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1971 Bordeaux, thirty years on: 'first growth' tasting

Tutored by Liz Berry MW
La Vigneronne, 19th September 2001

If you are a serious student of wine, every now and then you need to try iconic wines—those considered by established authorities to be the best of their type—if only to provide some contextual markers for the rest of your drinking. Often, the best way to do this is in the company of like-minded enthusiasts at a comparative tasting, particularly when it is tutored by someone with the level of expertise of Liz Berry. At £125 a ticket, this is not a cheap night out, but then if you work out the cost and effort involved in sourcing these sorts of wines, you could argue that it represents a bit of a bargain.

What about 1971 as a vintage? Not the most obvious choice for a tasting of this sort. It lacks the glamour of 1970, which was a stunning year, and also an abundant one. 1971 came at a tricky time financially for the Bordelaise. Because it was a smaller vintage (about half the size) than 1970, prices were hiked up, even though it wasn't quite as good. Then, with the difficult economic climate of the mid-1970s, the prices crashed through the floor. As a result, the 1971s have consistently been undervalued.

Thirty years on, only the best of the vintage will still be at anything like their peak. But it's worth remembering that back in 1971 Bordeaux wines were still made for long ageing. Yields have become considerably higher in recent years, and it's arguable that even the best properties no longer make such long-lived wines.

All the usual suspects were here, with the exception of Latour. Wines were not tasted blind, and had been decanted just before the tasting (within 30 minutes). For interest's sake, I've included Robert Parker's scores for these wines in brackets after my tasting note (taken from a recent edition of his Bordeaux book). I didn't know these scores at the time (I deliberately didn't read up about these wines before I tasted them), and I'd stand by my ratings as accurate where they diverge from his, pointing out that (1) there's going to be considerable bottle variation in wines this old, especially if he tasted examples that have been shipped to the USA and hawked around the auction houses there, and (2) that with older wines, individual preferences and palate variations are going to be accentuated. To a palate used to lush Aussie Shiraz and opulent Californian Cabernet, old claret can seem a trifle austere.

I was impressed by these wines. Of course, it's hard to be completely objective when faced with a line-up of names like this, but if you like the taste of mature claret (and not everyone does), then bottles such as these are thrilling. Just one wine was a little disappointing: the Margaux. This was the only wine that was in serious decline; although some of the others may be a little past their peak, they are still drinking very well. My favourite? Well I won't plump for the rather obvious choice—the still-lush Pétrus—but rather the sensational Haut Brion and Cheval Blanc. These are both more typically claret-like, and have evolved into wonderfully complex, fully mature wines. 

1971 Château Léoville Lascases, St Julien
There’s a lovely mineral quality to the nose, with some classic cedary complexity. It’s very much still alive. The palate shows firm, grippy tannins and high acidity; unfortunately, it’s also a bit harsh, dry and austere. Despite this, drinking well now with food, and worth the effort for the lovely nose. Very good/excellent (RP score 73, perhaps a tad harsh?)

1971 Château Palmer, Margaux
The open nose is quite evolved, with some plummy fruit and an attractive herby character. There’s perhaps also just a touch of farmyardy character under the fruit. Complex and evolved on the palate, it’s still drinking very well, but is starting to dry out just a little (perhaps Palmer’s long maceration to blame here?). Drink now. Very good/excellent (RP score 86)

1971 Château Margaux, Margaux
Margaux was rather lacking money and technology back in 1971, and this was probably the least impressive wine of the night. Noticeably paler than the other reds, there’s a slightly off-putting medicinal edge to the nose, which also has some herby fruit. The palate is mature and mouth-drying, with more herby fruit and tea-leaf notes. Showing some signs of age, but still an appealing drink. Very good+ (RP score 70)

1971 Château Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac
A slightly lighter colour than some of the others, this wine is surprisingly good (it’s apparently not rated very highly by some experts). It’s probably a little past its peak, but has a lovely complex nose of minerals, pencil lead, tobacco and some plummy fruit. The palate is drying out a bit, but there some spice, tannin and a bit of complexity. Very good/excellent (RP score 60, very mean!)

1971 Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac
Very attractive nose: full, complex and cedary, with spicy, gravelly notes. This leads to a firm, structured palate with great density and fine-grained, chalky tannins. Long, spicy finish. It's beginning to dry out a touch, but shows great balance, and amazing intensity for a 30 year old wine. Peaking? Excellent (RP score 86)

1971 Château Haut Brion, Graves
There's a warm, ripe edge to the herby, plummy nose. The wonderfully complex, herby palate shows some leafy, tea-like notes, a tobbacoey earthiness and a mineralic edge. There's real interest here, and no sign of decline. Excellent (RP score 88)

1971 Château Cheval Blanc, St Emilion
Apparently, the right bank was slightly more successful than the left in 1971, and this shows here. Slightly unusual but sensational nose exhibiting ripe, leafy, herbal fruit with some warm spicy notes. Youthful-tasting palate shows spicy red berry fruit and herby complexity, with fine-grained tannins. Still going strong, with lovely balance and a spicy finish. Excellent (RP score 84)

1971 Château Pétrus, Pomerol
Now for something completely different. The deepest-coloured wine of the night, this has a stunning, arresting nose of ripe cassis and berry fruit, with sweet tea-leaf and leathery notes underlying the massive rush of fruit. The palate is amazingly youthful with a spicy edge to the ripe fruit. I'm amazed at how much rich fruitiness there is on this 30 year old wine: it's just so lush. Excellent (RP score 95)

1971 Château d’Yquem, Sauternes
A full orange/gold colour, this is a stunning, unctuous wine. The dense, complex nose shows spice, honey, butterscotch, crystallized fruits and apricot, without any untoward edges: it's very harmonious. Palate is complex and balanced, with some sweetness, good acidity and a honeyed texture. This isn't even supposed to be a great vintage for Yquem. Brilliant stuff; there's no hurry to drink this up. Excellent (RP score 92)

See also: 1961 Bordeaux, a horizontal tasting

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