Château Sociando-Mallet 1986
I have been working hard on a 'makeover' for Winedoctor this weekend, to be rolled out in a week or so, so how better to switch off than with a bottle of mature Bordeaux, in particular from the once under-valued Sociando-Mallet. I write 'once', because prices today seem much more in keeping with the wine's status, a cru classé claret in all but name. Indeed, as I have written in my Sociando profile, proprietor Jean Gautreau would rank the estate on a par with other third growths, such as Giscours, and so we should perhaps not be surprised that in recent vintages the gap in price between Sociando-Mallet and the more respectable troisième cru estates has been closing.
It is quite some time since I tasted any Bordeaux from the 1986 vintage - the last tasting I attended that looked at the vintage in any detail was in fact eight years ago. My memory of the wines is that then, even though they already had fifteen years behind them, many still demanded further time in bottle, this being a peculiarly tannic vintage. Naturally this character can be related back to the weather of the growing season, and in particular a storm which swept through the Graves, Pomerol and St Emilion appellations, although it also touched the more northerly left bank communes. Those châteaux that harvested immediately after the storm brought in swollen grapes which were destined to make dilute and uninteresting wine; aggressive selection was necessary to produce anything of quality. Those that waited, however, reaped the benefit of several weeks of excellent weather. It is these châteaux that made the most successful wines, but also in allowing the fruit to hang on the vine in this way they contributed towards the tannic nature of the eventual wines.
This was because conditions earlier in the season had been dry and hot, and now allowing the grapes to hang for several more weeks led to further development of the tannins in the skin of the berries. In addition, crop size was down at many of the top properties, which only served to further emphasise the level of tannin. The character of the vintage, that which for many years made it so easy to spot in vertical tastings, had been cast. The vintage has, on occasion, been criticised for its mouth-furring qualities and some (including me) have even questioned whether the wines would ever come around at all, as I wondered whether the wines wouldn't simply dry out, leaving a hollow shell, a carapace of tannin with no fruit or flesh to pleasure the palate. I was, perhaps slightly unsurprisingly, a little apprehensive when I pulled the cork on this one.
I should not have been so worried. Although this is not one of the wines I tasted seven or eight years ago, if other bottles now taste like this one they will have made significant developments since that 1986 retrospective. The 1986 from Château Sociando-Mallet showed a good fill level, just at the bottom of the neck; the bottle comes from the cellars of a highly regarded university, so its provenance is assured. The cork, a long piece of bark stained all the way to the top, is out with no problem in one piece. There is very little sediment of note, and a remarkable colour in the decanter, still a very deeply pigmented wine, with a smoothly, glossy core of oxblood red, fading out to a mature dusty, pale red rim. I was expecting something looking rather more mature; perhaps this appearance says something about the preservative qualities of tannin? The nose is delightful, mature, well defined, I would like to say beef and blood but it has more finesse than that. There is a perfumed quality to it, like faded but aromatic sandalwood and dusty old cabinets, the latter a cliché I know, but true here. Beautifully textured on the palate still, soft and gently fleshy, balanced and beautifully fresh, savoury and broad. A very fine palate, composed, harmonious, almost silky, gently running through to a polished finish and quite some length too. Overall this is superb, has far more substance than I was suspecting, and I am glad to say all those 1986 tannins are fully integrated whilst the wine itself still has lots of vigour. So this is certainly ready to drink, although amazingly there is no rush - there's plenty of life left in this one yet. Excellent wine. 18+/20 (31/8/09)