Great First Growths are always a reminder of what, exactly, makes these legendary wines so special, and what has allowed them to keep their hallowed place in the wine pantheon for such an extraordinarily long period of time. Indeed, my experience has been that they typically—with very rare exceptions—exceed expectations in less-than-stellar vintages and achieve something close to the sublime in the best years.
Over the course of the last year, I have been fortunate enough to taste a number of these wines, all of which have been or will be documented here. (My tasting notes for the 2001 Haut Brion are linked up here.) This past Monday night, I added to this list with a bottle of Chateau Haut Brion 1990 that I enjoyed with my friends Scot “Zippy” Ziskind and his wife Marci. (Ziskind, as I’ve written here before, is one of the country’s foremost wine cellaring experts, owner of ZipCo Environmental Services, Inc. and My Cellar wine storage facility, and a great collector and lover of wine in general and Bordeaux and Port in particular.)
The 1990 was at a lovely, evocative, exciting place in its evolution, utterly delicious right now and still capable of maturing for another 5 – 10 years before hitting its plateau. It showed notes of crushed blackberries, leather, hints of cigar tobacco, scorched earth, minerals, and plenty of mushrooms. It was, as the majority of great wines are, an inimitable evocation of a specific place in the world, a particular patch of the earth from which it’s derived. And just like Lafite always tastes like Lafite, Margaux like Margaux, and so on, so, too, did this Haut Brion.
Jay McInerney, in his wonderfully entertaining and sneakily informative book A Hedonist in the Cellar, recounts the time he was able, under enormous pressure in front of a group of people, to guess—blind—that the wine in the glass before him was a 1982 Chateau Haut Brion. He explains how he did it:
“I knew my hostess drank First-Growth Bordeaux, and I knew she knew her vintages. But I was very lucky that the wine was Haut-Brion—the most aromatically distinctive of all the First Growths; as the great diarist and bad speller Samuel Pepys put it, in the first brand-name reference to a wine in English literature, ‘Ho-Bryan... hath a good and most perticular taste that I never met with before.’
“To be more specific, a mature Haut-Brion smells like a cigar box containing a Montecristo, a black truffle, a hot brick and an old saddle. It's as earthy and complex as a Shakespearean sonnet. Once you've had it you never forget it, and you never stop yearning for more.”
True to form and expressive of the vintage, this one fit perfectly in that mold, and, enjoyed with friends at a great restaurant (the excellent Bistro La Minette in Philadelphia), contributed to a fantastic evening.
As for the 1890 Madeira we enjoyed with dessert—more on that next week…