Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Pre-phylloxera puzzle : An 1870 Overture

June 2013. It was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced at a blind tasting. True, I’d been given one piece of vital information just before sampling the wine, namely the vintage: 1870. A wine that was 143 years’ old. But that wasn’t much help. I’d never sampled a wine of quite that age before and didn’t really know what to look for. In addition, no clue had been given as to the region, or even country of origin (though one could be pretty sure it was French, our host being a great fan of that country’s wines).


One thing I did know: 1870 is seen as one of the greatest vintages of all time. And according to inevitably sparse reports one of great longevity. In his “The Great Vintage Wine Book”, Michael Broadbent M.W. wrote of 1870: “Vying with the 1864 as the greatest pre-phylloxera vintage and, possibly, of all time…The wine was massive, très corsé, très vineux, but so hard and unyielding that (like the Latour 1928 in its turn) it took 50 years for it to become drinkable”. He added, most significantly in this context: “Quite the most reliable of all the old vintages.”

aaa

It was made in the pre-phylloxera period, before the advent of the vine louse aphid that almost destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards. The situation was saved, of course, by grafting phylloxera-resistant roots onto the degenerating vines – roots that were urgently shipped from the USA, original source of the epidemic! It is generally held that pre-phylloxera wines live much longer than those made in later times from grafted vines. It should be observed, though, that even the latter, top clarets in particular, can sometimes live 80-100 years (e.g. 1900, 1926, 1928…).

n

The bottle was uncorked, out of view, in another room, and we were told that the level was excellent – upper shoulder. The cork crumbled to pieces but our host, the composer Colin Matthews, was able to remove it cleanly. Instead of serving it from the bottle, he then decanted the wine, evidently unafraid that it would collapse in contact with the air. As it transpired, he was absolutely right…

aaa

When the wine arrived in my glass I was simply staggered by its colour. Because of its great age I’d expected a somewhat faded, distinctly brown liquid. In fact, the colour was nothing less than amazing: a deep black-purple with winking vermilion highlights. There was scarcely a hint of tell-tale browning at the rim. It looked so youthful it could have been a 1982 – or even a 2000. The nose was vast and concentrated, with no hint of decay, suggesting ripe autumn berries and violets. Somebody spotted a fugitive hint of smoked bacon and, after a moment’s reflection, we all agreed on this. I was immediately certain that it was French (this was confirmed); and was sure, too, that it was a Médoc, mostly because of its unmistakeably Cabernet-dominated aroma as well a faint hint of ozone (the nearby Atlantic seems to impregnate the soils of the Médoc with its salty exhalations). So I plumped for the Médoc and was told that was the case.

aaa

The wine was so densely vinous that I initially guessed it to be a Pauillac, the commune that often gives the weightiest and most authoritative of Médocs. Colin shook his head. This error concentrated my mind wonderfully. I sniffed again, with still more care and attention. The wine, after 15 minutes in contact with the air, suddenly exhaled a whiff of blackberry. When in a blind tasting I’ve been able to establish that a wine is from the Médoc, and find that it smells of blackberry, I immediately think of the commune of Margaux. More than once this odorous clue had helped me correctly identify a wine as from that commune. It certainly had the underlying gracefulness, and a particular kind of restraint, of a top Margaux. With some trepidation I offered: “Is it a Margaux?”.

d

“Yes,” said Colin. “But not Château Margaux.”

a

That set me thinking still harder. This was a wine of noble bearing, its hallmarks subtlety, finesse, and a pronounced homogeneity. In short, an aristocratic wine of exquisite balance. And very, very Margaux. I began to think increasingly of a particular property that, in recent decades, had shown a similar style to the present wine on the various occasions I’d tasted it. I took in a deep breath. “Rauzan Ségla?” I said.

”It is Rauzan Ségla,” said Colin.

a

aaa

1870 Château Rauzan Ségla

 

Made only a year before the Paris Commune, and at a time when the Impressionist movement was in full swing (the Franco-Prussian war notwithstanding), we know that Rauzan Ségla was on top form in 1855, 15 years earlier, because it had been rated as one of the top half-dozen clarets in the official classification of that year – a classification that has stood the test of time, and still largely accepted 158 years on. The Château had been placed immediately after Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, and Mouton-Rothschild, and – when Mouton was promoted to First Growth status in 1973 – it automatically became the first of the Second Growths.

a

We also know that it was giving off its best still further back in time, in 1790. How do we know this? In that year Thomas Jefferson, future president of the United States and a great oenophile, wrote to Madame de Rohan, the then owner, declaring that he considered Rauzan Ségla (then called Rausan-Margaux) the equal of the first growths. “This is what I import for myself,” he wrote.

aa

There were several exchanges of letters between the two over the years. On 1st September 1791, for example, Jefferson wrote: “I have received, Madam, the wines of Rauzan that you have been kind enough to send, in good condition, without any being broken; and I am very pleased. I have the honor of asking you now to send 500 bottles of the year 1785, in bottles, and two barrels of 250 bottles each, of the harvest of 1790, in casks…”. Over time, he ordered several lots of 10 dozen bottles and also arranged shipments for George Washington, when the latter still held the post of the USA’s first president. After Jefferson himself became president he often served Madame de Rohan’s wine at the White House.

o

It is a sad fact that for quite a few decades in the 20th century Rauzan Ségla was an underperforming estate. The wines were carelessly made and showed little of their inherent distinction. I tasted the wines frequently in that era and was usually disappointed. The wine was often very drinkable, but had little depth, and it certainly wasn’t of second growth quality. And it was hard to get a clear notion of the wine’s essential character, of those traits that marked it apart from other Margaux classed growths.

a

The Cabernet-Sauvignon, the grape that gives backbone and quintessential character to Médocs, was often made to take second place to the Merlot, which provides lots of voluptuous fruit but never the depth and rigour that is the real key to Médoc character. The Merlot ripens earlier and one could be sure, when giving it pride of place, of coming up with a wine that was at least acceptable, even if it lacks the profundity and typicity of those Médocs in which the Cabernet-Sauvignon dominated. Several other top Médocs followed a similar course in those days: Châteaux Margaux and Lafite, for example – potentially two of the very greatest clarets – were often pallid and lacking in distinction in that period. In the mid-1980s the great Professor Peynaud was called in briefly at Rauzan Ségla (he made a fabulous 1986) but after his short sojourn the Château relapsed into mediocrity. For the record, Peynaud also became wine-making consultant at Lafite (1975) and Margaux (1978), where he instantly brought about major improvements – improvements that have not merely endured but have been consolidated year on year ever since.

aaa

But somebody was aware of Rauzan Ségla’s vast potential. In 1994 it was acquired by the owners of Chanel, who installed a crack vineyard and winery team, headed by John Kolasa (formerly at Château Latour), which set about restoring the estate to full glory. Long overdue replantings were carried out and the acreage of the dense, structured Petit-Verdot grape was increased. The winery was completely refurbished and a second wine, “Ségla”, was created, which allowed less successful, but still excellent barrels to be relegated from the definitive Rauzan Ségla, the grand vin. Since then it has progressed in leaps and bounds. To such an extent, in fact, that those essential characteristics that gave the Château its unique style were more or less fully restored, so that I was able immediately to see the marked affinity between the best of recent vintages – concentrated, complex wines – and the great 1870 as we now tasted it blind. Top years like 2000 and 2005 had a distinct similarity to their 19th-century forerunner, with due allowance for differences in age and vintage conditions (see my article Vertical Tasting of Château Rauzan Ségla”, March 2006).

a

?

But back to the precious wine now in our glasses. Though other wines were to follow (see below), we all retained some of the Rauzan Ségla in our glasses and these were replenished from time to time by Colin. Throughout the evening the wine retained its deep, glowing colour and continued to give off an unflagging bouquet of phenomenal density and freshness. A truly great bottle that was not just a wine but an important event, an irreplaceable historical artefact, in its own right. The bottle that had yielded this ambrosial liquid, now empty save for its dregs, had served as a kind of time machine, transposing scents and savours generated in the summer and autumn of 1870 to us awed recipients in the present day. Its most striking quality, perhaps, was its great volume and youthful constitution. It was not merely instructive to drink; it actually offered, at 143 years, real sensory pleasure. And it continued to do so, unfaded, three hours after being opened.

a

1870 Rauzan Ségla - this extraordinary bottle was purchased from Christie's by Colin Matthews in the early 1970s.

1870 Rauzan Ségla – this extraordinary bottle was purchased from Christie’s by Colin Matthews in the early 1970s.

a

In fact Colin had purchased three bottles of this remarkable wine many years ago at a price so moderate (though no doubt daunting at the time), a derisory £100 for the trio, that no would-be wine counterfeiters would have dreamt of risking liberty and reputation by attempting to pass off a dud. It is worth remembering in this context that prices of top wines in those days were infinitely lower than they are today, even allowing for inflation. Claret specialist Nicolas Faith records that a bottle of 1870 Château Margaux, a First Growth, fetched no more than £46 when sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 1975 – the same year in which Colin had acquired his Rauzan Ségla bottles from Christie’s.

a

Colin and his brother David – also a distinguished composer – had broached the first of the venerable bottles in that very year. “What did it taste like?” I asked. It was David who replied. “Just about the same as this one”, he said with a smile. In other words, the wine had scarcely changed at all and was showing no signs of deterioration, after the passage of a further 38 years.

?

There was much to extrapolate from this and other items of information. As the evening proceeds an increasingly clear picture begins to emerge, of Château Rauzan Ségla in general and of its 1870 vintage in particular. We have learned from Michael Broadbent that 1870 was one of the most backward and obdurate vintages of all time, not remotely drinkable before 50 years had passed. We have heard from Colin and David that, on its being tasted in 1975, the Rauzan Ségla had barely reached its prime at 108 years. And tonight we have seen (and sniffed and tasted) for ourselves that it is still on magnificent form, with no hint of decline, at 143 years. From these various pieces of evidence we can deduce that this great wine is moving as slowly through time as a glacier moves across an arctic landscape. It seems certain to remain at its glorious peak for many a decade yet.

a

Precise data on a vintage that took place over 140 years ago is hard to come by. However, I have been able to glean additional fragments of information, some of it supplied directly by the Château. Their records show that Rauzan Ségla produced 53 tonneaux (1 tonneau : 900 litres) of wine in 1870. This compares with 144 tonneaux produced at nearby Château Margaux in that same year. Now I don’t know what their relative acreages were in those far-off days; but I doubt if Margaux was then nearly three times the size of Rauzan Ségla. And if it wasn’t, it seems likely that the Second Growth’s yield per hectare was appreciably lower than the First Growth’s, and might thus have given an even more concentrated wine.

2

Today, Château Margaux has 82 hectares of vines to Rauzan Ségla’s 66 (though it had sunk to only 37 hectares in 1960, according to David Peppercorn).

a

A useful source of information on pre-phylloxera vintages is Ian Maxwell Campbell’s “Wayward Tendrils of the Vine”, published in 1947. He had the immense good luck to be around, and to know the right people, when the corks of such treasures were being pulled with astonishing willingness over quite a number of decades. In this work he goes into raptures about the 1870 Château Margaux and speaks highly of the Lafite too, but makes no direct reference to the Rauzan Ségla of that vintage. But of 1870 as a whole he writes : “In 1945 we are still drinking the first growths of 1870 and still marvelling at the volume of life and sugar that lurks in their deep brown depths.”

a

Chez Colin and Belinda Matthews, another 68 years later, we too are still marvelling at the volume of life and sugar in the depths of our particular 1870 – but find virtually no brown in it at all!

a

Another trusted claret authority who was actually alive and kicking when the 1870 vintage was on the market was Nathaniel Johnston, a leading Bordeaux wine wholesaler and the then owner of Château Ducru Beaucaillou in Saint Julien. In a letter written in 1874, and addressed to a Monsieur Durand, presumably another member of the trade, he informs him that a certain Monsieur Martin Pasteur had approached him, seeking to buy a quantity of 1870 Rauzan Ségla. In a later missive, he tells M. Durand of having travelled to the Médoc to taste the 1874 Rauzan Ségla he bought from him : “I’m delighted to be able to sing the praises of your Rauzan Ségla. It is excellent”. Yet another proof that the property was on top form in that era. “I have just shipped to you the Suduirat and Tour Blanche 1869,” he continues, “in exchange for your 100 bottles of Rauzan 1870.”

a

Who knows: perhaps our bottle of 1870 Rauzan Ségla was one of M. Johnston’s 100.

a

I’d like to think that William Shakespeare, had he by a miracle been able to taste with us, would not be too annoyed at my paraphrasing a few lines from “Julius Caesar” in connection with 1870 Château Rauzan Ségla:


“This was the noblest Rauzan of them all: … the elements so mix’d in it that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, This was a wine!”.

a

a

Château Rauzan Ségla seen from one of its vineyard plots. Today the estate comprises 66 hectares of vines, of which  60% is planted with Cabernet-Sauvignon, the rest being made up of 35% Merlot, 3.5% Petit Verdot, and 1.5% Cabernet Franc.

Château Rauzan Ségla seen from one of its vineyard plots. Today the estate comprises 66 hectares of vines, of which 60% is planted with Cabernet-Sauvignon, the rest being made up of 35% Merlot, 3.5% Petit Verdot, and 1.5% Cabernet Franc. Photo : Courtesy Château Rauzan Ségla

a

n

* * * * *


aaa

This memorable evening – held partly to mark David Matthews’s 70th birthday – was also distinguished by the uncorking of several other venerable bottles. These included a fine and silky 1943 Château la Fleur Pétrus (’43 was the best of the World War II vintages as well as being David’s birth year); a ‘43 de Venoge champagne, which had an old-gold/yellow ochre colour, a madeira-like scent and still effervesced at three-score years and ten; a 1923 Meursault from the Dr Barolet collection (it smelled of dried apricot, cloudberry, cinnamon, and turmeric); and a 1954 Château Haut-Brion, which had a dark, youthful colour and a very focused bouquet and flavour of black cherry, prune, and tobacco leaf. David identified the Château and Colin pointed out that 1954, like so many other underestimated vintages in Bordeaux, had produced quite a number of other excellent wines. “1950 was an excellent year, too,” somebody said. “And even some 1960s were superb,” said somebody else, “not to mention 1974…”. I was able to add the following: “’69, a great year in Burgundy, was terrible in Bordeaux. But I was once given a bottle of the ’69 Figeac by the late owner, Thierry Manoncourt, which was delicious; and the ’69 Mouton is delectable – at least in magnum!”.

aaa

o

o

© Frank Ward 2013

aaa

One Response to “Pre-phylloxera puzzle : An 1870 Overture”

  1. […] * Pre-phylloxera puzzle : An 1870 Overture […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s