Picture this: the young Robert M. Parker, Jr. has been selling his newsletter, The Wine Advocate for four years with some success. His notion of applying a numeric score to wines is a novel one, and he hasn’t exactly hit the big time. As per usual, he makes the pilgrimage to Bordeaux in the spring for the marathon of tastings, and by the end of the year he is a bit of a lone loud voice in the crowd, proclaiming the triumph of the vintage amidst more than a little doubt. Within a relatively short period of time he is proven right, and two things are now etched in the stone of the wine world’s collective consciousness: Robert Parker is the most powerful, feared, respected, and reviled critic in the world, and the 1982 Bordeaux is legendary.
In reality, even according to Robert Parker, the 1990 vintage was more consistently high in quality, but somehow that year of 1982 has remained a mystical year for the wine elite and those who aspire to it. Heck, I’ve even found myself saying sometimes of a wine I don’t care for, “Well, it aint no ’82 Bordeaux” with my tongue firmly in my cheek. But, of course, I have no idea what I’m talking about. And unless you were pretty actively drinking and collecting wine in the early 80’s or are pretty rich right now, chances are you’ll get very few opportunities to find out. I had pretty much ruled out the possibility myself, with the perhaps lingering hope that one day my interest in wine might intersect that of another business associate’s or colleague’s and in a fit of generosity they would break a dusty bottle out of their cellar or take me out for the meal of a lifetime.
It was with much surprise and delight this morning, then, that I had the chance to taste seven Bordeaux from the 1982 vintage — the leftovers from one of the swanky wine events I mentioned a few days ago. I was attending a pre-auction wine tasting put on by the same people who had run a 1982 Bordeaux dinner the night before, and lo and behold, they had about 800ml left from each of seven imperials that they had opened the night before. Imperials are the bottles that are even bigger than magnums, holding a total of 6 liters, or 8 normal bottles of wine, and are by far the best way to store and age wine for a long time. Wines develop with speeds inversely proportional to the size of a bottle they are stored in — half bottles mature much more quickly than normal bottles which mature much more quickly than magnums, etc.
I’ll come completely clean here, if you’ll indulge me a little more before I get to answering the question that I posed in the title of this entry — I really don’t know much about how really good wine ages or what to expect of it. Sure, I’ve recently drunk a 1994 Napa Cabernet that I happened to have had the foresight to stick in a cool dark place, but that’s an exceptional case. In general, I’ve never experienced wine more than 10 or so years old, and most of the wine that I drink on a daily basis would never make it that long even if I did have the patience to store it well. I’m far too impatient and excited about the wine that I buy, and far too insecure about the variable conditions in my cellar to put anything down for too long.
So, here’s what a very engaged, super excited, total vintage-Bordeaux-novice thinks of some of perhaps the world’s most well known wines “en Imperial” (important note: after probably 12 hours of air):
1982 Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste
This wine is from the section of the Bordeaux known as the Pauillac, and it is a 5th growth, which means that it is sort of a third tier wine that is not highly collectible. 95 points from Parker.
This wine is dark garnet in color with a nose that includes aromas of saddle leather, overripe plums, and wet earth. In the mouth it has a wonderful old-oiled-wood quality mixed with deeply subdued cherry flavors and dusty tannins. Good finish. My score: 9
1982 Chateau Gruaud-Larose
This is a second growth from the Saint-Julien region of Bordeaux. As a second growth that means it doesn’t quite qualify for the upper echelon, but it’s close. Much more of a collectible wine but this area of the Bordeaux did not do as well as others in this year.
This wine is more blood colored in the glass with a strongly pungent nose of woodsmoke, eucalyptus, and fresh mixed herbs. On the tongue it still has very lively acidity underscoring flavors of cherries, wet stones and unsweetened chocolate, all underscored with incredible gorgeous tannins. My score: 9.5/10
1982 Chateau Cos D’Estournel
This is a second growth from St-Estephe in the Médoc region of Bordeaux. 97 points from Parker.
This wine is a deep blood red in color with strong aromas of bacon fat, smoke, and cherries. In the mouth it is sumptuous and layered with flavors that are very tough to pin down — it is fruity but not fruity, earthy but not herbal, incredibly smooth and rich and a delight to drink. The finish goes on and on. My score: 9.5/10
1982 Chateau Palmer
This is a third growth from the Margaux region of Bordeaux.
Light blood-red in color this wine has aromas of mint, dried herbs and a slight hint of red fruit. In the mouth it has stiff tannins that run ramrod through flavors of unripe cherry and fresh sawdust. My score: 8.5
1982 Chateau Haut-Brion
This is a first growth property in the Graves region of Bordeaux. 95 points from Parker.
Perfectly blood colored in the glass this wine has an impressive nose filled with plums, molasses, and (I swear) roast duck. In the mouth it has flavors of mulling spices and red stone fruit with a finish that brings in some clove elements, but weaker than I would like. My score: 8.5
1982 Chateau Le Gay
This is a producer on the “right bank” in the Pomerol region of Bordeaux. Originally part of the Chateau LaFleur estate. Estates in Pomerol were never fully classified as elsewhere. 92 points from Parker.
Somewhere between ruby and blood colored, in the glass, this wine has oxidized very little. The nose is filled with lovely floral notes including what I think is nasturtium and plum jam. In the mouth it is bright and lively with acidity and soft tannins continuing the plummy flavors and finishing nicely. My score: 9
1982 Chateau Figeac
This chateau is another “right bank” producer in the St. Emilion region of Bordeaux. 94 points from Parker.
This is perhaps the darkest wine of the bunch — sitting a deep blood red in the glass with aromas of roofing tar, molasses and figs. In the mouth it tastes of smoke and cherries and sawdust all knit together in a tapestry of supple tannins. My score: 8.5/9
All in all, it was quite the experience, but I have to say, I’m left with the feeling that while old Bordeaux is interesting, it’s certainly not worth throwing a ton of money at. Now, I didn’t have any 100 point wines there, but many were rated as “exceptional. Yet other than the Cos D’Estournel they weren’t nearly close to amazing as I would have imagined them to be had I never gotten this opportunity. Nearly all of them sell regularly these days for $150 or more per bottle. For my money, I regularly get a lot more enjoyment out of a really nice $40 bottle of Napa Cabernet.
On a side note, as part of this tasting I had the chance to sample a few Bordeaux from the 1961, 1962, 1966, 1959, and 1953 vintages, including a 1953 Cheval Blanc which sells for upwards of $350 and when you get back that far, I’m sorry to say, most of the wines really just don’t taste great. There were a couple of exceptions, but in general, I’m no less mystified at the fascination with and corresponding prices of really old bottles. I have to wonder whether the folks that plunk down thousands in a restaurant for some of these bottles are just tasting their own money instead of what’s in the bottle.
Some other thoughts: having tasted contemporary Bordeaux from some halfway decent producers I am familiar enough with the flavors of the region and knew enough not to expect expressions of ripe fruit, but while many flavors and aromas were recognizable I struggled at times to put names to flavors that I was experiencing. There is something elusive about the quality of this wine which I can imagine adds to its appeal.
For many of you, I hope the above might be an answer to the question of “So what am I missing?” It was certainly an education for me, and a heck of a lot of fun. But I think I’ll keep my aspirations for drinking old Bordeaux right where they were to begin with. Anyone want to invite me to dinner?