Great bottles of wine seem to find their way out on to the market over the festive season, but this year I have been truly spoilt for choice. UK wine merchant Laithwaites has offered up not just one, but three, magical vintages from the 20th Century.
The modern-era of winemaking is well written as starting with the 1982 vintage. Prior to that the last three truly great years had been the 1975, 1970 and the 1966. Imagine my surprise when all three of these Bordeaux vintages became available, and at very respectable prices too.
The well positioned sloping limestone vineyards of St. Emilion Grand Cru estate Château Cardinal-Villemaurine were, until recently, owned by the Carrille family. The familiar story of complex French inheritance laws finally necessitated a sale.
Needless to say, buyers were extremely forthcoming, and the land was eventually sold to top drawer Premier Grand Cru Classé house Château Angélus, who clearly saw the quality. The actual buildings and stock, however, stayed with the Carille family. Jean-Marc Sauboua, a Bordeaux native and winemaker/buyer for Laithwaites was first on the scene, and given the keys to their vaults, tasting wines back to the sterling 1947 vintage.
Picking out the most-lauded pre-1982 vintages, from a time when vineyards were tilled via horse drawn ploughs, and grapes were fully hand harvested, this is an extremely rare trilogy of Bordeaux wines to come to market.
Gravity fed cellars avoided the stress of pumping over and, post two years on oak, the maturing bottles were kept at a constant cool temperature.
From the above images we can see that the bottles have certainly been re-labelled, but existing dirt on the bottles, which carries on under the new labels, show that the physical bottles are original. The corks are fully branded but it is unclear as to whether they have been re-corked prior to re-release.
Each of the following three wines are Merlot based blends which, if following the pattern of the vineyard plantings, would be potentially 75% Merlot, 25% Cabernet France and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The average age of their vines was 30 years old, spread over 12 hectares.
Château Cardinal-Villemaurine 1966, Merlot Blend, St Emilion, France, 12.5%, £50
Garnet in colour, with a thick sediment on decant, the nose was pungent and vegetal with stewed prune and figs. Dark cherry and berry fruits fleshed over time in the decanter, but the overall sensation was rustic.
On the palate was faded black cherry, raisin, bitter chocolate and a touch of liquorice. Pepper spice, spent wood and a tea-like brew (following time in decanter) met with the still fresh acidity which kept everything lively and accessible.
The mid-palate carried well through to the acid and spicy and savoury characters, and the finish was respectable, carried by the acid and the dying embers of the black fruits.
Clearly a touch past its best, the sheer academic quality of drinking a good condition 1966 Bordeaux meant this was utterly worth the bottle price, and a good reminder of what mellow, but rich, wine tastes like at a modest 12.5% alcohol.
The tasting guide says drink to the end of 2022, but this feels like one to drink-up fairly soonish to me.
Château Cardinal-Villemaurine 1970, Merlot Blend, St Emilion, France, 12.5%, £40
Raspberry red in colour with garnet tints, this gave a finer sediment than the 1966. Buyer Jean-marc was quoted as saying “I had to buy you this 1970. Delicate maturity”.
The nose was prominent, incredibly clear and well defined, even after 48 years. With silky tones of mature (dried) red and black cherry, rich tinned raspberry, a perfumed floral vanilla nose and hints of raisin, this felt incredibly layered and complex.
The palate had a good medium weight with a touch of stew-like quality, but extremely well rounded from the off without the need for time in the decanter. Black cherry, redcurrant and cake spice dominate and, despite its age, the fruit felt very much alive as well as mature.
Backed up with a still-lively mouth-watering acidity, the finish was in the realms of 2 minutes long and full of the depth of the palate. Simply divine.
Laithwaites currently have magnums available for this vintage. I would say that this is a must purchase. The tasting guide says to drink to the end of 2022 but this one feels like it could go a little further, such was the was the immediacy, the freshness and the vibrancy.
Château Cardinal-Villemaurine 1975, Merlot Blend, St Emilion, France, 12.5%, £35
After a succession of dull vintages, 1975 was welcomed with open arms. Medium ruby in colour with garnet tints, the sediment was once again fairly fine.
The nose was very clear and pronounced like the 1970, but in this case the character was overly herbaceous as opposed to fresh, with figs and prunes and a prominent mushroom tone.
The palate held a good weight, and a fresh high acid balanced against the faded blackcurrant, redcurrant and cherry. The overall composition, whilst pleasant, seemed to drop off in the mid-palate.
The fairly short finish was saved somewhat by the acidity, but the overall savoury and herbaceous character of the wine wasn’t something that excited my palate, alive though it may be.
The notes say to drink to the end of 2025 and, for this one, it would be interesting to see which way it goes – it could do either.