Leaving a troubled 2018 behind for a better 2019? Anniversary wines to go with it.
Leaving behind a troubled 2018, both in vinous terms, with difficult weather, and for the world as a whole, it is time to think about 2019. What wines should you consider if you, or someone you know, have a 9 celebration next year? There are plenty of options for those who want to open a very special bottle this year. Many vintages ending in 9 have been excellent. BKWine Magazine’s guest writer Stuart George explores the options and tells the tale of some exceptional wines he has tasted.
On the whole, 2018 was a year to forget. Last year (soon) saw a dreadful accident in Genoa and the ongoing tragedy of Syria. The Skripal poisoning in the usually placid English city of Salisbury caused relations between the British government and the Russian President Vladimir Putin – who was elected for a fourth term – to hit their lowest point in many years.
There was an unexpected summit in Singapore. A man widely regarded as a dangerous lunatic who has a nuclear fixation and a terrible haircut met with the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. “Peace in our time”, perhaps.
November 11th marked the centenary of the end of the Great War.
Apparently the sixth in line to the succession of the British throne married an American former actress. I was too busy watching cricket to notice. Apple became the first company to reach a $1 trillion market capitalisation.
Some of the all-time great wines
The world remains a troubled place (except for Apple shareholders). Nonetheless, let’s try and look to 2019 with optimism.
Life becomes more bearable when you break bread and enjoy great wines with friends and family. Vintages that end in “9” include some of the all-time greats.
A series of high-rise clarets
The top Bordeaux estates released their 2009 wines at unprecedented prices – four or five times the price of the 2008s – based on “best ever” hype. Well, it was the best since 2005. The Bordeaux bull market was created by money from Asia and from speculators. But, like 1997, the prices of the 2009s went down after they were released into the market. Xi Jinping, who was granted the status of “President for Life” in March 2018, will probably still be General Secretary of the Communist Party of China – that is, President of the People’s Republic of China – when these wines have regained their value.
Burgundian greats or Burgundian blues
Beautiful red burgundy was made in 1999. When the wines were offered en primeur I was working at Burgundy specialist Haynes Hanson & Clark under the tutelage of Anthony Hanson MW. I purchased a case of Domaine Chandon de Briailles Pernand-Vergelesses 1er Cru Ile des Vergelesses (a daunting name for most of our monoglot clients), which Chandon de Briailles’ winemaker Claude de Nicolay said was the best she’d ever done from this vineyard. All long since gone, alas.
It was a good Burgundy vintage for white wines too but the dreaded “premox” – premature oxidation with a variety of possible causes (higher-yielding Chardonnay vine clones, vinification techniques, lower sulphur dioxide [SO2] levels, faulty corks… Who knows?) – makes sourcing (and serving) these wines a risk.
Domaine Jacques Prieur Montrachet 1999 was tasted at the domaine in 2005 and had enough brisk acidity to suggest that it would age for another ten years. But 20 years might be optimistic.
It was a better Bordeaux vintage than might be thought vis-à-vis the thunderstorm that dropped hail all over the region. Lafite 1999’s average Wine-Searcher score is 92, which makes it as good as the famous 1961 at nearly a third of the price.
Château Margaux 1999 was “undervalued”, believed the late Paul Pontallier, because of the great 2000 that followed. Tasted with him at an event in London a few years ago, the 1999 “is what Château Margaux stands for – balance, delicacy, softness and strength”, said Pontallier. Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux 1999 was deliciously sweet and juicy.
A minty and peppery Château Angélus ’99 was tasted with the estate’s président du directoire Jean-Bernard Grenié, who spoke of the hailstorm that hit Saint-Émilion on 5th September 1999 – at 8 pm, to be exact – and left 5cm of hailstones on the ground. Ausone, which is just 600 metres from Angélus, was completely unaffected – as good an argument for the climatic aspect of terroir as you will find.
Other ’99s enjoyed on my travels include Tyrrell’s Semillon, which Bruce Tyrrell declared was “a result of the best crop we have had through all the 1990s”. Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 1999 had a characteristically unctuous and rich texture, like melted honey.
And then it was champagne
Some excellent champagnes were made in 1999. Dom Pérignon was tasted upon release with Richard Geoffroy. At that time the nose evoked white burgundy – perhaps a young Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru – with its finely-tuned aromas, and the red fruit-scented palate suggested Pinot Noir. In any given vintage the blend is close to 50/50: “Dom Pérignon is the Yin and Yang of champagne blending”, said Geoffroy.
Cristal 1999 was Jean–Baptiste Lecaillon’s first vintage in charge. Both 1996 and 1999 were ripe vintages and no chaptalisation was necessary. “The difference between them,” explained Lecaillon, “is the acidity. 1999 is very low in acidity… (It’s) very soft, gentle and round.”
An October 2018 dinner hosted very generously by Omar Khan of the International Business and Wine Society served a late-disgorged magnum of 1999 Champagne Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs “Eclipse” – named for the total eclipse of the sun on August 11th 1999 and “a rarity now”, the guests were told. Late-disgorged bottlings are often not to my taste – I dislike lees-influenced, reductive champagnes – but the mainly chardonnay Eclipse ’99 was as bright as – well, as bright as the sun after an eclipse.
Az. Agr. Fattoria La Monacesca Verdicchio di Matelica Riserva “Mirum” 1999 (how many other wines have ten words in their name?) is a white wine from off the beaten burgundy track. Tasted in 2006, it was just learning to walk and it might be running now. La Monacesca’s owner Aldo Cifola considered 1999 to be “a truly magnificent year for us, possibly the best ever”.
As an envoi to the 1999 vintage, the Szepsy Tokaji Esszencia rounds it off nicely. With only 2% alcohol, strictly speaking, this is not wine at all, merely slightly alcoholic grape juice. With 500g/l of residual sugar – that is, 50% of the wine is pure sugar – it was painfully sweet but not at all cloying: The 16g/l of acidity compares to less than 1g/l for a white burgundy. Astonishing stuff.
1998: coming of age
The great wines of the 1998 vintage were covered in last year’s overview but it’s worth mentioning them again for those celebrating a 21st birthday or anniversary, which might be an excuse to open some bottles of the magnificent Right Bank ’98s. Cheval Blanc and La Fleur-Pétrus, for example, when last tasted were the epitome of contemporary fine claret – suave, moreish, and delicious.
1994: The 25er
The Right Bank also had a good year in 1994, which offers good value for 25th anniversary celebrations. The Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes were picked earlier than the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, which got hit by rain in September.
It was an excellent Rioja vintage – as good as 1964 thought some – though my experiences have been mixed. A 1994 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva tasted in 2005 was already drying out and a 1994 Viña Real Gran Reserva had gone as far as it was likely to go. The 1994 Contino Reserva was very disappointing. Perhaps I was having a bad day.
The 1980s finished with a bang in most of Europe’s classic wine regions. On the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, Angélus 1989 was perhaps a precursor to the château’s “big is beautiful” style of the 21st century. Cheval Blanc 1989 was already brown when tasted in 2007 but showed a far greater depth of colour than the 1990 and a fresher and more attractive nose. The extremely early picking (which began on 7th September) was apparent in the crisp acidity and vaguely tough tannins. With fractionally superior depth and length, the 1989 Cheval Blanc just shades the 1990 overall and makes a mockery of current prices: the 1989 is less than half the price of the 1990.
Château Margaux 1989 was a masterpiece that “combines power and subtlety,” said Paul Pontallier. It was almost cloyingly charming, like an international playboy. But irresistible as a drink.
Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle 1989 is one of the better vintages of this wine. A magnum of Pommery Cuvée Louise 1989 was a bit burned on the finish but highly praised by some of the other tasters.
A sweet year
No red bordeaux of note was made in 1979 but it was ok for sauternes. Red burgundy was far from being a complete write-off but was lost behind the much superior 1978. Italy’s prime regions in Tuscany and Piedmont enjoyed a successful year in 1979. Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate 1979 was prettier than most of the old vintages of this wine tasted at a vertical with Wynn’s winemaker Sue Hodder.
Champagne in 1979 is notable for the first vintage of Krug’s Clos du Mesnil. Cristal 1979 was tasted from a magnum that was disgorged in 1984. It was honeyed, still crisp, and a very pleasant Cristal.
Half a century with grace
Fifty-year-olds can celebrate their half-century with red wines from Burgundy, the southern Rhône, or California. When last encountered Hermitage La Chapelle 1969 was declining into maderisation and is probably now past the point of no return. Dom Pérignon 1969 Oenothèque (or Œnothèque, as per the entirely unpretentious label) was a shimmering gold colour and had a nose that was “more brown than grey”, according to Richard Geoffroy. This was the last DP vintage to use oak barrels, which might explain the denser aromas and “foursquare, a bit rough round the edges” palate.
If you are 60-years old in 2019 you might be able to find a bottle of something from the great 1959 vintage from Bordeaux or Burgundy. The closest that I’ve been to this is Vieux Château Certan 1959. The cork from this bottle was in excellent condition and was branded with “1er Grand Cru Pomerol” (sic). The wine was rounded and harmonious, with significant power and far greater depth than the 1964 or 1975. A highly impressive VCC.
Viña Real Gran Reserva 1959 was delightful. Château Ksara Clos St Alphonse 1959 from Lebanon was much less appealing.
“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away”…
Psalms 90 allocates us 70 years, so if you can afford it treat yourself to an example of the great 1949 vintage from Bordeaux or Burgundy, which are now extremely rare and expensive. Old Rioja is more affordable. Viña Real Gran Reserva 1949 was a lovely example.
Peaceful, not so much
Sauternes was not bad in 1939 but that’s about it. There is one exception that I’ve tasted twice.
Although the Spanish Civil War was declared to be at an end by Franco after the surrender of the Republicans on 1st April 1939, Spain was still in pandemonium by the autumn. In the Rioja region, harvesting was at the back of people’s minds and thus many grapes were left hanging on the vine, becoming affected by botrytis, until somebody could pick them. CVNE Corona Reserva Blanco Semi Dulce 1939 is probably made from botrytis-affected Viura, with some Malvasia and Macabeo, though nobody seems to know (or care). It was left ageing in wooden casks for over 30 years until it was “rediscovered” in the early 1970s and finally bottled, with only 1,000 or so bottles produced. Such a bracing combination of sweetness, acidity and oxidisation is an acquired taste – a Bordeaux negociant present at a tasting declared the wine to be “not to my taste” – but this remains an extraordinary effort from a period of great upheaval for Spain.
It was a fine vintage for sauternes and red burgundy in 1929. As with 1899 and 1900 (and 1948 and 1949 [and 1947!], and 1988 and 1989 etc), this is one half of a pair of exceptional consecutive claret vintages, though some of the wines can polarise opinion – Haut-Brion, for example, which for some tasters is epic; for others, stewed and extracted.
I have only one note for a 1929 wine. Château Haut-Bailly 1929 was tasted from a bottle from the Graham Lyons collection (sold by Zachys in 2008). Overall, it was in excellent condition for an 80-year old wine and a good bottle like this could still be enjoyable.
1919, 1909, 1899,…
A full century
Centenarians looking for wines from 1919 could try red burgundy, which enjoyed a great vintage. But in Bordeaux, it was a tricky year that produced wines with high VA. Sauternes was good in 1909.
At the time of its release, 1899 claret was considered to be exceptional but expensive – “The Horror! The Horror!” as Kurtz says in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899.”
Try sauternes 1869 if you can find (and afford) it.
There’s plenty of choice for those celebrating an anniversary in 2019, then. There is, however, one great wine-producing region that has never distinguished itself in a “9” year. The Douro did not produce Vintage Ports of distinction in any of the aforementioned vintages. But there are always the wonderful Tawny ports to enjoy for 10-, 20-, 30-, and 40-year celebrations.
Stuart George is London-based and is the founder and MD of Vins Extraordinaires, which offers fine and rare wine experiences and sales to corporate and private clients. He also has an extensive experience as a wine writer and editor as well as from the international trade in fine wines.
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