Book Excerpt: The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide One Hundred and Fifty Years from 1870-2020


My new book, The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide One Hundred and Fifty Years from 1870-2020, was published recently. Here are just a few words to inform readers how it came about and what to expect. The book does what it says on the tin. However, only when you delve inside will you see that it is much more than an ordinary vintage guide.

To be frank, this 528-page book was never planned. Its genesis lies way back on my original Wine-Journal site (2003-2006), which included summaries of growing seasons, each with a chosen attendant event, song and film that aimed to anchor each vintage to that specific twelve months of history and evoke a personal connection between reader and vintage. The traffic data proved that it was always one of the most popular parts of that site.

Having mothballed the column in 2006, it gathered dust on my hard drive until I began tinkering like a bored child during lockdown. Like my previous tome on Pomerol, this book grew organically and soon, a vision coalesced of what it could be. First and foremost, it should guarantee as much detailed information as possible, irrespective of how old or esoteric or disparaged the vintage. It would be very egalitarian in that respect. Personal recollections of bottles would augment each vintage tasted over 25 years, though I must emphasize that it includes no formal tasting notes or scores - you have to subscribe to Vinous for those. My craving for completeness drove me on. I began researching the darkest recesses of forgotten vintages that paradoxically can be more engrossing than those revered, if only from a meteorological point-of-view rather than the wines they begat.

That would have made a decent book, albeit not a particularly original one. There’s enough wine literature where authors forget that a book must be interesting and entertaining. The book came to life when I began writing explanatory paragraphs pertaining to the events, films and songs. But I foolishly underestimated the task at hand: 450 individual research subjects on an intentionally diverse array of topics, from Krakatoa to ABBA, Eisenstein to Eilish, Bobby Fisher to Kendrick Lamar via Tarzan and Tiger Woods. At times it felt like a microcosm of our world and a juxtaposition between the predictable/cyclical nature of the vineyard and the roiling churn of life - the chaos beyond vineyard boundaries. Despite striving for eclecticism, connections between historical events and wine became apparent, perhaps most obviously during wartime, but also in terms of economic prosperity. You could join the dots regarding the progress made in racial and gender equality. Another decision that I made was that the growing seasons needed context. So, I researched the history of Bordeaux from the 19th century, summarizing major viticultural events of each decade, from phylloxera to inaugural château-bottlings, the devastating freeze of 1956 to the rise of Robert Parker.

The book is blessed with a fabulous design courtesy of Luke Bird, partly inspired by the opening titles of the Netflix series Ozark. The embossed cover is dazzling – definitely one that will stand out on your bookshelf! There are also just over a dozen photographs donated by châteaux, each chosen to evoke that period of time. Like my previous tome, look carefully, and you will find Easter eggs littered in its pages, and of course, I had to include one Essex joke. I hope it is a book that you can randomly open at any page, and it draws you in.

Whereas “Pomerol” was self-published and limited to a single run, this book is published through Hardie Grant Publishing. It will be widely available in all good bookshops and Internet retailers, including Amazon, which offers the book on Kindle, from mid-April (though I just discovered that Amazon has pushed back the delivery date to early May.)

Below is an example of one vintage, the 1986, to give a flavor of the book.

The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide One Hundred and Fifty Years from 1870-2020

The 1986 Vintage

This vintage definitely favoured the Left Bank and its Cabernet-based wines. The watchword here is patience.

The year began with a very cold winter, the growth cycle lagging a month behind by the end of April, though thankfully there were no frost episodes. May and June witnessed a turnaround, dry and hot conditions allowing vines to catch up. This meant that flowering was only slightly later than average, with mid-flowering on 20 June and finishing under ideal conditions. A long, dry and hot summer ensued, the driest for two decades, despite a welcome 60 mm (2½ in) of rain in August. Mi-véraison was around 19 August, which meant harvest would be around the beginning of October.

Dry conditions prevailed until mid-September, when storms compromised many of the earlier-picked dry white and Right Bank wines. On 14 and 15 September alone, many châteaux were soaked with 40–60 mm (1½–2½ in) of rainfall, but it was a torrential downpour on 23 September that inflicted real damage, topping 100 mm (4 in) in a single day in the worst-affected areas such as the Graves, with flooding in Bordeaux city. These violent storms were localised, so other appellations were far less affected. The northern Médoc, for example, saw just 20 mm (¾ in) for the entire month, with Sichel comparing the violent weather to 1975 and 1983. The Right Bank witnessed exceptionally high yields with respect to the Merlot, which coupled with the rain led to widespread dilution. Those on the Left Bank could afford to wait for their later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and benefited from a remarkably dry spell when hardly a drop of rain fell over the first 10 days of October. In fact, there was rarely a moment when umbrellas were needed until 22 October. Yields on the Left Bank were not as high as on the Right and crop-thinning during the summer moderated volumes. Nevertheless, the Gironde produced 6.3 million hl of which 4.5 million hl constituted AC Bordeaux, the largest volume since 1934 and almost 30% higher than the abundant 1982 vintage. The protracted and dry growing season produced a crop of small, thick-skinned berries, which formed tannic, structured wines that were unapproachable in their youth. In fact, Jean-Michel Cazes recalled the barrel samples being so tannic that they could only taste 15 or 16 each session. On the Right Bank, the opposite was true and some properties tried to remedy their dilute wines by bleeding tanks to increase the skin-to-juice ratio and extract more density.

The September rains led to humidity and morning mists that provided ideal conditions for widespread botrytis in Sauternes, and there was even more in October after 40 mm (1½ in) of rain. Sunny conditions followed in November, though workers often had to work in the mists. Producers who picked earlier could have been affected by the rain, so it rewarded those who waited.

This is a quasi-notorious vintage owing to a legion of Left Bank wines that tested wine lovers’ patience to the limit and, for some, beyond the limit. It was definitely not a year for those seeking immediate gratification, who would be more attracted to the fleshier and sensual 1982s or 1985s. The structured, tannic ’86s invite comparisons with the ’75s, though whereas the latter tended to dry out with bottle age and at worst leave husks of austere and unappealing wines, the ’86s were not resigned to a similar fate for two reasons. First, they possess superior balance and, second, they tend to contain more fruit. They are maturing on their own terms and reward those with the wherewithal to squirrel them away until the time is right for the wine and not for the wine lover. The 1986 Mouton Rothschild is a monumental First Growth endowed with stunning density and concentration, even if a bottle poured by former winemaker Philippe Dhalluin over lunch was so precocious that I mistook it for the 1982. I finished a couple of glasses and duly missed my return flight home, but some things are worth it. Paul Pontallier fashioned a 1986 Château Margaux with unerring symmetry, while a 1986 Haut-Brion was unbelievably youthful when poured blind after 35 years.

Some previously backward wines that had “shop closed” signs dangling around their necks for years are now finally open for business, not least a stunning Léoville-Las Cases uncorked to celebrate the late great Steven Spurrier in October 2021. Again, the 1986 Latour fails to launch and I’ve upset many dinners by lamenting its so-so performance. I just cannot lie about a wine that ought to have knocked your socks off and, personally, I prefer the 1986 Pichon-Lalande (though not the Pichon Baron, whose renaissance still lay a couple of years ahead). Another oft-overlooked gem is the 1986 Talbot, a wonderful Saint-Julien that stood out at the château’s vertical to celebrate a century’s ownership by the Cordier family.

Unfortunately, the Right Bank is inconsistent. Even the titans of Pétrus and Lafleur are unable to muster their usual brilliance and Ausone and Cheval Blanc are rather austere. Few bottles from Pomerol or Saint Émilion have left a positive impression – it was just not their year. One intriguing wine I’ve enjoyed several times is the mischievously titled 1986 Bâtard-Chevalier, the white Second Wine from Olivier Bernard’s Domaine de Chevalier – at least until a letter from his friends in Burgundy, who failed to appreciate his tongue-in-cheek homage to their Grand Crus, forced him into a name change. I bought a few bottles for fun and even after 30 years it was fresh and delicious. Sauternes prospered in 1986 with several outstanding wines, though I find them less consistent than 1983. It is crowned by the 1986 Yquem and Climens, though Suduiraut was still “off the boil” in this era. I have also encountered wonderful bottles of Doisy-Védrines, an energetic Rieussec and a lush Château de Fargues that staggered under the weight of botrytis.

Event: Maradona’s Hand of God

Never has a player turned from sinner to saint in such a short space of time. England were playing Argentina in the quarterfinal of the World Cup at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Tensions were rife as the teams were playing their first match since the Falklands War. Six minutes into the second half, Diego Maradona, the most gifted footballer of his generation, found himself competing for a high ball against goalkeeper Peter Shilton, some 20 cm (8 in) taller than the vertically challenged Argentinean, and it ended up bouncing in the goal. It was not completely obvious, but hadn’t the ball come off Maradona’s fist above his head? The ref would surely spot that… wouldn’t he? Maradona pelted up the pitch in rapturous celebration. “I looked behind to see if the referee had taken the bait,” Maradona confessed in an interview years later (to Gary Lineker, who scored England’s consolation goal). Despite the remonstrating English players, the goal stood. Asked later whether it was a handball, Maradona replied that he had scored “A little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God”. Fans would never have forgiven him, but then four minutes later he weaved his way through the England team with the ball glued to his boot to score arguably the greatest goal of all time.

Music: Walk This Way - Run D.M.C.

Though the likes of The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Run D.M.C. themselves had already laid the foundations of rap music, Walk This Way was the song that introduced many people to the genre. Apparently, when 22year old Def Jam supremo Rick Rubin first telephoned to discuss the possibility of Aerosmith updating the 1975 hit, their manager replied: “What’s rap?” That said, how many teenagers of the time would have known about Aerosmith, whose own career was in a tailspin? With the help of its memorable video – in which Steve Tyler smashes down the fake wall between the groups’ rehearsal rooms to unite musicians and genres – Walk This Way became the first rap song to break the top 10 Stateside and provided a wake-up call to all those who had treated rap as a novelty. In the long-term, Aerosmith – uncredited on the sleeve – arguably benefited more from the team-up than Run D.M.C., becoming unitshifting cross-generational elder statesmen of metal.

Film: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – John Hughes

Every teenager aspires to be as cool as Ferris Bueller in John Hughes’s quintessential teen flick. He’s the ultimate popular school kid: rebellious yet cherubic, with a beautiful girl on his arm, and utterly self-assured. Yet he’s never smug or aloof because the audience is also part of his clique, in for the ride and hanging on to every word of sage advice. “Life moves pretty fast,” he counsels. “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Profound. Matthew Broderick inhabits the role to the extent that it’s impossible to know where the actor ends and Bueller begins. We all like to imagine we have a bit of Bueller in all of us.

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