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Are Vintages Bunk?

(July 27, 1999) 1990 may have been the best Bordeaux vintage of the last ten years, right? And 1991 may well have been the worst, right?

     Okay, then kindly explain to me -- just what happened at Chateau Pichon-Lalande?

     Last weekend we blind-tasted six vintages of this terrific Pauillac. And although I've long been a fan of the '91 PL, the results here surprised even me.

     We tasted the wines in two different flights. Prior to each flight, we were told the vintages to be included. We then ranked the wines and tried to name the vintage of each bottle.

FLIGHT ONE consists of 1989, 1990 and 1991:

WINE #1 is deep ruby with a simply spectacular nose. Herb, tobacco and buckets of cassis. On the palate, it's long, deep, youthful and beautifully fruity. Develops in the glass very well. This is easily the best wine of the flight. So I guess it must be 1989. WRONG! It's ***1991 Pichon-Lalande, giving its best performance to date -- and amazingly too it proves to be WINE OF THE EVENING.

WINE #2 bears a family resemblance, but it's showing less fruit and more herb. Tasted by itself, this would be a lovely wine. But compared to wine #1, it seems a little hollow on the palate, and there's also a streak of green tannin on the finish. It's not a backward wine -- just a little lacking. It's my least favorite wine of the flight and I rank it fifth in the vertical. But I correctly guess it to be the *1990 Pichon-Lalande, a wine that never fails to disappoint.

WINE #3 is quite different from the first two, with some gamey scents and some chocolatey notes on the palate that I associate with Merlot. Very nice stuff, but not quite as stunning as wine #1. I guess it to be the 1991, but it's the *+1989 Pichon-Lalande. Surprises me a lot and I must say I've had better bottles of the 1989. I wonder if some brettanomyces got into this one. I rank it second in the flight and fourth in the tasting.

FLIGHT TWO consists of 1970, 1975 and 1988. Happily for our egos, the wines here behaves much more as we expected:

WINE #5 smells old. Noticeable aromas of ash and tar. There's fruit on the palate, but every sip reveals a trace of oxidation. Easy call. It has to be the 1970 Pichon-Lalande. Drink up! It's still enjoyable, but slipping into the grave. I rank it third in the flight and dead last in the vertical.

WINE #6 is the most youthful wine in the flight. Lots of current and herb, but more tannic than any of the wines in the first flight. Sounds a lot like the 1988 vintage, right? Correct in this case. It's **1988 Pichon-Lalande, ranked second in the flight and my third favorite overall.

WINE #7 starts out a little numb. You can taste tannin and ...wait, here's the fruit! It takes about an hour in the glass to overtake the 1988, but eventually it does. I correctly guess **1975 Pichon-Lalande. It's a beautiful wine in the old Bordeaux style, but I doubt it's ever going to lose its slightly tannic edge. Nevertheless it's so long and complete that I rank it first in the flight and my second favorite wine of the tasting.

     So here's how the vintages stacked up to this taster, on this particular evening:

1. 1991
2. 1975
3. 1988
4. 1989 (admittedly a suspect bottle)
5. 1990
6. 1970 (might have been a lot better once)

     Take out the 1970, and...

     Well, it's almost exactly the opposite of what you might have expected, right? So you tell me. Are vintages bunk? Or what exactly happened here?

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