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Château Climens 1998

After four weeks of wines from the Loire Valley, and two weeks of Tuscany, it's about time I slipped in something from Bordeaux as my Weekend Wine. Bearing in mind, of course, that my Weekend Wine feature allows for vinous exploration and perhaps a bit of discussion, and shouldn't necessarily be seen as an incentive to rush out and buy a wine. This approach allows me to explore unusual and sometimes slightly misbehaving wines, such as last week's 2009 Labouriou from Marc Pesnot, and rather elderly wines which are near-impossible to track down, such as 1986 Coteaux de l'Aubance from Domaine de Bablut.

This week's wine is neither unusual, nor misbehaving, nor - like many a bottle of Bordeaux, which tends to hang around in the aftermarket long after other wines have disappeared into the cellars of the world for ever - particularly difficult to track down. With it being an off-vintage example of Sauternes, however, and one I feel translates the weaknesses of the vintage for the region quite plainly, I doubt very much this review will incite a 1998 Climens buying frenzy.

The 1998 Bordeaux vintage was certainly a very good one for the right bank communes, this being old and well-established knowledge now, and something that became clear to me for the first time at a St Emilion 1998 tasting I attended in London back in 2004. Other occasional bottles of St Emilion from the vintage tasted since then - such as the very admirable 1998 Grand Mayne - have strengthened my opinion on this, whereas my experience with Pomerol from this vintage remains rather more sketchy! On the left bank it was less attractive, what wines I have tasted over the years sometimes showing a rather austere character; nevertheless I could really do with reassessing the vintage, and looking into the cellar I see I have some Haut-Bailly, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville Las-Cases, Lafon-Rochet and Haut-Batailley, not to mention more of that Grand Mayne. I can feel a 1998 tasting coming on, although with my current schedule of tastings it will almost certainly be 2012 before that happens.

Chateau Climens 1998

There are also a few remaining halves of 1998 Sauternes, not just Climens but Coutet and Rieussec too. I have to confess I have made deeper inroads into the 1998s than I have with 2001 Sauternes (which have been so reticent over the last year or two - leave well alone for the moment if you have any, but they will be brilliant with time) and the 2003 vintage (which gives great pleasure right now, as seen with four examples included in my recent Bordeaux 2003 tasting). I think this is because the 1998s - speaking particularly of those I have tasted and revisited over a period of time, rather than a vintage generalisation - have always come across as rather soft and straightforward, easy-going and approachable regardless of their age. This perhaps reflects the difficult harvest, which was interrupted with heavy rains. The potential quality looked very good at first, with the fruit nicely ripe before botrytis arrived, which prompted a first picking, but then came the rain. What wines were made included fruit from that first tri, which was rather lighter in style, and the more richly botrytised grapes harvested once the rains had eased, the pickers still out in many vineyards well into November.

Happily this was a time when lesser wines could be picked up at appropriate prices, rather than the situation today when most upper-tier wines from Bordeaux seem expensive regardless of the vintage. This means I picked up these half bottles of Château Climens 1998 for a song (just under £8 per half bottle, if you are interested - I see from wine-searcher they are a little more pricy now!), a price that seems to me to match the amount of pleasure they currently give. In the glass it has a really vibrant, polished-gold hue. An attractive nose follows, with a set of aromas centred around orange, with tinges of barley sugar and bitter orange fruit, bringing to mind notes of orange pith, candied zest and even a tinge of Seville marmalade. And behind that, there is a soft, chalky, crumbly minerality. But above all, it is the bitter element behind the fruit that makes the most impact. Very fleshy at the start, a wine that immediately shows an oily texture, before it carries the fruit into the midpalate. It is certainly not overly simple despite the vintage's reputation, as the wine carries a bitter, phenolic layer which I find quite attractive, alongside the rather soft orange fruit. Nor is it richly sweet, although it is quite mellifluous and it has a nice grip. This is not the most extravagant or seductive of vintages, nevertheless it has some appeal, especially in the finish, which features a flourish of bitter and grippy elements first, then a little layer of sweetness, with a particularly toasty, caramelly edge. Although I like the savoury-bitter elements here, the major deficiency here is in the definition of the wine, as I would like to see a more precise frame of acidity providing some backbone for all that oily substance; it all seems a bit 'soft focus' still. 15/20 (5/9/11)

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