A Century of Bordeaux: The Twos 


I like to take things to extremes. Life’s a bit boring otherwise. I could easily publish a common or garden Ten-Year-On report to see how the 2012s are shaping up. But why limit yourself?

How about those overlooked 2002s or derided 1992s?

Do the 1982s meet expectations or are cracks appearing in their gilded reputation?

Are the 1972s fermented dishwater?

Is 1962 the dark horse of the sixties, likewise 1952 in the fifties?

Was it even possible to make decent wine in 1942 occupied France?

Have I finally tasted a wine from the 1932 vintage? (Don’t get your hopes up)

What does a century-old 1922 taste like?

Have the 1912s finally reached their drinking window?

This article attempts to answer all these questions via the only way possible: not by bunging the question into a search engine, but tasting the wines. This is essentially an amalgam of several hypothetical standalone articles and continues a tradition that I introduced to Vinous in 2018 (see here for the “eights” and here for the “nines”). Having missed the “zero” and “ones” because of COVID, the “Century of…” series returns with the twos.

The bulk of my notes derive from the annual Ten-Year-On tasting with the Southwold group last February: a two-day blind tasting of around 150 wines. Hot on its tail came another 2012 horizontal tasting, this time organised by merchants Bordeaux Index, and was made up of a smaller number of sighted wines where I was afforded more time to examine each one. The overlap was useful in being able to compare like-for-like under different conditions, and tasting notes state from which one they derive. In instances where there was bottle difference, I publish two separate tasting notes (e.g. Haut-Brion).

I supplement these notes with a selection of 2002s that châteaux opened during my primeur visits. Several went further and organised mini-verticals: Edouard Miailhe opening his cellar at Siran back to 1922 and Giscours, Gloria and Saint-Pierre back to 1982. Most of the 1982s stem from a stupendous dinner at Hatched restaurant after the Southwold Ten-Year-On tasting, each participant donating bottles that included all five First Growths, often in large format. Apart from the aforementioned verticals, tasting notes for ancient vintages are mined from the Académie du Vin dinner in Bordeaux during en primeur, a welcome return after COVID, and my first attendance since 2018.

The Académie du Vin soirée is one of my favourite events of the year, a unique opportunity to taste esoteric wines from yesteryear, all direct from château cellars and often in large format. The second wellspring is an annual private dinner organised by Olivier Bernard at Domaine de Chevalier with a dozen-or-so regular attendees. Wines are not necessarily from Bordeaux and are poured completely blind along a numerical theme, obviously this year any vintage ending with “two”. Bernard raids his treasure trove, again, not necessarily to pour Domaine de Chevalier, and invitees reciprocate by donating their own wines. Nobody has any knowledge of what anyone else has brought. Funnily enough, the highlight was a flight of 1920s from bottles donated in 2020 before COVID struck… I’ll save them for a Cellar Favourite as they were quite special.

Strap in. Let’s travel back in time…

A swarm of tuxedos descend upon a table where old vintages are poured.

The 2012 Vintage

(You were listening to “Gangnam Style” by Psy)

The first port of call is 2012. In a nutshell, it was a bit rainy and cool in the summer with mildew pressure, uneven flowering, rain in June that improved through August and a harvest where you had to play the game “dodge the showers”. The vintage has been overshadowed by 2015 and 2016, often paired with 2011 as the comedown duo after 2009 and 2010. In the past, I have favoured 2012 over 2011 because though in terms of quality they were on par in their youth, the 2012s seemed to “kick on” in bottle, not least on the Right Bank. There is something a little staid about 2011 whereas the 2012s had a bit more “sparkle”.

Commencing on the Right Bank with a series of wines from Saint-Émilion, I dug up my original assessment of en primeur remarking upon the diversity of styles. The imprimatur of Robert Parker’s sway is evidenced by the more extracted, oak-driven wines, though others had begun to charter a different course with a more refined and elegant approach. Wine-lovers could take their pick. After ten years, I found the Saint-Émilion wines rather inconsistent and not quite fulfilling their promise after the Southwold blind tasting back in January 2016. There is nothing that really transcends the season, though readers should look out for the likes of Figeac, Canon, Trotte Vieille and Bélair-Monange. Of course, this was the year that estates were reclassified and Pavie and Angélus were promoted so that two became four. Repercussions of that decision rumble on, and you could argue it sowed the seeds for its possible demise. Here, both newly-crowned Premier Cru “A” acquitted themselves well. Alas, the 2012 Ausone was corked, though the class of Cheval Blanc is undeniable.

The Pomerols are more consistent, even though I would not class it as one of my favourite vintages of the decade. Le Gay, La Conseillante and Trotanoy show the calibre of their terroirs, though the trinity of Petrus, Lafleur and Le Pin deliver the goods, particularly the latter which is a contender for the best Right Bank of the vintage. Challenging their superiority is the 2012 l’Église-Clinet. The late Denis Durantou fashioned a wonderful Pomerol that is evolving more second notes, yet possesses the substance and grip to suggest it may outlast many of its peers. I would not begrudge anyone from opening it now.

On the Left Bank, you could describe 2012 as a solid vintage without fireworks, though there are a couple of very attractive “Catherine Wheels” that get the pulse racing. The First Growths are excellent with strong showings from Mouton-Rothschild and Latour, though if I demanded one on my dinner table, and I habitually do, then it would be the exquisite Haut-Brion. In this vintage, Château Margaux and Lafite-Rothschild are a couple of steps behind and display a little attenuation, yet both are quite delicious. Frankly, there is not a huge gap in quality between the First Growths and “the rest”. There is a cluster of strong performing 2012s from the Médoc: Grand Puy Lacoste, all three Léovilles and perhaps my own pick, a quite wonderful Montrose. To temper enthusiasm, not that I ever like distilling wine into numbers, but none warranted anything above 95-points, nothing provoked superlatives nor encouraged as re-evaluation of the vintage. There were occasional perplexing showings of some of my favourite châteaux, tripped up by the challenges of the growing season.

Sauternes faced several obstacles that year, not least rain during harvest that stymied the berries progression from the pourri plein to the crucial pourri rôti stage, then the decision of Yquem, Suduiraut and Rieussec not to declare, casting a dark shadow over the 2012s that were prematurely written off by some commentators. Nevertheless, we tackled two flights blind at the Southwold Ten-Year-On, and the 2012s are certainly no disaster, not by a long way. Climens and Coutet show extremely well, though La Tour Blanche and Guiraud are turn ups for the books. Again, it’s not “Sauternes-vintage-of-the-century”, but my advice is not to dismiss them out of hand just because a few properties declined to release that year.

The 2002 Vintage

(You were listening to “Clocks” by Coldplay)

Moving back another decade, I was intrigued to take a look at the 2002s now that they have entered adulthood. This was one of my early primeur trips, and it is probably an indictment of the vintage that I have no vivid memories! The wines are not terrible, but to quote Depeche Mode, “they do their hardest to un-impress.” They are uniformly unexciting. The growing season experienced: uneven flowering that acutely affected the Merlot, irregular ripening and the summer was dry but overcast. A clement September saved the day. “It was one of the worst flowerings,” Nicolas Sinoquet told me at Gruaud Larose when I broached the subject of the 2002. “The Moueixs said it was the worst since 1984, and that they might not make a Petrus that year. It was the only summer I spent entirely in Bordeaux and stayed in Arcachon. The weather was awful – three weeks of rain. It was so cold. Then at the end of August until the end [of harvest] it improved, and you look at the wines and wonder how they reached such a level. The berries were very large, but a northerly wind concentrated the berries.” Dominique Arangoïts, head winemaker at Cos d’Estournel, told me: “September and October saved the vintage. In mid-September, there was an easterly wind that concentrated the berries and prevented rot. Yields were low - 33hL/ha - low at that time. That explains their deep colour. We made it [the 2002] in the old concrete tanks.” Of course the modus operandi has changed at many estates since 2002, not least the now biodynamically-run Durfort-Vivens. “We were oxidising the wine too much during barrel maturation,” proprietor and winemaker Gonzalgue Lurton candidly confessed. “This killed the fruit. We thought it would lend stability to the tannins. Picking in that age was a little earlier, but not much, but the ageing was not good. We used more sulphites, and there was more racking.”

I tasted a number of wines in Bordeaux, though some of these are included in previously-published or forthcoming verticals. There are only a couple of standout wines, ones that I have rhapsodized since birth (the wine’s, not mine). One being the 2002 Château Latour. This has always transcended the limitations of the growing season. Here, I include a note from a blind vertical held at the château in December 2019, a magnum where it really showed its class even against more reputed vintages. The 2002 Lafite-Rothschild is solid and quite briny, though like other Left Bank wines, it just does not set the pulse racing.

The 1992 Vintage

(You were listening to “It Was A Good Day” by Ice Cube)

The 1992 season was plagued by downpours in what Allan Sichel once emotively described as a “sad summer”. Compounding problems at that time, few châteaux applied the draconian deselection that could have meliorated quality, nor did they possess nowadays technology nor the willingness to remedy a wretched vintage. I started as a wine professional four years later, and even by then, the First Growths were still freely available, vast swathes vacuumed up at inconceivably low prices and sold to Japan by yours truly. Unsurprisingly, few châteaux were inclined to open a 1992 and kudos to those that did. There was a time, before they were a decade old, when they could potentially represent a good deal because of their bargain basement prices. If you could abide a bit of greenness and lack of concentration, some were pleasurable in a facile way. Never write off any vintage, however. Sure enough, both the 1992 Gloria and Giscours were respectable. Others made me sympathize with those celebrating their 30th this year, hence the stowaway tasting note for the 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon from Chateau Montelena, opened at Olivier Bernard’s soiree. Basically, if you have a cellar stocked with 1992 claret, then…why?

The 1982 Vintage

(You were listening to “Beat It” by Michael Jackson)

Given the renown and seismic impact upon Bordeaux, perhaps this cavalcade of 1982s should form a separate article. On the other hand, I have written about it numerous times over the years and I like its juxtaposition against the 1972 and 1992 vintages. I have been fortunate to taste around 40 wines from this vintage in recent months, again, some cleaved away for past and upcoming verticals. It still includes all the First Growths and major estates that helped seal the reputation of both 1982 and Robert Parker.

One might assume that it was a shoo-in for estates during that year. On the contrary, it was a growing season with obstacles to overcome right to the very end. Flowering was quick and even, and it remained warm through July. However, few remember that August was actually cool and damp. The vintage was “saved” by a clement September. This Indian summer created a problematic environment in terms of keeping bunches cool as they entered wineries that could barely cope with the unprecedented high volume, forcing some to expedite fermentation lest the next load is parked outside for a dangerously long time. There were stuck fermentations due to the high ambient temperatures, one property almost discarding its entire crop as the ferment refused to get going and winemakers concerned that their wines risked spoilage.

The other background factor to consider is that many Bordeaux estates had not recovered from the dire succession of vintages that besmirched the seventies and suffered a lack of investment. Properties were ill-equipped to cope with a large-volume, and many wineries were run by long-standing maîtres-de-chai, some of whom were hidebound to outmoded practices. Future stars like Paul Pontallier and Denis Dubourdieu would make their debuts the following year. Consequently, 1982  is not a consistent vintage across every rung of the ladder, and over the last four decades, there has been bifurcation between the elite and also-rans. Nineteen eighty-two is a flag that indicated where Bordeaux would head in the future rather than a zenith.

The 1982 dinner was a splendid evening that honed in on the top performing estates, though my highest score actually comes from an ex-château large format of 1982 Latour proffered for a private dinner in Bordeaux. It was just magnificent from any way you look at it. Forty years in, well-kept bottles will leave you exhausted of superlatives and speculating how many decades it will last. The other First Growths are uniformly brilliant, reasserting their position on the highest rung. The 1982 Lafite-Rothschild is the finest example of many tasted over the years with an almost Latour-like structure on the finish, whilst the 1982 Haut-Brion, undeservedly perceived by the market as some kind of “1982 First Growth Also-Ran”, was breathtakingly beautiful with beguiling effortlessness. The 1982 Mouton-Rothschild did not quite fire on all cylinders at Hatched, reflecting the variability between bottles, so I substitute this with a note from a private dinner in Bordeaux. It is what I sometimes call a “maximalist” wine: flamboyant, audacious, prone to ostentation and occasionally tripping over itself, yet it is probably more fun than any other 1982. Perhaps the 1982 Château Margaux did not quite match those heights, though I have encountered superior bottles.

At the Hatched dinner, the one wine that really took everyone by surprise was the 1982 Talbot. Though I had it from bottle many times, this was my first time from a larger format, and I was bewitched by its panache and sophistication. It made me wish that Talbot had produced wines of this calibre with more frequency during this period. Saint-Julien performs strongly in 1982 with a wonderful, sumptuous Gruaud Larose that, for me, pips Léoville Las-Cases to the post. I have never been taken with their 1982, even when Jean-Hubert Delon once served it blind at the château, preferring the atypically sensual 1985 or the precise 1986 that seems to be finally coming around. There has always been something distant about the 1982, a bit aloof. Pauillac boasts some superstars. The 1982 Grand Puy Lacoste, again out of large format, has an audacious personality, successive bottles in recent years showing better and better until now; it’s virtually on par with the First Growths. The 1982 Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande has more flair and pliancy, a luxuriant Pauillac, though the only time it touched perfection was back in the nineties. It’s still perhaps the most drinkable of all the 1982 clarets, the one that gives the most pleasure.

As I mentioned before, just because it says “1982” on the label does not imply the wine will leave you short of superlatives. Brane-Cantenac is the best example that I tasted, yet it would pale against Henri Lurton’s recent vintages. Pavie, pre-Gérard Perse of course, is rustic and not in the same league as the 1978 enjoyed around the same time; whilst Saint-Pierre, Gloria and Siran are in a period when they are just not firing on full cylinders.

The 1972 Vintage

(You were listening to “Reeling In the Years” by Steely Dan)

I know. I know. You’ve been waiting for years for a 1972 horizontal. Apologies, but I cannot provide one; châteaux are not exactly keen to showcase a low point of the seventies. In fact, the weather was not that bad with a fairly clement July and August. The vintage was really pole-axed by downpours at harvest. Some estates decided to wait until October, but showers continued to plague drenched pickers and rot was endemic. Perversely, two of the three wines tasted were quite passable, even (God forbid) enjoyable. Both the 1972 Larcis-Ducasse and Léoville Barton were quite delicious. In particular, the latter was my own bottle acquired from a Bristol merchant and served blind at Bernard dinner. I had to double-check it was my bottle because it contained so much pleasure. Never write any bottle off…ever…unless it’s 1972 Siran. I did cajole proprietor Edouard Miailhe into opening a bottle for “investigative purposes”. I hope no permanent damage was done to my palate. Perhaps I got my just desserts for insisting? It’s a wine to pour for your best enemy.

The 1962 Vintage

(You were listening to “The Locomotion” by Little Eva)

Always one for supporting the underdog, I have had an affection for the 1962s since the early days of my career. Perpetually overshadowed by 1961, pick carefully and there are gems to be found in this growing season. It was a tricky, delayed season redeemed by the settled and warm months of July and August; hydric stress was a constant threat, and the harvest was particularly late.

Several examples were poured at the Académie du Vin tasting. To be brutally honest, most of them demonstrated the weaknesses of the vintage vis-à-vis 1961, the likes of Malartic-Lagravière, Pontet Canet, Siran and Domaine de Chevalier not terrible by any means, but lacking real class. Others, most notably a divine 1962 Chasse-Spleen and a very commendable Poujeaux were real treats and flew the flag for Moulis-en-Médoc.

The 1952 Vintage

(You were (not) listening to “4’33” by John Cage)

This is another one of those vintages like 2002 that seems to fall between the cracks. It’s not good enough to attract headlines, nor was it bad enough. No sooner had the wines entered the market, the 1953s marched in and stole what little thunder they had. It was a warm summer; the most dramatic event was a hailstorm that decimated Sauternes in June. It was sizing up to be a classic vintage when showers fell right in the middle of picking.

This is a vintage that you don’t see so often these days. The wines tend to be a little hard, particularly when compared to the more ethereal 1953s. The real surprise was the 1952 Siran that simply blossomed in the glass after it initially seemed rather ephemeral and inconsequential. Given that the appellation was extirpated by frost to the extent that Yquem did not declare a wine, I was pleasantly surprised to taste my first two 1952 Sauternes at Olivier Bernard’s dinner. The 1952 Doisy-Daëne acquitted itself admirably, a wonderful Barsac from the recently departed Pierre Dubourdieu. The 1952 Cantegril was decent if just beginning to flag after seven decades, which is nothing to be ashamed about.

The 1942 Vintage

(You were listening to “Night and Day” by Frank Sinatra)

It is ineluctably emotive writing about wartime vintages. Extricating the tumultuous events of that era seems almost immoral. Yet, the vines’ cycle stops for nothing, not even war. It is generally regarded as one of the better seasons during the Second World War; a warm summer plagued by intermittent downpours, and a harvest spoiled by occasional rain.

The solitary veteran was a 1942 Petit-Village, the oldest bottle served at the Académie du Vin tasting. Sure, it was a little rustic and lacked definition, but there was fine presence, simple yet satisfying. Caps off to the mainly women and children who made this Pomerol whilst men were fighting.

The 1932 Vintage

(You were listening to “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” by Duke Ellington)

For my sins, I have never tasted any wine from this deplorable growing season. One day I will fill in this gap.

The 1922 Vintage

(You were listening to “April Showers” by Al Jolson)

The twenties is perceived as a series of benevolent vintages. In reality, the passing of time has obscured the fact that it was uneven year-to-year, perhaps the decade’s reputation hinged on the back-to-back success of 1928 and 1929. The 1922 vintage was marked by a variable summer, August rains encouraging some to pick prematurely. It was a huge harvest, principally because the berries were so bloated.

I tasted two very interesting bottles. Firstly, the 1922 Siran was the oldest vintage served by Edouard Miailhe. For the first hour it was feral, volatile and not particularly pleasant. But it has that certain something. Sure enough, after an hour, rather than oxidizing and falling apart, it underwent some kind of Lazarus-like resurrection and was utterly charming, as if air was addressing that discombobulating volatility. The 1922 La Conseillante was served blind at Olivier Bernard’s dinner, this bottle proffered by one of the guests. Unlike the aforementioned Margaux, this Pomerol entranced from the moment I inhaled its perfume. Elegant, refined and refusing to disguise its venerability, this centurion cohered wonderfully and formed one of the highlights of that evening. It is impossibly rare, and I doubt I will ever encounter it again, but what a privilege.

The 1912 Vintage

(You were listening to “Symphony No. 9” by Gustav Mahler)

This was another difficult season with poor flowering and rain causing outbreaks of rot throughout the summer. Berries struggled to achieve ripeness despite late pickings. The 1912 Château du Lyonnat was the oldest bottle at Bernard’s dinner, and to be honest, it was past its best. That’s no crime. I doubt the winemaker at this Lussac Saint-Émilion estate intended for his wine to be drunk 110-years into the future. But it was no write-off and briefly glimmered before decaying in the glass.

Our journey back through history ends here, the year that the unsinkable Titanic sank and over 2,000 souls perished in icy waters, when music-lovers flocked to hear Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and the year of Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Whenever I complete these articles, I reflect upon the calibre of these vintages that are numerically/chronologically united, in this case, ending with two. Generally, with the notable exception of 1982 and to a lesser extent 1962, these are not renowned vintages. Yet every vintage will, at its very minimum, offer intrigue and evince wine’s preternatural time-bending abilities that allows the grateful and inquisitive imbiber to consume history.

© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Léoville-Poyferré 1936-2018, Neal Martin, September 2022

Memories Tumble Out: Pichon Baron 1937-1990, Neal Martin, August 2022

A Century of Bordeaux: The Nines, Neal Martin, September 2019