This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Very long-standing readers may remember that my esteemed predecessor Edmund Penning-Rowsell reported every year until his own final vintage, 2002, on the results of a dinner held at his house in the Cotswolds to monitor progress of the red bordeaux first growths made exactly 10 years previously. The theory then was that it took wines of such standing a good 10 years to become even broachable.
Charlie Berman of Citigroup in London suggested that we try this again and kindly donated the main ingredients, eight bottles of 1997s. He invited Lindsay Hamilton of Farr Vintners and wine consultant Susie De Paolis, profiled in our recent supplement on wine investment, and their partners. Your restaurant correspondent volunteered to take over the Meg Penning-Rowsell role of cook, not the easiest of tasks when all the wines are red and demanding attention. Glasses were donated by Farr, a fine wine trading company with its own bottle washing machine - to the huge relief of this taster who remembers just how much time and tea towel effort it used to take to clean 50-odd glasses the morning after the Penning-Rowsell dinners.
The 1997 Bordeaux vintage was of course far from the most glorious, in at least two respects. Diluted by rain, the result has conventionally been agreed to be relatively early-maturing wines without great concentration or distinction. This made it all the more galling that the Bordelais, when releasing these wines, decided to ask for higher prices than the evidently far more successful 1996s. There was accordingly less than enthusiastic take-up of them and much criticism of the Bordeaux habit of expecting to be paid up front even for lesser vintages.
Perhaps the timing of this retrospective at the end of the primeur campaign for the rain-affected bordeaux 2006s, generally regarded as overpriced compared with the stupendous 2005s, was rather apt.
We began with a bottle of the 1997 vintage of one of Bordeaux's very finest dry whites Haut-Brion Blanc. Miraculously for the London summer of 2007, we were able to sip this aperitif in our garden, with Roka cheese biscuits as heartily approved by EP-R. In fact he would generally serve a bottle of Wine Society champagne as a fairly perfunctory aperitif but the Haut Brion Blanc was a clever innovation, giving us an even broader perspective on the vintage. In the event this particular bottle had a beautifully welcoming broad, waxy, honeyed lanolin sort of nose but on the palate seemed a little lean and green. Charlie Berman had relatively recent memories of a much richer-tasting bottle and it is my impression that whites were more successful than reds in Bordeaux in 1997.
We moved inside for a first course of mixed wild British mushrooms. With these delicious funghi, sautéed with diced fouette on toast, we compared Chx Haut-Brion (red) and Margaux 1997. The Haut-Brion was a particularly graceful wine, with a lovely, haunting bouquet but, like all these wines, quite notable acidity. It had a really vigorous attack on the palate and grew most impressively in the glass, suggesting it may have still some way to go in bottle. This, the best buy of this range, was definitely the more appealing of the first two wines but it ended a little dry and was perhaps not the most typical example of Haut-Brion's trademark 'warm bricks' (copyright EP-R).
The Margaux on the other hand smelt very Margaux – very fragrant and aromatic -but despite the depth of its crimson almost right out to the rim, seemed to have reached an early peak of maturity. It faded in the glass and the fruit seemed to be receding. I remembered Ch Margaux's director Paul Pontallier floating the view at last April's en primeur tastings in Bordeaux that today's vintages, contrary to popular opinion, would actually last longer than their predecessors. This was clearly not a prime example of this theory.
With the roast beef, Tuscan roast Tuscan potatoes, Piemontese peppers and a bright green sauce of chives, mint, basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil we 'looked at' the three Pauillac first growths Chx Mouton-Rothschild, Lafite and Latour. Ch Latour is traditionally served last in any line-up of this trio as it is usually the biggest, toughest, most backward wine but the 1997 was disappointingly atypical. Unusually, it looked paler and more evolved (more orange, less blue) than the Lafite and was rather light and simple without real lift or conviction.
The Lafite was voted wine of the night. It had such a beautiful combination of race, complexity, completeness and such dancing vivacity that it was difficult to believe it was a 1997. The price has unfortunately been inflated by Chinese reverence for this particular château.
The Mouton was a bit sweet and simple - flattering to the taster but not flattered itself by being served next to the Lafite. This wine, which has the heaviest deposit of the lot, was very definitely earthbound as opposed to ethereal.
With an artery-busting crema di gorgonzola and plums picked from our garden that evening came the right bank's top drawer: Chx Cheval Blanc and Pétrus as well as the super-rare Le Pin, made close to Pétrus in Pomerol. (We did not have an Ausone 1997 to hand.) In this right bank line-up it was Le Pin that was the obvious disappointment – sweet and simple again with a fast fade and no improvement in the glass. If anything it seemed a bit dead on the palate with the odd green note, whereas there was an almost brûlée suggestion on the nose.
We eight tasters were close to unanimous about most wines (much more consistent than in the old Penning-Rowsell/Broadbent era) but the Cheval Blanc elicited most disagreement. Lindsay and I were relatively impressed by it, putting it in fourth place, whereas others voted it fifth, sixth or seventh. I thought it was one of the most evolved wines but that it sensibly made no attempt to fight the modest aspirations of the vintage and expressed Cheval's usual balance and Cabernet Franc fragrance pretty well.
Of the right bank wines Ch Pétrus was the undoubted star – lacking Lafite's elegance but wallowing in its trademark richness with exotic, ripe-to-burnt fruit flavours. This was pure pleasure to drink whereas some of these wines were, frankly, not, perhaps because they were just a bit too muted without being subtle, a little tart rather than fruitily refreshing.
I would drink Le Pin and Ch Margaux first, then the Cheval, Mouton, Haut-Brion (red), Pétrus, perhaps hang on to the Latour to see if it might blossom eventually (but on the basis of past form rather than what was in the glass on the night) and lastly the delicious Lafite. But any of these could be drunk already with perhaps the Haut-Brion Blanc crying out most loudly for more bottle age.
In the spirit of Penning-Rowsell, we did not taste these wines blind, and I should point out, as he always did, that the results should be read bearing in mind that we tasted just one bottle of each wine on one night. But they do indicate, yet again, how little correlation there can be between price and quality.
1997 first growths – order of preference
Points awarded by the seven marking tasters, 1 being given to the favourite wine, 8 to the least favourite.
Rank Wine Points Approx £ per dozen in bond
1. Ch Lafite 11 2,500
2. Ch Haut-Brion 18 1,400
3. Ch Pétrus 19 5,000
4. Ch Margaux 26 1,600
5. Ch Cheval Blanc 37 1,600
6. Ch Mouton-Rothschild 43.5 1,300
7. Ch Latour 45.5 1,600
8. Le Pin 52 3,750
For full tasting notes see purple pages.