If you could reshuffle the calendar and put 1988 somewhere in the mid-1960s, it would be hailed as a magnificent vintage for red Bordeaux.
Alas, it came at the tail end of the 1980s, a decade during which excellence became commonplace along the Gironde. Collectors around the world had filled their cellars with the monumental 1982s, dabbled in the very good 1983s, then cherry-picked their way through the enticing, forward 1985s and the classically stern 1986s.
Then, just as the 1988s began to attract some critical attention, on came news of the extraordinary 1989 vintage -- a rival to 1982 and surely one of the greatest eight or nine Bordeaux years of this century.
Then the 1988s got caught up in some governmental hysteria over a fungicide whose maker hadn't filled out the right papers, so their shipment was held up for several months while the U.S. economy slipped into a recession.
Clearly, 1988 was a hard-luck vintage -- at least for those trying to sell it. Retailers ordered the vintage cautiously, which was wise, because many of them are moving slowly as consumers wait for the privilege of paying much more for the 1989s.
Nevertheless, Bordeaux produced quite a few exceptional red wines in 1988, and the prices -- while hardly low -- are quite reasonable in many cases. Retailers seem aware that they need to sell these wines before a flood of 1989s captures buyers' attention, and we might see some discounting over the next few months.
It's hard to get a handle on the character of the 1988s, though generous fruit is definitely part of the vintage's character. Some of the top-tier wines are nearly as tannic as the fierce 1986s, but others are quite enjoyable to drink today.
I recently tasted my way through almost a dozen 1988 red Bordeaux, all from the Medoc, all of them priced under $30. (St. Emilion and Pomerol will have to wait for another article.) It wasn't a large sampling, but it was enough to confirm these impressions based on tastings from the cask in Bordeaux in 1990:
*Some of the Bordelaise will tell you they prefer the 1988s to the 1989s. For the most part, they're just blowing smoke, trying to pump the lesser vintage. In a few cases, however, individual chateaux did make better 1988s.
*Some chateaux picked grapes too early, resulting in thin, greenish wines whose tannins will always overshadow their fruit.
*Even among well-made, full-bodied wines, you can often detect a greenness to the tannins, though this will fade with time.
*Acid levels are low, generally a good sign for red Bordeaux.
*The best wines will repay cellaring for two or three decades, but choose carefully. In some cases the tannin will outlive the fruit.
*Buy when the price is right. It's not a must-have vintage, but canny consumers can stock their cellars at much less cost than with 1989s or 1990s.
Among the wines tasted in this most recent round, these are the ones that stood out:
*1988 Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Baron, Pauillac, second growth, $29. Long an underachiever, this famous chateau has roared back to life under the firm hand of Jean-Michel Cazes of Chateau Lynch Bages. Its price continues to lag some $10 to $20 behind such onetime peers as Chateau Pichon-Lalande and Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, but it's closing the quality gap fast. The 1988 is a classic Pauillac -- powerfully structured, made to age for decades and full of ripe black currant and cedar nuances. The 1988 isn't as monumental as the 1989, but it's one of the best of its vintage.
*1988 Chateau Sociando-Mallet, Haut-Medoc, $15.79. This is a Rhone lover's Bordeaux, absolutely stuffed with blackberry and chocolate flavors and with a firm tannic backbone behind the lush fruit. If it's classic claret you want, this isn't it, but if you want a thunderingly fine wine you can lay down for decades (or drink now, though it is a bit too young), this is it.
*1988 Chateau Talbot, St. Julien, 4th growth, $24.99. Talbot, one of the most popular chateaux among Americans, is one of relatively few chateaux to do better in 1988 than in 1989. The 1988 is hard and a bit greenish at first, though it softens in the bottle and shows its complexity and fine structure. One of the more backward 1988s, it will need eight to 15 years cellaring to realize its very good potential.
*1988 Chateau Poujeaux, Moulis, cru bourgeois, $16.99. Restaurateurs take notice. Here's a real Bordeaux, moderately priced, that is ready to drink right now. But don't let the ripe, fleshy, black cherry fruit fool you: There's a lot of complexity here. Drink over the next dozen years.
*1988 Gressier Grand-Poujeaux, Moulis, $16.99. Another fine wine from the undervalued village of Moulis, the Gressier is more rustic and needs more time than the Poujeaux, but it, too, is a fine mouthful of black currant fruit. Ideally, give it three to five years.
*1988 Chateau Citran, Haut-Medoc, $18.99. This up-and-coming chateau has made a rock-solid, concentrated 1988 that'll need about five years to open up but that has all the elements of a fine Bordeaux.
*1988 Chateau Marbuzet, St. Estephe, unclassified. This second wine of Cos d'Estournel is medium-bodied and elegant, with good black currant flavor, but no one will mistake it for its big brother. It'll probably show best in 1994-'95.
The following wines were less successful:
*1988 Chateau Meraulmont, St. Estephe, not classified, $11.99. Pleasant but one-dimensional second wine of Chateau Montrose.
*1988 Chateau Prieure-Lichine, Margaux, 4th, $18.99. There were some good flavors, but also a thin, one-dimensional astringence to this wine. The middle was hollow and the finish short. Could it have been excessively filtered?
*1988 Chateau Haut-Grignon, Medoc, $11.99. The tannin overwhelms the fruit in this nasty wine with a filter-pad smell.