Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

1986 CHÂTEAU LAFITE: My Choice as Wine of the Year – for 1988!

March 2020. A wine-loving friend, the composer David Matthews, told me last week that he had just tasted 1986 Château Lafite at the home of a friend and found it absolutely outstanding, a miracle of subtlety, depth, and harmony.


This reminded of the fact that, when living in Sweden in the 1980s, I’d picked out that very wine as Wine of the Year in my monthly wine column in the Swedish trade magazine, “Restauranger & Storkök”.


I’d actually tasted the wine at the Château, in 1987, and been immensely impressed by it. By contrast, not a few commentators in the UK press at that time declared the wine to be impossible to fathom.


To me, when tasting it for that first and only time, all those years ago, it was a wine of unmistakeable greatness. So when asked by the Swedish magazine to name one particular wine as Wine of The Year for 1988, I unhesitatingly picked that very wine, 1986 Château Lafite.


I’ve never had the chance to re-taste the wine over the intervening 32 years, so I’ve had to content myself with following its development in my imagination, intuiting its evolution in the bottle as best I could.


In fact, in both heart and mind I’ve kept pace with the wine ever since, reminding myself from time to time that (15 years ago) it surely still needed much more time; that it was now (five years ago) probably starting to open; and by now (two years ago) it must be eminently drinkable but sure to go on improving for several more decades.


My article from 1988 was first written by me in English and then translated into Swedish by a very bright lady called Asa Möllerfors, wife of the magazine’s editor. It appeared in late 1988.


Original article in Swedish – click image to read.

I’ve now translated it back into English from Swedish and here it is.




For me this wine is the greatest of all 1986s – a truly outstanding year in the Médoc, giving wines that will undoubtedly live for several decades, well into the next century. I choose this Lafite as Wine of the Year [1988] for a variety of reasons.


Firstly, because it’s one of the greatest of all wines, even if it was poorly managed for decades and only restored to greatness from 1975 onwards.


Secondly, because when at its best it is the most complete of all clarets – more elegant than Mouton, more refined than Latour, more subtle than Haut-Brion, and more hedonistic than Margaux.


Thirdly, the vineyard itself has a perfect location, with just the right exposure and terroir.


Fourthly, the 1986 is a complete expression of the perfection that Lafite is able to attain. The wine has a superb colour and a wonderful aroma that’s full of finesse; a rich and generous flavour with the firmness and backbone that gives the structure needed for long life. Also an aftertaste that (despite the wine’s extreme youth) can only be called wondrous.


Herewith my detailed tasting note from last June [1987]:


The superb colour, nearly opaque, is that of crème de cassis, and is a deep blue-purple to the very rim. It’s so rich in pigment it leaves thick purple tears on the inside of the glass. The aroma is magnificent, showing great finesse and huge concentration, yet also exhibiting classic restraint, conjuring up bilberry, sweet ripe blackberry, and raspberry. In addition, that classic Lafite scent of violet. These aromas are intensified, and grow still more bewitching, because of that typical Lafite spiciness: cinnamon and a touch of ginger.


On the palate it’s firm yet also delicate and refined, with suggestions of cherry, blackberry, and bilberry, with a touch of liquorice for good measure.


The wine is so complex that, minute by minute, it shows new facets. But the fact that it constantly evolves isn’t because it lacks cohesion; it’s because it possesses so many layers of flavour. The aftertaste is phenomenally long and full of nuances; leaving innumerable sub-flavours that saturate the palate, trailing behind like the wake of a great gallion at sea. The tannins, while giving structure, are of perfect ripeness, providing support to the wonderfully ripe fruit, but without giving even the faintest hint of dryness or astringency.




End of text written in 1988.


To judge from David Matthews’s description of how the wine tastes in 2020, my own assessment, written 32 years ago when the wine wasn’t even in bottle, seems quite prescient..


© Frank Ward 2020


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