A VOYAGE THROUGH PAST VINTAGES FROM THE YEAR OF THE RABBIT WITH CHELSEA VINTNERS’ BUYING DIRECTOR
BY GILES COOPER
It’s fair to say that the Year of the Rabbit has not always had a spring in its step when it comes to wine vintages. Going back as far as 1939, there are years which have, around the world, delivered a handful of good to great wines – with a couple of occasions where a particular vinous destination has delivered something quite special. What you certainly don’t have is that rarest of things … the ‘global vintage’, where almost everywhere in the world produces fantastic or at least very good quality wines (an example of this might be 2010, for example). So let’s dive into the last seven Rabbits and see what there is to offer.
Across Europe 1939 represented the outbreak of World War 2, a conflict which began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland and Great Britain and France’s subsequent declaration of war against the Nazis. The war years would go on to represent a hugely challenging time for European wine production (I strongly recommend reading ‘Wine and War’ by Don and Petie Kladstrup if you’re geeky about wine, modern history, or both) but 1939 did bring us something very special indeed; Corona from CVNE, the Companie Vinicola del Norte de Espana, In Rioja. Corona was the Rioja equivalent of Sauternes, made from partially botrytised grapes, barrel aged and with a resulting tangy sweetness and longevity that set it apart from anything else in the region. The hiatus between productions might also represent the longest ‘gap’ in wine history; the recently released 2015 is the first vintage since the great 1939.
Arguably the defining vintage of Australian wine history, 1951 was the first year in which the young Max Schubert produced his experimental ‘Grange Hermitage’, a wine born of a long educational trip to Europe during which Schubert became convinced that techniques used in Bordeaux could deliver a wine of Australia which would compete with the best in the world. The cross-over nomenclature derives from the use of Syrah (Shiraz) as the primary grape, although the ‘Hermitage’ element has long been lost in casual terminology. The other typically unused part of the original name, Bin 95, also tells part of the story; for when Schubert first delivered his dramatic young wine to the Penfold’s board, they were unanimous in their displeasure, and forbade him from producing any more. However the determined Schubert continued his project in secret, picking grapes from assorted sites across South Australia, and stashing the finished wine in a hidden area of the cellar, Bin 95. Legend has it that Schubert presented the board with an aged Grange almost a decade after the project began and the praise was as definitive as the condemnation had initially been. Production was immediately ‘restarted’ (having never actually ceased) and the future of Grange was assured.
Long gone are the days in which noble young things would receive a pipe of Port for their christening from a club-dwelling dilettante Great-Uncle … and more’s the pity. Vintage Port remains one of the wine world’s great value secrets, with perfectly aged bottles and even full cases still available at a fraction of the price of more fashionable wine styles, and with years (if not decades) still under their belt. Often considered a vintage against which all other Port vintages will be judged, 1963 delivered Ports of phenomenal power, longevity, and finesse, with each showing their true ‘house’ character in a way not often seen during this era (due to the typically sub-optimal standard of fortifying spirit which achieved its aim of providing stability and ‘fortitude’ but which generally blunted the finer edges of the base wines). Whilst 1945 may be the year of Taylor’s and 1977 the year of Graham’s, 1963 is unarguably the year of Fonseca – indeed Parker suggests it might be considered ‘the Pomerol of Vintage Ports’, which as a committed Right Bank fan, is good enough for yours truly…
1975 is another challenging global vintage (I expect someone to correct me with something obscure) but if it shines anywhere at all, it’s on the Right Bank of Bordeaux. Make no mistake, 1975 was a year that delivered hard, tannic and intense clarets with a rustic character that bears little or no resemblance to modern Bordeaux. However, if it worked anywhere, it was on the Right Bank – particularly in Pomerol, where Trotanoy, L’Eglise Clinet, L’Evangile and Petrus vie for the top of the tree. If powerful and dense wines are to your taste, then these are worth a sniff. However if anyone tells you that the wines will still soften, DO NOT LISTEN… tannins of this character do not change, and the wines will retain this robust character until the fruit finally exits stage left, pursued by bear. This is a Rabbit that is perhaps not one to pull out of a hat at your next dinner party!
Once again we find the Rabbit rather underwhelms in 1987, with Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux and Italy all delivering very average wines. Spain would arguably be the exception in Europe, but for the purposes of this exercise we will consider the champion of 1987 to be the Napa Valley and the great Cabernets that this region can produce. A typically hot, drought year produced small volumes of tiny, concentrated berries which produced wines of huge extract and intensity, occasionally besmirched by overly angular tannins (see 1975 Bordeaux above!) but in the best cases, with vertical structure that melted beautifully alongside the slow softening of the fruit. Strangely, some of the hottest areas in the valley floor produced the greatest wines (the mountain wines, whilst at higher altitude and thus theoretically in the cooler zone, fog notwithstanding, produced some of the most ferocious tannins) with Calistoga, Stag’s Leap and Oakville delivering Cabernets which are well into a 20-30 year drinking window today. Chateau Montelena and Shafer are among the finest examples whilst Dominus, by now into its 5th vintage, was also starting to find its stride.
Finally the Rabbit delivers a vintage of legendary quality and ageing potential in that most sought-after region, Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Whilst much of the world was worrying about the millennium bug (turned out to be nonsense) and the end of the ‘old Russia’ with the departure of Yeltsin and the appointment of Putin (turned out to be very real indeed), Burgundy vignerons were hoping for a continuation of the quality run that had extended from 1993 to 1998 (skipping the wet, miserable 1994). Their prayers were answered as both exceptional character and significant volume were the results of a benevolent summer in which a hot August and September offset the pain and workload of a rather humid June and July. Whilst it seems almost churlish to pick a favourite from this fabulous year, it’s worth reflecting on the missives of Burgundy-lover and famously hard-scoring critic Neal Martin, who awards two rare 100-point scores to the likely duo of Romanee-Conti (“breathtaking… mind-boggling”) and La Tache (“a symmetry that is utterly entrancing and precision second to none”).
Why oh why would we go back to Vintage Port after its previous mention for 1963? Well, for one reason. Imagine the quality of fruit from 1963 with a completely new, notably higher grade of fortifying spirit, and you have the 2011 port vintage. Universally declared by the leading houses, 2011 delivered Ports of breathtaking purity, focus and precision, characters which would have been impossible to admire in the old world of port production. And whilst dozens of 2011 Ports reach a half-century apogee, it can only be the legendary Nacional from Quinta do Noval that takes the crown. As if to prove our point, Neal Martin calls it “surely the finest Nacional since the ethereal 1963”. But there is a reality here, too; whilst the vagaries of the old school have long since been left behind, and a modern, precision approach has led to wines of ultimately greater expression and elegance, port is still a wine that requires patience. 2011 Nacional IS a wine that collectors ought to have in their cellars … but for family legacy rather than personal consumption.
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