One of my big surprises this year was how a handful of wines can make a reputation for a vintage. What I am speaking about is 1996 in Bordeaux, and how the five first-growths made the reputation of what should have only been considered a very good year, certainly not an exceptional one.
I thought about that again a couple of weeks ago when I was in Hong Kong during a number of tastings/dinners organized by wine merchant Paulo Pong to celebrate his 30th birthday. He served blind the five first-growths from 1996 during a dinner at Gaddi’s Restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel.
Unfortunately, one of the five was corked! And he did not bring a backup bottle. (We found out later that it was Margaux, one of my favorites.) But the other wines were all outstanding. That night I preferred the Lafite (95 points). It was the richest and most structured of the small group. The Mouton and Haut-Brion followed (both 94 points) with the Latour at the end, 93 points. They were all outstanding wines showing bright fruit, refined tannins, solid concentration and a long finish. They still needed another three or four years of bottle age but they were certainly enjoyable now to taste. Anyone who owns bottles or cases should be happy.
This all being said, that is not the case with the vintage overall. And I still can’t really understand why the market continues to believe the 1996 vintage is so outstanding. Prices are higher than most 1995s, a far superior vintage. And people keep talking about the year’s greatness.
I have a story coming out in the magazine in March, comparing 1996 to 1995, which should be interesting to all of you. And I hope that it helps clarify the situation. I did an extensive blind tasting of both vintages in Bordeaux last September and it was fascinating. If you like numbers, here is some of what my blind tasting of more than 100 wines from each vintage came up with: 43 ‘95s worth 90-94 points and 12 deserved 95-100 while I only gave 25 ‘96s 90-94 points and four 95-100 points.
Granted, this is not a science. But the numbers clearly show that 1996 is not in the same league as 1995. In fact, the former is not in the league of any great vintage for Bordeaux. The exception, as I said before, are the first-growths ...
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