1920 Clarets


Each year I attend a dinner at Domaine de Chevalier hosted by Olivier Bernard. It’s been held for many years, long before I joined the table. The theme is always the numerical vintage, for example in 2022, all the vintages ended in two. You can work out the theme for other years. It is run along the lines of La Paulée whereby guests contribute their own bottles. There is no rule specifying that they must be Bordeaux, which spices things up a bit. Furthermore, all bottles are served blind. Since nobody has an inkling what others have brought, you must keep your wits about you while the cross-table discussion gets lively. It’s a fun evening, yet one that involves a lot of work because it’s a unique opportunity to assess aged wines blind.

Tasting notes for most of the wines on this evening are folded into a “Century of Twos” article. However, in this occasion, four bottles came from the 1920 vintage. So, why where they allowed to break the numerical rule?

These had been dropped off at the château before COVID struck, kept for safekeeping until such soirées could resume. They provided a fascinating glimpse into a vintage that after 102 years is rarely seen or discussed. The twenties was one of the most fecund decades of the century in terms of great vintages, yet once you take off those rose-tinted spectacles, it was actually more up and down. The 1920 season was beset by uneven flowering. The summer was rather overcast and cool with a prevailing north-easterly keeping a lid of temperatures. This stymied maturity levels that were finally rescued by a warmer dry September. It was a fairly late harvest from around 22 September. The resulting berries were thick-skinned with little juice inside, though subsequent showers fattened them up a little. The 1920 clarets were infamously slow to come around: bad news for oenophiles of the Jazz Age, good news for idiots like me who like drinking ancient, time-defying claret. 

The following four wines were all served blind, their vintage only revealed after much discussion. They were served in the order written.

The 1920 Domaine de Chevalier came from a magnum direct from their cellar. Mature in colour with modest bricking on the rim, the core appears clear. The bouquet is divine with fleshy, ripe strawberry and terracotta aromas, quite pure and surprisingly generous. The palate is medium-bodied with a fleshy entry, very harmonious with a fine bead of acidity. There is something tender about this Graves, almost effortlessly classy with a persistent finish that leaves traces of cedar on the finish. Wonderful. 93/Drink 2022-2032. The 1920 Clos-Fourtet had my alarm bells ringing due to its turbidity. Lo and behold, the nose is riddled with excessive volatility, the palate stocky yet bereft of freshness. This turned out to be the only one of four wines from this vintage that was not representative.

The 1920 Gruaud Larose is a wine that I have encountered once before. This Saint-Julien was enjoying a purple patch in the twenties with a succession of outstanding wines, this being one of them. It has light bricking on the rim but a darker core than the Domaine de Chevalier. The bouquet is graceful and pure, wonderful delineation with a touch of menthol that infuses the remnant of black fruit. There is real presence here after a century. The palate has exquisite balance with a perfect line of acidity, cedar-tinged red fruit and quite fleshy towards the finish that probably took most of the 21st century to soften. This is bridled with a sense of completeness – a quite brilliant wine. 96/Drink 2022-2040. The 1920 Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande represents the oldest vintage that I have tasted from this Pauillac Deuxième Cru. Clear in colour with slight bricking on the rim, it has an exquisite, cerebral bouquet with vestiges of black fruit, mahogany bureau, wilted rose petals and a subtle marine influence. The palate is medium-bodied with a fine bead of acidity, pliant tannins yet real substance that seems undiminished by the passing decades. The finish is surfeit with clarity and salinity, completing an enthralling Pauillac that will still give pleasure. 96/Drink 2022-2040.

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