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Château Lagrange 1996

Château Lagrange 1996

Over the past twelve months I have been picking away at a some of the maturing Bordeaux in my cellar, in particular from the 1996 and 1995 vintages, both of which recently celebrated their twentieth birthdays. I have let a few of them slip through as my Weekend Wine, for example, 1996 Château du Tertre, 1996 Château Talbot, that favourite old workhorse 1996 Château d’Angludet, the tiring 1996 Château Simard, 1995 Château Malescot St-Exupéry and 1995 Château Haut-Bailly. Not to mention one or two others I included in my recent 1996 Twenty Years On report. Although I still have a few wines from the 1994 vintage also tucked away, and one or two from the 1998 vintage (left bank as well as right, although the latter are certainly stronger) there are no prizes for guessing my two favourite vintages of the 1990s. In particular, I have long been enamoured with the left-bank wines of the 1996 vintage. As have many others, of course.

Coming back to some of these wines at twenty-plus years of age has been fun. Some have been stronger than others, but on the whole every wine had something to offer (even little Château Simard). One thing struck me about the wines though. Tasting them now, well into my ‘personal drinking window’ (by which I mean beyond fifteen years of age, when most good-quality Bordeaux really starts to get going, to my palate at least), these wines from the 1990s seem very different to the many wines from the preceding decade I was drinking ten to fifteen years ago. The flavours and textures in vintages such as 1995 and 1996 don’t seem to have evolved in quite the same way as the wines of the 1980s.

Château Lagrange 1996

These thoughts crystallised in my mind last December, when I sat down to taste some older vintages of Château Cos d’Estournel with Aymeric de Gironde and Dominique Arangoïts, general manager and technical director respectively. We did the tasting blind, at my suggestion, and I won’t pretend it wasn’t difficult to distinguish between some of the very successful younger vintages. But when we came to a more mature wine I recognised the nose in a flash, and I immediately homed in on a likely vintage. What was this characteristic aroma, you might ask. Black tea leaves? Cigar box? Old school desk? Or some other tertiary scent?

No. It was this; the wine smelt of the 1980s.

Although the vintages differed in character – under-rated 1981, brilliantly rich 1982, overlooked 1983, elegant 1985, tannic 1986, worthy 1988, stylish 1989 – there seemed to me that there was a common organoleptic thread that weaved its way through the vintages of this decade. I sensed it when the wines were ten years old, when I was learning about wine, and I still get it now some of them are well past thirty years of age. I had expected, or thought, or maybe hoped, that the wines of 1995 and 1996 (and other vintages) might evolve in the same way. While they are attractive and elegantly pure wines (especially left-bankers from the 1996 vintage) this doesn’t seem to be the case. Take, for example, the 1996 from Château Lagrange. This wine has a dark and dense core, a bright but mature rim, with a raspberry oxblood hue. It feels mature, pure, with a minerally edge to the aromatics, showing a rather calcareous evolution, fresh and expressive, this little seashell note wrapped around a core of dried blackcurrants, curranty savouriness, black olive, sooty juniper and green peppercorn. On the palate it is elegantly poised in the beginning, with a full and supple substance through the middle. It feels broad, with open fruit, quite loose in style, showing more structure than midpalate substance. Nevertheless it has definition, is easy-going, the slightly dusty tannins building towards the finish, which has an appealing certainty even if, given the wine’s age, it feels a little short. 17/20

So it is a good wine. I am glad I bought it, all those years ago. I am also glad I have a few more bottles tucked away, so I can see how it gets on in future years. Does it remind me of those wines from the 1980s on which I cut my Bordeaux teeth though? The obvious answer is no, it doesn’t. Coming back to my tasting at Château Cos d’Estournel, I apprehensively voiced my opinion regarding the distinctive character of Bordeaux in the 1980s and Dominique – who has probably drank more old Bordeaux than I have eaten hot dinners – seized on it.

“It was a special decade. We in Bordeaux don’t seem to make wines like those we made in the 1980s any more. Today’s wines are different.”

It is not just me then. There is, in truth, a small sense of relief in the realisation that somebody else feels the same way. The question is, why have the wines changed? What was it about winemaking in Bordeaux during the 1980s that so defined the style of the wines. And, of course, how is it that we seem to have lost that character? (23/1/17)

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