1982 Bordeaux, 20 Years On

An extraordinary tasting this spring organized by University of California physics professor and long-time wine collector Bipin Desai promised to provide a definitive answer to the most pressing Bordeaux question of the past generation: Just how good are the 1982s? Desai idea was not simply to taste all of the most important '82s at a time when most of them should be at or near peak drinkability, but to see how the best '82s stack up against other top Bordeaux of the last 40+ years.

The marathon tasting, a triumph of organization in light of the scores of bottles, and the thousands of fresh glasses and stick-on labels that were required to prevent utter chaos, took place in Los Angeles, at the restaurants Melisse and Spago, over a three-day weekend at the end of April. Each day proceedings were divided into two sessions. In the first session, a group of top '82s (St. Estephe, St. Julien and Margaux the first evening; Pauillac and Graves the second day; and Pomerol and St. Emilion on the final day) was tasted in a series of blind flights: each '82 was pitted against two or three other allegedly outstanding vintages for that chateau covering the period of 1959 to 1998. Obviously, the wines in each flight were at different stages of evolution. The tasters were asked simply to select the vintage they felt to be the best in the flight.

During the second session each day, the same '82s, as well as numerous other '82s from the same appellations, were served alongside a multicourse meal (the Friday and Saturday meals were at Melisse and the Sunday lunch at Spago). The wines in these second sessions were not served blind. Those tasters who attended both the blind tastings and the dinner sessions were thus able to retaste the most important '82s from fresh bottles with their meals.

The feeling on the part of most tasters in attendance was that if 1982 was indeed one of the great vintages of the 20th century, these wines should dominate the competition in the blind flights. My own feeling prior to the event was that this taste-off could be expected to pose a stiff challenge for the '82s; it would be rather like pitting the New York Yankees against an all-star team made up of the best players at each position from the rest of the American League. Still, if 25 top wines from the '82 vintage were each matched against two or three other strong vintages from the same chateau, one could reasonably expect at least 7 or 8 '82s to dominate the competition just to break even.

The results of the blind tastings were somewhat surprising: The wine writers at this event (including myself, Clive Coates, Jancis Robinson, Serena Sutcliffe and several others) favored just 7 '82s out of 25, while the rest of the participants, mostly veteran wine collectors but also including a few wine merchants, voted for the '82 only 6 times. I picked the '82 as the best vintage in just 5 out of 25 chateau-by-chateau flights, although it must be noted that my second bottles of two additional '82s were better; I would have preferred these latter bottles had they been part of the blind flights. In a couple other cases, I gave the nod to more recent vintages because of my conviction that they would ultimately be more interesting wines, even if the '82s were more satisfying right now. But even though the '82s by no means dominated the weekend, I thought the best '82s, as a group, showed extremely well. Here are some of my conclusions from this remarkable event:

With the advantage of hindsight, 1982 is a slightly overrated vintage, but only slightly. The best examples of the vintage are gloriously rich, expressive wines that will continue to offer great satisfaction for the next 10 to 30 years. But the quality of '82 does not extend that far down the hierarchy of soil (no more than three dozen or so truly outstanding wines were made), largely because relatively few chateaux back then were in a position to capitalize on a near-ideal growing season and a warm, dry harvest. Among countless improvements in Bordeaux since the early '80s, here are a few of the most significant: across-the-board crop reduction; later and more precise harvesting for more thorough ripeness of tannins and flavors; declassification of more fruit into second and third wines; gentler presses; less strenuous handling of the must and wine; more and better new oak; gentler bottling.) On the other hand, it easy to forgive the enthusiasm of tasters at the time, as 1982 was clearly the most exciting vintage at that point since 1961.

Collectors who bought the better 1982s as futures, or even on their arrival in the U.S. market, made the wine purchases of a lifetime. But those who came to wine later, and thus had to pay the stiff premium that this vintage has commanded since the late '80s, could in many cases have bought other equally good subsequent vintages from the same chateaux for lower prices. This is even more true now than it was ten years ago, as many '89s, '95s and '96s seem to be relative bargains today. When a vintage catches the fancy of the international wine market, even lesser wines tend to command a price premium, and these latter bottles can become poor value. The same thing quickly happened to the 1990s, and is already happening to the not-yet-released 2000s.)

Early detractors of 1982 who claimed that the wines would peak early and fade quickly have been proven wrong. Just a few of the nearly 100 '82s presented at the Desai tasting were obviously in decline; those that disappointed generally lacked thorough ripeness or density in the first place, or were rustic or flawed since day one. The overwhelming majority of those wines meriting outstanding ratings today still have plenty of useful life ahead of them.

1982 is merely one of several outstanding vintages of the '80s and '90s. Several vintages since '82, especially 1990, 1996 and 1998, but also including 1985, 1986, 1989 and 1995, also yielded numerous outstanding, collectible, ageworthy wines that belong in any well-rounded Bordeaux collection.

Margaux was the least successful appellation in 1982 - no surprise here, in view of the early opinion on this vintage. Most of these wines lack fullness and thorough flavor development. Chateau Margaux produced a great wine, and my blind sample of Palmer was by far the best bottle of this wine that I've had to date. But many '82 Margaux wines seem rather green and meager. I wouldn't describe these wines as old today, but they're of limited interest.

Except for Margaux, all appellations produced numerous outstanding wines. All three of Bordeaux most prominent varieties - cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc - were capable of achieving greatness. If I had to pick my favorite grape in 1982, it would be cabernet sauvignon.

Nineteen sixty-one continues to amaze. Of 13 '61s in the blind flights, no fewer than 6 were preferred by the wine writers and 8 by the trade and consumers. In particular, the '61 Pomerols smoked the '82s. For this appellation, '61, not '82, is a strong candidate for vintage of the century. Interestingly, the wine collectors at the L.A. tasting were at least as likely as the wine writers in attendance to favor the '61s over more recent vintages. In fact, one of the surprises of the weekend was that the wine writers (including this one) were more likely to value the young wines highest, based on their perception of the wines' longer-term potential, especially in the case of right-bank examples from 1998, Northern Medocs from 1996, and 1990s from St. Emilion and the Medoc.

The best 1990s and right-bank 1998s will be cellar treasures. Although the 1990 vintage was not the theme of the tasting, I suspect that more outstanding wines were made in this vintage than in 1982. Five or six years from now, a major comparative tasting of '90s and '82s would make a real party for the palate.) Moreover, 1998 is an extraordinary vintage for the wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion. While it is still early to make such a statement, '98 may turn out to be the most consistently spectacular year for the right bank since 1961. Neither of these conclusions will come as a surprise to long-time readers of this publication.

Following are my notes on the wines served in Los Angeles at the Desai tasting. For the 25 wines featured in the blind sessions, I was able to retaste all of them a couple of hours later from new bottles in the flights accompanying the meals. Actually, two different new bottles were available for tasting at the meals.) So where my first bottle of '82 did not track my previous experiences of a particular wine, I've been able to include a second tasting note on the same wine. Similarly, where I tasted markedly different bottles of the same '82 on the same day, I have provided multiple notes.

Price ranges shown for most wines are courtesy of the extensive data base of Bacchus Resource Management, which offers appraisal services covering a wide range of the world most collectible wines (for more information, go to www.wineappraise.com). Where the Bacchus data base showed two or more current prices from 2002, I used these prices to create a range. Where the base showed only one 2002 price, I created a range using this price and the highest reported price from 2001. As you can see from my methodology, I have included prices simply to provide a very rough idea of what these wines now cost at retail. Please note that this data base covers retail merchants around the country; collectors may be able to purchase many of the Bordeaux covered in this article at auction at prices 10% to 40% lower.