the 1923 Siran was simple but lovely in an antiquated way, and tart on the finish. The 1923 Fonbadet is a bit more threadbare but certainly drinkable. Best of the lot and quite fabulous, the 1923 Rayne-Vigneau is complex, lively and balanced. Yes, a bit short, but otherwise, a delightful century-old Sauternes.

That wraps up the Bordeaux “threes” for this year. This report never ceases to reconfirm, as if that were necessary, Clarets’ propensity to age and, moreover, not to become myopic about seasons’ reputation since there are always bottles that can surprise. Three is not always the magic number…but it often is.

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