Bordeaux 1997, first and second growths

A tasting organised by Oddbins Ultimate Wine Store in Glasgow. It featured five of the best red Bordeaux first and second growths from the 1997 vintage. 1997 has gained a certain notoriety, not because of the wines themselves, but because of their release prices. The Bordeaux “en primeur” system sets prices for the new vintage long before the wines are actually on the shelves, and on the back of a buoyant stock-market and string of good vintages, 1997 came out with prices that were up on 1995 and 1996. Unfortunately, both 1995 and 1996 were superior vintages, and many commentators and wine-lovers felt the prices for a moderate vintage were not justified. These wines were shunned by the market, and have fallen steadily in price ever since. Most have shed 20-25% in the few years since release.

I have enjoyed many 1997s over the past few years; an early drinking vintage of up-front, fruity wines and mild-mannered tannins. It has never been a profound Bordeaux year, but it has often been delicious and ready to drink now, unlike the “great” vintages. Some have said recently that the 1997’s are tiring badly and need drinking, but this tasting of top wines suggests to me that, though drinking now, there is no desperate rush. It was a difficult vintage, and some producers did better than others through rigorous selection of grapes and vats, so other wines may well be showing less well than these superstars. But writing off the entire vintage as “dead” is a little premature. I would also say that this appears to be a vintage that favoured Cabernet rather than Merlot based on this evidence.

So is this wine now good value at 20% less than when released? I think the only conclusion is that it all depends on what you buy, and how much of the Bordeaux “X-factor” premium you are prepared to stomach. I’d prefer to see these 20% cheaper again, as at £80 ($120US/€120) the first growths are far from giveaways. One thing is for sure though: if you want to own a bottle of very good quality Lafite or Mouton you are unlikely to find it much cheaper ever again in the future.

The tasting was not blind.

The wines

Château Ducru-Beaucaillou 1997, St-Julien, 2nd growth – £39.99
65% Cabernet Sauvignon (CS), 25% Merlot (M), 5% Cabernet Franc (CF), 5% Petit Verdot (PV). Medium ruby colour, with some browning apparent. Nice bloody, gamy perfume, with some sweet, rich, overripe berry fruit and a little cedar. Seems very mature and integrated on the nose. Nice medium- to full-bodied texture, with plenty of acidity giving a tight, clean aspect on the palate. Tannins are quite tight, which along with the acidity makes this a little lean. Some solid black fruit emerges, with plenty of briar and cedary notes into a reasonably long finish. Very good, though a touch disappointing overall. Drink soon, or take a chance on this one.

Château Léoville-Las Cases 1997, St-Julien, 2nd growth – £79.99
74% CS, 13.5% CF, 9% M, 3.5% PV. Darker, denser, more vibrant purple/black. A big, deep, impressively sweet nose of toasty, charry oak and sweet, sweet blackcurrant fruit. On the palate quite cool and classy, with more blackcurrant that is pure and ripe in the mouth. This is fine, with good texture and a savoury grip with toasty oak and spices adding some depth, good balance and lovely length. Very good indeed/excellent. Drink now – 2015.

Château Haut-Brion 1997, Pessac-Leognan, 1st growth – £79.99
55% CS, 25% M, 20% CF. The first bottle of this opened was a little volatile on the nose and had an odd astringency on the palate. A second bottle was opened, and proved to be a better wine overall, without the VA component. Some development obvious in the colour, with a brown rim to warm brick. Quite a deep, plummy, baked plum-pudding nose, with sweet fruit and a mocha-coffee overlay. The texture seems thicker than the first bottle, with more sweet plum fruit. It has a tongue-coating density and concentration, that is very warming and toasty, with background oak tannins, sweetness, but acid balance. Very good indeed. Drink now – 2015.
Château Lafite-Rothschild 1997, Pauillac, 1st growth – £79.99
90% CS, 10% M. Very dark and dense purple/black. Hugely mocha-like, coffee nose that is opulent yet complex, with notes of old roses and tobacco before concentrated cassis fruit with a dark, bitter-cherry note. This has lovely, heightened aromatics compared to any of the others so far. Smooth, medium- to full-bodied palate, with solid, concentrated black fruit and plenty of tannic grip. Though that espresso-ish warmth fills out the mid-palate, there is a mere hint of liquorice astringency, but this is undoubtedly a very concentrated example with good length. Lafite used only 28% of the harvest, so obviously that selection has paid off. Very good indeed/excellent. Drink 2005 – 2015.
Château Mouton-Rothschild 1997, Pauillac, 1st growth – £79.99
82% CS, 13% M, 3% CF, 2% PV. Very dense, dark and opaque. Lovely sweetness here, with fine, fine quality on the nose of charry, toasty, espresso and a gorgeous sweetness of fruit; cherry, cassis and some exotic spice. The palate is fine too, with good texture and ripe tannins bolstering quite robust, full fruit. Plenty of cedar and smokiness too, and lovely length. Thought the Lafite has the more intriguing nose perhaps, this wine sneaks it overall and seems to be just starting to come together. Excellent. Drink now – 2015.