In the old days, and those days weren’t so long ago, opening a first growth with a customer wasn’t a big deal. Just over five years ago you could pick up a bottle of 1996 Latour for a couple of hundred quid, or a bottle of 1995 Haut-Brion for not much more than a hundred. If you bought these wines in 2005 you will have done well.
Last week I opened a handful of decent clarets with a very long-standing customer: 2001 Leoville-Barton & Palmer, 1996 Gruaud-Larose & Montrose and 1996 Latour: my first first this year and my first in a while.
Latour notwithstanding the winners were 2001 Palmer and 1996 Montrose. The former is just lovely: the Merlot really softens this out – like silky pillows, velvet cushions – and it’s just spot on now. This is real Sunday Roast claret with massive charm though no shortage of depth underneath. At £1200 a case in bond it’s what 1995 Haut-Brion would have set you back five years ago.
1996 Montrose has maybe a little more class. It has a cool minerality to it, and this is a wine with character: it has that St Estephe austerity, but with cool pure fruit, and it’s finally lost that slightly dirty nose that I always found on it. Top, top kit. 2001 Barton and 1996 Gruaud are perfectly good wines – the former wants more time, the latter spot on now, but on the day they were outclassed.
So, the Latour. I am a Latour nut. It’s the first growth that I know best and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the silverback. Latour is the King. The bottle had to live up to this.
1996 Pichon-Lalande tasted a few weeks back seemed to be in a funny phase. It was green, closed, unexceptional. And this is a wine that I have in the past ranked as one that could almost pass for first-growth quality. I mention this as 1996 Latour, or at least the bottle I opened last week, seemed to be a little quiet. The class was there – no doubt about that. The length alone was stunning – the wine still there on the tongue after minutes of discussion, but it was all a bit subdued. You could taste the breeding – Latour is vinous royalty and knows it – but this bottle did not remove my socks, which is something a bottle of wine should do when it comes in at £650 or so.
And there’s something to add to this: 1996 Ch. Latour, Pauillac, arguably the best wine of an exceptional vintage for the Medoc (Lafite has more bells and whistles but it’s all make-up to me), and arguably one of Bordeaux’s finest wines ever, is a staple “investment wine” or, to use a description that I particularly like: “commodity Bordeaux”. This, not its quality or rarity (this is not a rare wine by any measure – I’d bet that at least 20% or so of the crop is sitting in UK bonded warehouses), is why a case will set you back about the same as what my car is worth. And this, maybe, added to the lack of fireworks crackling from the glass. Money is pretty dirty stuff – you don’t know where it’s been – and maybe some of the dirt has rubbed off.
Or maybe, and this is why I love the whole shebang, it was a dog day for that particular bottle.