1965 was an absolutely terrible year in Bordeaux for wine, and Chateau Lafite Rothchild was no exception. The best rating I have ever seen for the 1965 Lafite was 81 points. On most people’s scale of desirable drinking anything below 85 points is becoming sketchy. In 1996 when we tasted this wine, it was then at 31 years of age. Rule # 1 when drinking wines from poor years is to drink them young because they are not expected to get any better with time, in fact they are expected to fall apart early.
I clearly remember the 1987 vintage in Bordeaux as being a poor vintage, one destined for early consumption. Within 10 years there were no more 1987s available in restaurants or wine stores. If you were unfortunate enough to have any 1987s in your cellar you were in a hurry to drink them up, looking for every excuse to open the last bottles before they would turn completely into vinegar. The same held true for the 1984 and 1980 vintages, and for several vintages in the 1970s, including 1972, 1973, 1974, and 1977. In the 1960s poor years included 1960, 1962, 1963, 1967, 1968, and 1969. But outshining all the above poor vintages was 1965, generally rated as one of the worst vintages of the 20th century.
So one day in 1996 when I was sorting through my Dad’s wine cellar for him, I happened upon 4 bottles of 1965 Chateau Lafite. I immediately asked him about these bottles, explaining to him that these were great wines but from an incredibly poor year, and that given they were now 31 years of age they would probably all be vinegar. My Dad explained that he did not drink red wine, and these had been given to him as a gift some 25 years earlier and he had never tried them.
So I suggested we try the wine one day with a dinner, and I volunteered to bring a substitute wine to replace the Lafite in the very likely case that the Lafite was no good. The following weekend we had a family dinner where we opened a bottle to have with our steak dinner. With a substitute standing by, I poured what I expected to be vinegar into seven wine glasses.
Since I had not been expecting the wine to be good, I had not decanted it. Instead I poured it directly into the wine glasses. There was quite a bit of sediment in the bottle so care was taken not to stir up the sediment any more than necessary. The wine was clearly old as displayed in the glass by the brown rim around the outer edge of the fill. There was no glycerine content to the wine itself as it left no “legs” on the inside of the glass, the wine did not cling to the glass. On the nose the wine was rather dull, smelling of vegetables and barnyard. On the palate the wine was thin, weak and just about gone. Frankly I was surprised that it was even that good. But then something magical happened.
I kept swirling the wine in my glass, half hoping that this might oxidize the wine enough to somehow soften the barnyard tones on the nose and the palate. Much to my amazement, the wine did open up and changed completely. All of a sudden the vegetable and barnyard tinges were melting away into that classic Lafite cedar pencil nose, and on the palate the wine opened up and blossomed into something soft, flowery, truffles mixed with bell pepper spices and enough fruit that this was now something dusty and old, but very pleasant and a total surprise. There was even a lingering aftertaste, not for long but nevertheless very agreeable.
We were all so surprised, and not knowing how long the wine would survive we did not want to chance it by lingering on the wine too long, so we drank the wine quickly with our meal. What a marvelous surprise, something completely unexpected. Furthermore, a very pleasant tasting experience when the opposite was expected.
So I did more research on the 1965 Lafite and found that it was never well rated. By all the critics this wine should no longer exist, it should not be drinkable, yet it was. So we had 3 bottles left and I immediately made plans for a second dinner some 4-6 weeks later to try the second bottle, hopefully under slightly better conditions. However, there was also a risk that the bottle we had already tried was the only good bottle in the bunch, and that the remaining 3 bottles might still be bad. Prior to the 1980s bottle variation in Bordeaux classified growths was much more of a problem than it is today due to a variety of problems such as poorer vintages, poorer wine making techniques and facilities, poor bottling conditions, and poor transportation and storage. So it was entirely possible that the remaining 3 bottles would not be as good, or indeed might be no good at all.
At our next dinner some 6 weeks later, I decanted the wine to drain off the sediment, allowing the wine to breath in the decanter only ten minutes before serving, being careful to swirl the wine sufficiently in the decanter to encourage it to open up. Voila! What a success! With a little more gentle persuasion in the glass, there were no initial vegetable and barnyard aromas on the nose. Instead the wine exhibited a very delicate floral rose petal nose that quickly migrated into that classic Lafite cedar pencil nose. On the palate the wine was light, but smooth and delicate with enough bell pepper and spice to go nicely with the light cabernet fruit. And finally, there was enough of an aftertaste so as not to insult the wine by coming up short. The aftertaste did not last long, but long enough to leave one with a pleasant tasting experience. At this sitting we were only five drinking the wine, and again it did not take us long to consume the wine with dinner. Much to our surprise, we were two for two in success with our 1965 Chateau Lafite tastings. I even began to wonder to myself if the bottles were from another year and not 1965, so to be sure I checked the corks, and they too were labeled “1965”. So there was no mistaking it now, 1965 Lafite was still drinkable, in fact quite pleasant in spite of the bad reviews and bad reputation by critics.
With our two remaining bottles we had two more dinners over the following four months. Both bottles were good, and approximately the same in quality. The last bottle turned out to be a little weaker than the first three. In fact it only lasted about 30 minutes in total once opened. This bottle was different from the others in that it drank differently compared to the previous three. Using the same preparation with decanting 10 minutes prior to serving this last bottle was slower to open up in the glass, but when it did open up the wine seemed sweeter and more floral. It seemed to open up more fully and more fragrant. But with this 4th bottle the wine did not last as long in the glass as the previous three, in fact it was great for only 15 minutes, then it started losing it, and fast. The fruit started to just disappear from one sip to the next. It was as if the wine was sliding down a slippery slope, it just got notably weaker and weaker. Everyone drank up, but I kept a little in my glass to follow the decay and demise. Within about 10 minutes of beginning to break down, the wine converted into vinegar and was completely gone. It was no longer drinkable at all. Tasting this last wine was a real education, allowing us all to experience a very delicate wine open up, blossom, peak, and decline rapidly into oblivion, all within the time span of maybe 25 minutes.
So you might wonder why I bother writing about some obscure old wine from a poor vintage that nobody is going to come across and taste for themselves. Well there is a purpose to this post. First, let it be known that you can derive a lot a pleasure from drinking a good wine from a poor vintage. The 1965 Lafite falls into that category. Second, do not always take what the critics feed you as gospel truth on vintage ratings. Some very good wine has been made in some poor years. I will elaborate in future posts more about the pros and cons of wine critics and wine scores, but for now the purpose of this post was simply to show how much pleasure was derived from wine that was supposed to be poor to begin with, and was supposed to be vinegar and not drinkable long before we opened it.
How about that, kind of throws everything you thought you knew or took for granted about only buying top vintages right out the window.
By the way, if I were to assign a rating or score to the 1965 Chateau Lafite when we tasted and consumed those 4 bottles in 1996, I would give it an 88 score, but only for the pleasure delivered at the moment of of drinking, and that was not for long. Certainly a lot higher rating than the 81 it has been pegged at. While this does not eclipse the 90 point threshold that many consumers strive to limit themselves to, in terms of sheer pleasure extracted we were able to thoroughly enjoy this wine on 4 separate occasions within a 6 month period. You obviously cannot buy this wine today, nor should you if you happened upon it, because by now it has fully departed. But in 1996, some 31 years later, that Lafite was amazingly good.
Top wines from weaker vintages are often better priced, priced to sell. This means the wise consumer can and should consider buying a top wine from a weak vintage if it is attractively priced (for me that means at least 30% cheaper than normal). It should surprise you! Just don’t expect it to last too long, plan to drink it within 5-10 years.