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Leoville Poyferre and the state of Bordeaux 10/07/2004 TNB

It was a great pleasure recently to be at a tasting and dinner of Leoville Poyferre wines back to 1985 with the owner Didier Cuvelier, and an opportunity to reflect on the more general issue of the current state of Bordeaux. I can't say I find the outlook very positive for the region: at a time when a new generation of young vignerons in Burgundy are leading a revival of natural winemaking, providing density by means of natural concentration coming from good viticultural practice rather than excessive extraction, and moderating the use of new oak, their counterparts in Bordeaux are trying to make ever more international-styled blockbusters - show wines rather than drinking wines in my opinion. So here we are in the situation where as famous an old estate as Leoville Poyferre with its magnificant terroir is using reverse osmosis and similar practices to artificially concentrate the juice and doing the malolactic fermentation in barrel which gives more accessible wines at the expense (many people believe) of precision and elegance.

Mr Cuvelier is pretty straightforward about all this. People want younger drinking wines these days and he does not (as many proprietors do) make implausible claims that nothing much has changed or that there are just a few improvments that will make the wines drink earlier without compromising their ageability. Part of it doubtless is that there is less tolerance of lesser vintages now and proprieters feel the need to produce a sort of wine that nature is not providing every year.

All this has been going on for a while of course - the wines started heading in this direction with Peynaud's influence, and more recently Michel Rolland seems to be a guiding force. There seems to have been an accleration in this during the nineties, associated perhaps with increasing use of machines for concentration of the juice. I wonder when the time will be ripe for a counter-movement back to natural, less manipulated and forced wines.

Within the context of modern Bordeaux, Poyferre's wines showed very well. Let's start with the 2000, big, soft, creamy and rich - one could easily put this as New World. I can see why it gets a lot of rave reviews but it is not the wine for me. I am inclined to think of it alongside the large-framed chocolatey 1990 with its slightly cooked-fruit character, typical of the vintage and the lovely medium-weight, ripe but elegant 1985, which was my favourite wine of the evening. If one scored numerically I suspect the 85 would have been outdone by one of the other wines because most points systems don't have a category of "lovely, elegant drinkability" which is where this wine really won out.

The unifying characteristic of the three wines so far was ripeness and aside from the 85 which somehow combined the sweetest fruit with elegance I generally preferred the wines from other vintages. The 1988 lacks only the easy-going fruit of the 85 but otherwise is a lovely bottle of maturing, classical Claret. The 1998 too is very promising - I think the vintage generally is under-rated, sitting there between 1996 and 2000 and generally noticed if at all for the right-bank wines. I think there a lot of good wines in the Medoc too. And then there is 2001 which is higher-toned than the 2000, won't score so well in tastings, but is the better wine to my mind.

Finally there are three vintages that don't fit in either of the groups above. The 1999 was a bit short on the finish but really a pretty good wine from a minor vintage. The 1996 is a monster - a huge, brooding wine with lots of fruit and serious structure. It has a huge reputation but I do find it a bit extracted and I wonder whether this will really settle down into a glorious middle age in a few years as its enthusiasts presumably hope. And then there was the 1989 - am I neurotic about this vintage? The wines often seem a bit unbalanc ed to me and I have not often had one I have raved about. Poyferre's is typical - ripe fruit, quite tannic, rather good I suppose but I feel like so many others from the vintage it may always make slightly edgy drinking.

And will any of these wines match the lovely 1959 tasted a couple of months ago when they are forty years old? I am afraid I doubt it.

added to Fine Wine Diary 10/07/2004   Return to top