Elin McCoy Explores the Appealing Nature of Vertical Tastings and Its Connection to the Past

By | 30 May 2024

These line-ups give me insight into place, time and weather, and prompt questions. How has a specific vintage evolved over the years? What behind-the-scenes dramas of frost, hailstorms or heatwaves have found their way into tastes and aromas? I treasure surprises, such as a wine from a scorching, heatwave vintage that is still fresh after a decade, and what that tells me about the site it comes from.

What ties the bottles together is the vineyard. An analytical deep dive into 10 or 20 vintages to discover the stamp of terroir reminds me of listening to an opera singer’s performances from young dazzle to a voice beginning to fade away, yet with poignant layers of complexity.

Happily, châteaux in Bordeaux, where great wines can age for a century, are fond of staging such events to show off their liquid history. During Bordeaux’s en primeur week in April 2023, I attended three brilliant verticals, at Château Haut-Bailly (grand cru classé de Graves), Clos Fourtet (St-Emilion 1er grand cru classé B), and Château Ducru-Beaucaillou (St-Julien 2ème cru classé), each followed by a fabulous meal. All charted individual journeys across time, and made clear that focus, commitment, dreams and

ambition are as important to upping quality as plenty of money – and in the 21st century, these can mitigate bad weather.

Clos Fourtet’s 2020 vintage, the final wine in a 20-year vertical tasting held last year. Credit: Marie-Amelie Journel

Château Haut Bailly marked its 25-year anniversary from 1998 to 2022 with an event in its serene, stone-walled cellar and elegant dining room. This event served to underscore the remarkable evolution of the Pessac-Léognan estate post-purchase by American banker Robert Wilmers. Wilmers, along with general manager Véronique Sanders, quickly committed to a high-standard viticulture approach. Notable advancements in precision and refinement of the wines were evident, particularly in the 2004, 2008, and 2016 vintages. Even after Wilmers’ passing in 2017, his son Chris has upheld this legacy.

The most remarkable factor was the consistent quality and characteristic style of the wines, including the less-favored vintages like 2011, known for its cold, damp summer. The permanence of the wines’ elegance, subtlety, and balance, paired with a continued refinement in purity and precision, was truly commendable. Recent vintages have presented a sophisticated opulence, although the core identity of the wines remains evident.

Clos Fourtet’s 20-year vertical, spanning from 2001 to 2020, provided insight into the Cuvelier family’s ownership of this St-Emilion 1GCC property since their acquisition in 2001. A steady decrease in the oak influence became apparent, with 18 months aging in 80% new barrels for the 2001 vintage being reduced to 40% for the 2022 barrel samples.

The wine groupings were not organized simply by age, instead divided according to style. Placing lighter year vintages together with the sunnier ones, like 2003, I found a shared element of freshness from vines nurtured on the limestone plateau. Among the Les Iconiques set, the 2001 vintage stood out for its depth, while the Les Exceptionnels category provided noteworthy vintages such as 2005, ’10, ’16, ’18, ’19 and ’20. These exuded succulent fruit flavors reminiscent of the 1998 and 1989 vintages sampled at dinner. Contrary to numerous St-Emilion estates, this château did not conform to the exceedingly opulent style promoted by the (now-retired) critic Robert Parker.

I remember hearing church bells in the background as I attended a 20-year vertical event at Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, starting from 2003 under the management of the present owner, Bruno Borie. His family legacy was present in every sip, especially in their outstanding vintages such as the cedar-infused 1959 served during a four-hour lunch, truly a testament to the longevity of the wines.

Organizing wines into categories with compelling names like Challenges, Greats, Underestimated, Classics, and Excellence: a New Era, Borie takes you on a journey during the vertical tasting. For instance, was the year 2017 really underrated? According to Ducru, yes.

Ever since the 2004 vintage, there has been a shift in both viticulture and vinification processes used at the estate. The new strategies include reducing the yield, refining the vineyard landscape, and introducing a new wine cellar. The results of these changes are evident in the following vintages, specifically in the smoother, silkier, and softer tannins. The wines from 2016 onwards are noticeably more enticing, velvety, and rich.

The aspect of vertical tastings that really captivates me is how they transport you back in time. The Saint-Marcellin cheese served at the lunch was coupled with a still robustly flavored 1923 wine and a delicate 1920 vintage, commemorating the estate’s 200th anniversary. The 1920 drink was particularly moving as I remembered that it was the year when women in America gained the right to vote.

Château Smith Haut Lafitte, CCG 2010 (US$188-$220 Benchmark, K&L, Rye Brook, Saratoga Wine Exchange). I’ve taken part in multiple vertical tastings of this Pessac-Léognan red at the château, this exceptional vintage though, was selected from my personal collection for a family birthday festivity. It possesses a glossy and vibrant quality, with exquisite fruitiness, equilibrium, and flavour, and it’s ageing elegantly. I personally favor it over the highly-praised 2009.

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