Discover more from Tannic Panic!
Tannic Panic! Issue #15: A First Growth First
Diving Feet First into a '93 Lafite
WHAT’S NEW, YOU ABSOLUTE MANIACS?
This week Zach has YET AGAIN taken it upon himself to wander aimlessly into Europe and leave the heavy rambling to me. So here I am, ALONE, yapping about wine. We’ll thusly be diverging from our regularly scheduled programming to talk about something a little different. But don’t fret — WE’LL BE BACK.
The subject of the week?
Well, thanks to my father in law generously opening up his cellar for this issue, I’ve had the opportunity to taste my very first First Growth — the 1993 Château Lafite Rothschild — and I have done my best to report on it through an unbiased lens.
So… it’s safe to say this week’s issue won’t exactly be focused on value wine. But we will be taking a serious look at an important question in the world of wine (especially the world of prestige wine): does the label justify the price?
But before I get into my actual tasting notes and response to this wine, it’s critical to go into a little background on the vintage and the region so that we can adequately contextualize the aforementioned question. The good news? We’ve talked a little bit about the region in a previous post, so if you are just joining us — edumacate yourself.
WONDERING WHAT A FIRST GROWTH IS?
In Bordeaux wine, the term "First Growth" (or Premier Cru) refers to a classification system that originated from the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. Emperor Napoleon III (A COUPLE ITERATIONS AFTER THE LITTLE GUY) requested a classification system for the best of the best Bordeaux wines that were to be on display at the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1855. Thus, wines from the Left Bank were sorted into five classes.
The First Growths represent the highest tier of this classification system. In the original 1855 classification, there were 4 First Growth estates:
Château Lafite Rothschild in the Pauillac appellation
Château Latour also in the Pauillac appellation
Château Margaux in the Margaux appellation (SURPRISE, SURPRISE)
Château Haut-Brion in the Pessac-Léognan appellation (originally part of Graves before Pessac-Léognan was independently recognized)
“BUT ISAAC, YOU IDIOT!!!” I hear you hootin, “DIDN’T YOU KNOW THERE’S FIVE FIRST GROWTHS???”
Why yes, you magnificent mongoose, in 1973, a significant change was made to this classification when Château Mouton Rothschild in the Pauillac appellation was elevated from Second Growth (Deuxième Cru) status to First Growth, bringing the total number of First Growth wines to five. A nearly incomprehensible show of flexibility from the French traditionalists of… France — but BELIEVE YOU ME: IT HAPPENED.
It's important to note that the 1855 classification pertains only to wines from the Left Bank of Bordeaux (WE’RE JUST GONNA KEEP ON LINKING BACK UNTIL YOU GET THE MEMO). Meanwhile, the Right Bank, including regions like Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, are not included in the 1855 classification: the Saint-Émilion classification system, created 100 years later in 1955, is its own can of worms, and Pomerol, the unicorn of the Right Bank’s story, stands proudly alone outside of the classification systems altogether. We’ll dive into all that some other time.
…AND NOW, A BIT ABOUT THE VINTAGE…
The 1993 vintage in Bordeaux is generally considered a challenging year, often overshadowed by other prominent vintages from that decade, especially 1990, 1995, and 1996. This is because the year was marked by difficult weather conditions that made vineyard management a challenge and led to problems with disease, uneven ripening, diluted concentration of flavor, and reduced yields.
Weather Conditions: The growing season in Bordeaux in 1993 was incredibly challenging. The year started with a cold, wet spring, which led to problematic flowering (an issue that can affect fruit quality and dramatically reduce yields). The summer was relatively cool and damp (conditions conducive to mildew), and September brought rain, which further complicated the harvest (heavy rain around the harvest notoriously impacts concentration of flavors in the grapes, so creating wines that show the same level of intensity and structure is nearly impossible). In such years, the skill of the vineyard manager and winemaker becomes paramount, as precise decision-making is required to deal with the irregular conditions.
Wine Quality and Characteristics: Due to the challenging weather conditions, the 1993 Bordeaux wines are generally characterized by higher acidity and less concentration when compared to more renowned vintages. While many wines lacked the depth and structure to be long-lived, the best producers managed to create balanced wines with good fruit expression and subtle tannins.
Notable Appellations: As with any challenging year, there were disparities in quality across the region. Some appellations and specific producers managed better than others. The appellations with particularly gravelly soils, such as Pessac-Léognan, have an advantage in such wet years due to better drainage.
Drinking Window: By now (2023), many of the 1993 Bordeaux wines, especially those from less prestigious estates or those not meant for long aging, may be past their prime. However, top wines from the best producers (like the First Growths) may still be drinking well, showing tertiary aromas of leather, tobacco, and earth.
Château Lafite Rothschild is one of the five First Growths of Bordeaux, and as such, it produces some of the most esteemed wines in the world. Though the wines of the First Growths share many similarities due to the region's overarching characteristics, each estate has its own unique terroir and style.
Château Lafite Rothschild wines are often described as elegant, refined, and aristocratic. They possess a characteristic aromatic profile of graphite, cedar, blackcurrant, violets, and a touch of minerality. The wines have an exceptional aging potential, with top vintages known to evolve gracefully for decades. Over time, they develop complex tertiary aromas of tobacco, leather, and forest floor.
ACCORDING TO ME SOURCES — In 1993, the Château was able to produce a wine that was a cut above many of its peers, displaying classic Pauillac notes of cassis, graphite, and cedar, albeit with slightly less depth and concentration than some of its more heralded vintages.
So without further ado, let’s find out whether it’s worth all of the hullaballoo!
1993 Château Lafite Rothschild / 12.5% ABV / 91+ Points (8-29-23) / $500-700
Review video followed by a hot take from one of our sponsors (AKA “THE WIFE”):
Profile: Forest floor, mushrooms, bay leaf, pencil shavings, cigar box, violets, dried roses, chocolate, mocha, baked plum, sour cherry
This wine was delightfully complex on the nose, with an aromatic profile valiantly led by tertiary (age-related) aromas, like mushroom and earth. Pencil shavings, chocolate, cigar box and violets followed in turn. With that first sip, fruit flavors of sour cherry and baked plum joined the party. The flavor intensity was far more delicate and restrained than the aromatics, but the introduction of distinctive fruit flavors reinforced the notion that this wine has maintained its composure over the past 3 decades.
The acidity was very high, with a striking brightness that emphatically flashed each time the chalice touched my lips. Medium bodied with round and gentle tannins.
All in all, a lovely profile, but very much driven by the sharp, sour acidity that begs for a well-chosen pairing. We tried pairing this with a number of things, including a pine nut pesto pasta, and chocolate covered pomegranate seeds, which interacted amazingly with the wine, elevating its earthy profile and subduing the acidity.
So — this was a phenomenal wine, and the fact that it is showing as beautifully as it is after 30 years, especially in the context of the vintage, is an absolute testament to the quality of the producer (and the careful storage by the bottle’s owner). But what’s great about looking at an off vintage like 1993, is that it actually provides a clearer window into the impact of prestige on the price of a bottle. If no producer in Bordeaux was able to create a wine on par with a phenomenal vintage from their estate in 1993, then why should the top producers still be able to charge such a premium?
There’s no doubt in my mind that there are unclassified Left Bank wines from great vintages that show better than poor vintages from the best producers. And while the difference between producers with each vintage may be even more apparent in difficult vintages like 1993, the cost of those First Growth bottles is almost entirely propped up by prestige.
So why invest in a bottle from one of those vintages? Well, for one thing, it does illustrate the excellence of the best producers, in that they still deliver fantastic wines in the face of such unfavorable conditions. It is also a window into a moment in history (albeit, one with a price tag), a unique snapshot of all the trials and tribulations of a turbulent season. I am deeply grateful that I had a chance to taste this fantastic bottle, and my verdict is this: it was a singular experience, and the wine was a joy to drink — especially with the historical context at my feet. Unless it had some kind of personal significance beyond that, however, I think I would opt to put my money towards bottles of iller repute (or less prestige), because when it comes to value, challenging vintages are at a disadvantage, regardless of the name behind the bottle.
Until next time — happy drinking people!
P.S. Read this interesting article on the recent state of the French wine economy and what the French government is doing to address it. Wonder how much of this money is going towards the First Growths?
Tannic Panic! is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Cheers!