1982, Thirty Years Later

Posted on May 4, 2012 by Luke Sykora

On April 14, the Pebble Beach Food and Wine festival hosted a retrospective tasting of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. All five first growths were poured, plus Pichon-Lalande, Cos d’Estournel and La Mission Haut-Brion. (Stepping into the hotel conference room where the tasting was being held, I felt that I suddenly understood the British attraction to aged claret in a new light, greeted by a pervasive perfume somewhere between an Anglican church and a humidor: all incense and polished wood and pipe tobacco.)

New York Times columnist Eric Asimov recently wrote about a similar tasting hosted by collector Mark Taylor in Atlanta and provided a summary of the controversial 1982 vintage and its significance—so I won’t repeat all of that here. The CliffsNotes version: a warm year with high yields, ripe wines championed by Robert Parker while some critics expressed concern about long-term ageability, and all of this at a time when Bordeaux had been struggling with a string of difficult vintages and the US Bordeaux market was poised to explode.

Sommelier Larry Stone, who’s had a fair amount of experience with these now-stratospherically priced wines, was on hand to provide some insightful comments about how the wines have evolved over time. He noted that the 1982 Pichon was all oak-driven coffee flavors at ten years of age, so much so that he ended up selling off his bottles, a decision he now regrets since he found that the fruit later came back into focus. He said that the 1982 Cos d’Estournel also had a prominent roasted character when young, which has since come into equilibrium with the rest of the wine. He added that, ten years ago, all of these wines would have shown noticeable signs of Brettanomyces. Stone felt that those Brett-derived aromas and flavors had grown more subtle with extended time in bottle.

The International Wine Cellar’s Stephen Tanzer, who was in attendance, wasn’t sure that the wines had improved much since he last tasted them together ten years ago. While all of the wines were still very much alive, he suggested that only three or four of the wines had a long future ahead of them.

At the end of the tasting, a quick show of hands provided an informal assessment of the wines. The consensus: the Latour was definitively voted the top wine. It was undeniably the most powerful—a monument of chiseled graphite—but also complex and perfumed. The group gave a nod to Mouton, which showed a robust splendor: spicy and rich as a rum-soaked Jamaican black cake. Next up was Haut-Brion, with its silky, understated elegance. And while it didn’t seem to wow the assembly, I fell for La Mission—a bit rambunctious, with a subtle freshness underneath its umami-driven structure. 

Interestingly, Asimov’s group’s take on the bottles they tasted several months ago was somewhat different—probably attributable to the idiosyncracies of old bottles as much as to the tasters themselves. Of the first growths, their top wine was the Margaux, a wine that didn’t seem to show as much complexity as some of the other wines tasted in Pebble Beach. Asimov’s group also found the Lafite to be richer and fuller than the Mouton, which wasn’t the case at all at the Pebble Beach tasting. If anything, the 1982 Lafite actually stood out as being the most refreshing wine on the table, still bright and almost youthful—maybe not the most complex of the bunch right now, but certainly exciting, with a lot of life ahead.

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