Bovine bottles: Year of the Ox vintage wines 牛

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12th February 2021 is the Chinese Lunar New Year Day and marks the start of the year of the Metal Ox, which will last until 31st January 2022, when Chinese New Year celebrations in London (which I have enjoyed for many years) and elsewhere will be held properly.

There is no 2021 wine yet but previous Years of the Ox include 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937, and 1925.

In vintage wine terms, some of these are great years; others are not…

2009: An ox and a bull

The top Bordeaux estates released their 2009 wines at unprecedented prices – four or five times the price of the 2008s – based on “best ever” hype. Well, it was the best since 2005.

The Bordeaux bull market was created by new interest from Asia (!) and from speculators. But the prices of the 2009s went down after they were physically released into the market.

Xi Jinping, who was granted the status of “President for Life” in March 2018, will probably still be General Secretary of the Communist Party of China – that is, President of the People’s Republic of China – when these wines have regained their value.

We don’t have any Bordeaux 2009s at Arden Fine Wines because there’s no imperative to do so. The only wine that we have from the this year of the Earth Ox is the highly-regarded La Tâche from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

1997: Firefighters 

As with 2009, the 1997 Bordeaux vintage was released at then very high prices that did not hold-up to scrutiny by the market. It’s a Fire Ox year, after all.

Nonetheless, in my recent experience the wines are better than their reputation might suggest. Château Lynch-Moussas 1997, for example, was a lovely aged claret and sold well for us a couple of years ago.

It was also a fine white burgundy vintage but beware the dreaded “premox” (nothing to do with Chinese ox years!).

Premature oxidation has a variety of possible causes (higher-yielding Chardonnay vine clones, vinification techniques, lower sulphur dioxide [SO2] levels, faulty corks?) that makes sourcing (and indeed serving) these wines a challenge. Generally, Arden avoids aged white burgundy, though we do make occasional exceptions.

Italy enjoyed a wonderful vintage almost everywhere in 1997. I recall tasting Fontodi’s Flaccianello 1997 upon release and its density and herbal flavours were extremely impressive. I haven’t seen it again for a long time but I guess that it might still be going strong.

It was a good vintage in the Rhône, too. I tasted Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle 1997 as part of a vertical and it was good, albeit atypically fruity and “sweet”.

1985: Wooden it be nice 

It was excellent just about everywhere in 1985, which was a Wood Ox year.

Red Bordeaux, Sauternes, red Burgundy, southern Rhône, Champagne, Port and California all enjoyed a rewarding vintage.

It was exceptional in Tuscany, too. When last tasted, 1985 Tignanello had a lovely herbaceous nose. It was perfectly mature, and a really lovely wine. “Tignanello is very Tuscan”, commented Albiera Antinori at the tasting; “the ‘85’s aromas are so typical of Sangiovese of a certain age”.

The real star of this Wood Ox Year is Tenuta di San Guido Sassicaia, which was the first Italian wine to be awarded 100 points by that maker and breaker of reputations Robert Parker. He described it as “one of the greatest wines I have ever tasted, from anywhere” and it retains a strong reputation.

The Chinese calendar works on a sexagenary cycle, so 1925 was another Wood Ox year. But (mercifully) I’ve never had anything from this poor wine vintage.

1973: “Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink…”  

This was a Water Ox year.

Coincidentally, it rained a lot in Bordeaux in 1973 and some estates struggled. Cheval Blanc, for example, limped to 11.8% alcohol. Moutonand Petrus are better examples.

1961: Heavy metal

Like 2021, this is a year of the Metal Ox.

It was a superlative year for Bordeaux in 1961.

Château Palmer spiked the graph and made a wine that it’s never matched before or since. I had 1961 Palmer in Finland in 2005. Shamefully, I have no recollection at all of this wine – because I was preoccupied with the 1947 Cheval Blanc. (And struggling with a lack of sleep because of the midnight sun.)

Good bottles of the top 1961 clarets – Palmer, Latour, Mouton – should still be exceptional, though now it’s very hard to find good (genuine) examples and the prices are extremely high.

Arden has an affordable example of 1961 Bordeaux with Château Calon Ségur, as well as of red Burgundy with Maison Leroy Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru and Doudet-Naudin Bonnes-Mares Grand Cru.

It was a sensational vintage in the Rhône Valley, thought at the time to have been the best of the century.

We have a very rare bottle of Chapoutier Hermitage 1961, which was first imported into the UK by Chapoutier’s then agent Aug. Hellmers & Sons Ltd. of London, which specialised in Tokaji wines. It ceased trading in 1993.

Chapoutier now makes five different bottlings of Hermitage. This example is a blend of their then holdings on the vast hill of Hermitage.

It’s in good condition and should still be a fantastic drink. As a point of comparison, Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle 1961 now sells at £11,000+. This is a relatively affordable way of enjoying the fruits of one of France’s greatest vineyards from a renowned vintage.

1949: Earthly delights 

An Earth Ox year, as with 2009.

If you can afford it treat yourself to an example of the great 1949 Bordeaux and Burgundy vintages, which are now extremely rare and expensive.

Old Rioja is more affordable. Viña Real Gran Reserva 1949 was a lovely example.

1937: Fire and coal

A Fire Ox year, like 1997.

Sauternes and Burgundy are the pick of 1937, though very hard to find nowadays.

Arden has a nice half-bottle of 1937 Château Pichon-Baron from a tannic Bordeaux vintage. Things like this are now very rare because late 1930s vintages were bottled during the early years of World War II and most were drunk by the late 1940s.

We did have a 1937 Gordon & MacPhail Macallan-Glenlivet, bottled (we think) sometime in the early 1970s for the Italian importer Pinerolo. Pre-war, the Macallan distillery used peat rather than coal for its kilns, so the whisky was much smokier than it is today.

In the meantime, Arden Fine Wines wishes all its Chinese friends a very Happy New Year.

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