Tasting the best 1998 red bordeaux blind

For full tasting notes, scores and recommended drinking dates on all 56 1998 red bordeaux tasted  see tasting notes section of purple pages.

Assessing a group of similar wines without knowing exactly which one is which is a wonderfully revealing exercise. Assessing a group of wines that taste good is a delightfully uplifting experience. I had a great Friday morning the week before last enjoying both the quality of the wines and the fact that price seemed so insignificant a determinant of quality.

Fifteen of us from as far afield as Bordeaux and Tuscany met at the London offices of fine wine traders Farr Vintners to ‘look at’, as we say, almost 60 red bordeaux from the 1998 vintage, a vintage that was famously much more successful in St Emilion, Pomerol and Graves than in the Médoc where rain washed out the region’s late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. Because the Médoc (home to Bordeaux’s most famous châteaux) tends to set the price of red bordeaux, 1998s are not in general fiendishly expensive. They certainly cost quite a bit less than the glamorous 2000s and heavily-touted 2003s, even though they are much closer to maturity and, in the case of many Pomerols anyway, are much more successful in 1998 than in either 2000 or 2003. Such is the craziness of the bordeaux market.

Not that any of these wines is cheap, you understand. It was not worth our while giving up what was effectively a day to taste anything other than wines with a certain reputation, together with the odd second wine whose presence was insisted upon by the owner who supplied his principal wine. So the cheapest wines were over £20 a bottle and the most expensive was the renowned Ch Pétrus which costs well over £1,000 a bottle. (I liked it, but no more than a wine, also served blind, that was being sold for £35 a bottle at the time of the tasting.)

We began with some relative minnows – three second wines and some of the more famous names of such Bordeaux boondocks as Bourg and Blaye. The deal was that the wines were served in six flights, usually of 10. After tasting each flight completely blind, knowing only roughly which part of Bordeaux they came from, we had to yell out our marks out of 20. The key at a tasting like this is to start at the right level. Had we all begun by giving Fugue de Nenin (£22.50) 17 out of 20, we would have run out of points by the time we got to Le Pin (£800 a bottle). This first flight was pretty uninspiring. We could see why the ingredients relegated into the second wine blend were not considered worthy of the grand vin. Most of them seemed either a bit too acid or with too little fruit.

Things looked up considerably with the second flight, the first of two devoted to St-Emilion – in fact this was one of my favourites. These wines had lovely richness and obviously healthy, ripe grapes, but no shortage of life-preserving tannins either. Here at last were the characteristics of the 1998 vintage on the right bank.

That said, however, there was the usual phenomenon of disappointing individual bottles (in many cases we didn’t have back-ups). We decided against scoring either Chx Ferrand Lartigue or Magdelaine at all, so inexpressive were the bottles we tasted from. This was presumably due to either low-level cork taint or random oxidation or some other as-yet-unnamed bottled wine malady. (We were later to keep our pens in our holsters re Ch Certan de May and I didn’t feel that our bottle of the first growth Ch Cheval Blanc 1998, £260 a bottle, was anything like as good as one I had enjoyed less than a month previously.)

I almost came to blows with the delightful Bordeaux wine merchant Bill Blatch of Vintex, which is a shame since he provides by far the best report on each vintage every year. He hated wine 10 and loved wine 9 in this second flight. I hated wine 9 and loved wine 10. Overall more people agreed with me but no-one felt moved as I did to go and sniff his glasses, so convinced was I that he had been served them the wrong way round. But all it illustrated was the variation in individual perception. He certainly had them the same way round as me, but while I found a delightfully refreshing note of Cabernet Franc in wine number 10, new wave Ch Valandraud, all he could smell was a sweet vanilla smell that reminded him of American oak (we do not want the smell of American oak in our red bordeaux, thank you very much) but I didn’t get this impression at all.

The second flight of St Emilions represented another triumph for modernism as far as my scores were concerned. I had never tasting the 1998 vintage of the controversial new manifestation of Ch Pavie, whose 2003 I liked so little (while America’s leading wine critic Robert Parker liked it so much) that this disagreement, rather absurdly, became a cause célèbre. I had heard however that the 1998 was a delicious wine and, on the basis of this particular tasting, I completely agree (even if I found myself as unenthusiastic about its over-extracted stablemate Ch Monbousquet 1998 as I have been about more recent vintages of it).

So far so very good. The wines had been generally very impressive – and it takes a lot for wines to impress a hard-nosed group of wine merchants and writers when they are served blind, early in the morning and without food. One of the most fastidious of our number had awarded only two wines more than 16 points, Pavie and Ausone.

The first flight of Pomerols was a bit of a disappointment. I’d forgotten how many fewer exciting Pomerols there are than exciting St Emilions and our trawl around the somewhat vapid Gazins and Nenins of the appellation was slightly dreary with all my marks falling in the 14-16.5 range.

Things looked up considerably with the second flight of Pomerols and our penultimate flight overall however. Here we had the Pomerol aristocracy, such names as Pétrus, Le Pin, Vieux Château Certan, Conseillante, Lafleur, Eglise Clinet, Trotanoy and so on. I gave all of the first four either 18 or 17.5 points and was probably not generous enough.

The real surprise of the tasting however was the dazzling quality of so many of the Pessac-Léognans (the new name for posh Graves). When everyone’s points were added up and averaged, Pessac-Léognan fielded three of the ten favourite wines overall, whereas it was represented by only 10 of the 56 wines overall. It may have been partly that the natural freshness, aroma and approachability of a good Cabernet-influenced Graves seemed particularly delightful after the 46 Merlot-dominated wines but the general quality was undeniable.

Most unexpected of all was the stunning performance of two wines, Chx Pape Clément and Smith Haut Lafitte, both properties owned by relative newcomers. Ch Pape Clément ended up being the single highest-scoring wine of all overall except for Ch Pétrus – although one of the more cynical organisers of this tasting reckoned it may have had something to do with the fact that it was the last wine served and many tasters would have assumed it had to be the grandest Graves of all Ch Haut Brion (which came fourth overall). Whatever the truth, I would heartily commend claret lovers to look out for 1998s from this often over-looked sub-region of Bordeaux.


In declining order of my preference, with the wine’s overall ranking according to all tasters in brackets and a relatively keen UK price per bottle in bond. See www.winesearcher.com for stockists outside the UK.

Ch Pape Clément 1998 Pessac-Léognan
(2) £31.03 Magnum Fine Wine (already sold out), £50.21 Berry Bros

Ch Smith Haut Lafitte 1998 Pessac-Léognan
(8) £250 (doz) Jenkins & Beckers

Ch Haut Brion 1998 Pessac-Léognan
(4) £120 Fine & Rare

Ch Valandraud 1998 St-Emilion
(21) £170.85 Four Walls Wine

Ch Pétrus 1998 Pomerol
[1] £1,053.60 a bottle, www.everywine.co.uk
Vieux Château Certan 1998 Pomerol
(5) £58 Seckford

Ch La Conseillante 1998 Pomerol
(13) £59.25 Four Walls Wine

Clos de l’Oratoire 1998 St-Emilion
(14) £37.05 Four Walls
Ch Pavie 1998 St-Emilion
(9) £58 Fine & Rare

Le Pin 1998 Pomerol.
(3) £692 a bottle, Bordeaux Index

Ch Ausone 1998 St-Emilion
(10) £120 WinePro

Ch Canon La Gaffelière 1998 St-Emilion
(22) £40.85 Finewineseller

Ch Rol Valentin 1998 St-Emilion
(11) £46.81 R & B Wines

For full tasting notes, scores and recommended drinking dates on all 56 1998 red bordeaux tasted  see tasting notes section of purple pages.