The growing season of 2017 in the Bordeaux region certainly had its share of high drama backstage. However, when the curtain came up at the “en primeur” tastings for the international press and trade, it revealed at the top level at least an enticing array of superb, graceful wines that satisfy the modern trend toward wines of eminent drinkability, freshness, and balance while having the structure to stay the distance.
“April is the cruelest month… mixing memory and desire” intoned the American-English poet T.S. Eliot in a recording of his magnum opus, The Waste Land. And so it was in 2017 all across the Bordeaux region. Vintage reports invariably begin by addressing the elephant in the room, the heavily mediatized event that was so big it could not be ignored. Indeed, the Bordeaux wine region was hit by an unforgettable onset of severe frost at the end of April, on a scale not seen there since 1991.
During my time spent in Bordeaux last April tasting the 2017 “en primeur” wines in the company of Yohan Castaing, the two of us agreed that it would be misleading to view this vintage only through a distorting prism made of frost-tinted glass. In the same vein, Yohan regularly wondered out loud if most of the new generation of wine tasters we encountered there would be able to appreciate the subtle, less demonstrative, quality of the new vintage compared to, for example, 2015 and 2016.
Yohan even conjectured that 2017 risked being the most underappreciated, misunderstood, and therefore misjudged, vintage since 1982. This, of course, was the vintage that launched the reputation of Robert Parker, one of the few wine critics of that era to praise its precociously delicious style while also attributing to it real aging potential. The conventional wisdom that prevailed then was that wines so agreeable to taste, even drink, when young could not possibly have the “right stuff” to stay the distance of time.
It is in that context of conjecture that I thought it might be useful to look back on the perception of that bellwether vintage and its low acid wines over the decades following the large harvest of ripe grapes that started on September 13th, the same date as another legendary vintage, 1945.
I remember a quote from Jean-Louis Chave, winegrower of the Hermitage appellation, along the lines of “Wine is a reflection of the times in which you live.” Indeed, since the 1980s, the world has seen and lived a period of rapid globalizationand “cutting edge” technological change. At the same time, stylistic changes in wine have been marked by the same phenomenon of globalization and technological change.
In that light, the great and enduring 1982, but also the 1990 vintage of Bordeaux produced touchstone wines that embodied the sea-change that opened the way for modern Bordeaux wine-making, as it confronted an evolution in consumer taste, so different from the very British market-oriented focus on classical restraint that continued to prevail in the immediate post-World War II period. As noted by Yohan in his 2017 assessment report, that “sea-change” may have ended up by “drowning” the true Bordeaux style by going overboard with oak and extraction in the first decade of the new millennia. It is nevertheless still worthwhile to look back at the initial stages of a “change for the better”.
In the modern era since the 1980s, sweetness of fruit,softness of palate and precocious pleasurehave come to be the mantra of new wine consumers. This has proven to be at times a bit of a challenge for the classic Bordeaux style which is less about soft, forward fruit, and more about structure,complexity of flavor and “ageability”.
The game-changing path to finding a response to such a conundrum for Bordeaux had yet been opened since the 1960s by the pioneering oenologist Emile Peynaud, whose work in a sense was finally vindicated by the 1982 and 1990 vintages.
His basic precepts were designed to allow for a modern wine style based on usingcleaner and riper fruit, and careful handling of it in order to produce fresher and more vivid fruit flavors. This included improved, more attentive viticulture, while waitingfor optimal ripeness of the grapes. This was a radical precept at the time when the tendency in Bordeaux had been to pick early, even if the grapes were not quite ripe in order to insure against the rainy fall weather that dominated in this era prior to global warming. Hard and tight tannins were often the result, to the point of being equated, rightly or wrongly, with the “classic Bordeaux style.
Peynaud also called for lower yields and higher selection for the “grand vin,” and the corollaryincrease in the production of « second wines » using grapes from vineyard plots of lesser quality and young vines. In the cellar, Peynaud emphasized the importance of sorting the grapes, eliminating unhealthy and unripe ones and using more sensitive handlingof such valuable raw material. This included cleaner, more hygienic conditionsin the cellar and temperature control during fermentation. He also counseled his clients to crush and ferment grapes of differing quality in separate batches, according to vine age, vineyard location, etc. The results were striking: delicious wines with more precise fruit flavor and softer but fine-grained tannins.
Just as delicious was the irony of the situation that ensued after the 1982 harvest. After the challenging decade of the 1970s – which had a few fine but not a single unquestionably great vintage – Mother Nature finally delivered a large harvest of very ripe, healthy grapes in 1982, but the resulting wines were so precociously delicious that many experts in the profession – producers and wine critics included – were destabilized by such early seduction and fretted that such a vintage of Californian-style ripeness, fruit-forward style, and low acidity could only mean that the wines would not stay the distance.
And that opened the door for yet another pathbreaking pioneer, this time in wine criticism. A young thirty-something Robert Parker took on the leading American wine critics such as California-based Robert Finigan who had dismissed the vintage in his March 1983 issue of his influential newsletter, Robert Finigan’s Private Guide to Wines, but also Terry Robards in the Wine Spectator.Such critics were so wrapped up in their prejudices with regard to what constituted for them classical Bordeaux style that they tended to underappreciate the incredibly ripe and hedonistic style of the 1982 Bordeaux wines. To be frank, it was an attitude shared by many producers. As noted back then by Bill Blatch, founder of the négociant company Vintex in 1982, and still in the game today with his invaluable, comprehensive Bordeaux vintage reports each year, “Most growers felt the lowacidity meant it was merely a quick-maturing Californian vintage.’”
Parker may have been a lone voice in the wine writing wilderness in the U.S at the time, but two important European wine critics also came to the defense of the 1982 vintage: Michel Bettane of France and David Peppercorn in the U.K. For the former, 1982 was a vintage that worried only those critics prone to the “sort of moral torture that consists of being suspicious toward a wine because it is too good from the start.”
1982 was also a standout vintage in that it re-energized the American market for Bordeaux. The increasing demand for Bordeaux 1982 from the U.S brought welcome revenue to producers, allowing them to invest in better cellar equipment along the lines of what Peynaud had been promoting for decades but which was often financially prohibitive because of a depressed market. That of course included a growing rage for new oak barrels. With hindsight, some observers regret that the success of 1982 opened the Pandora’s box of excess that led to the production of over-oaked and over-extracted wines that they believe have betrayed the Bordeaux benchmark for balance in fine wine.
Another irony is that the new Bordeaux 2017 vintage just presented to the international press and trade this past April has been appreciated by some tasters as embodying a welcome trend toward more freshness and finesse, as well as a delightful drinkability, in Bordeaux wine. However, since it does not have the same concentration as 2015 and 2016, it may turn out to be, as feared by Yohan, quite a misunderstood vintage in the early stage, not unlike 1982 thirty-five years ago after the early tastings in the spring of 1983, albeit for the opposite reasons.
It is instructive to look also at 1990, which was at the time the second hottest year of the century since 1947 and the sunniest since 1949. Some critics worried early on that such a big harvest of ripe grapes was unsuited to producing long-term aging wines, much as had been said about the 1982.In contrast, though, 1990 achieved more quickly critical consensus as being a superbly ripe, sensual, low acid, but nevertheless balanced, vintage. It was a year that rounded out to perfection thememorable series of 1988, 1989, and 1990, a stellar trio of quality vintages that has remained unduplicated since. Until now, that is, in the view of some tasters, who praise the new trilogy of 2015, 2016, and 2017, but perhaps in the reverse order, with 2017 corresponding to 1988, similarly endowed with striking rectitude, and skirting on the edge of under-ripeness.
Dare we point out at this point the Achilles’ heel of the 2017 vintage with regard to long-term aging? Certainly, as observed by Yohan in his vintage report, although not always apparent at first taste, the tannic structure of the best 2017 wines is quite significant but balanced, certainly enough to guarantee their aging capacity. Still, as also noted by keen observers, while the September rains brought some refreshment to water-starved vines, they also diluted and fragilized the Merlot grapes that were on the cusp of ideal ripeness. Without the long Indian summer conditions that prevailed in 2016, even the Cabernets were only able to achieve “restrained ripeness” as one Pauillac estate director put it. This has resulted in many wines that are subject to a “midpalate crisis” wherein a certain hollowness flirts with the mouthfeel before they move on to a richer, happier end. It may be that even some of the most prestigious wines of the region fell just short of obtaining optimal “engustment.” This is the term used by the well-named John Gladstones, viticultural research scientist based in Australia, to describe the crucial stage involving “the build-up and conservation of flavor and aroma compounds in the berries,” elements that constitute the cornerstones of long-aged wines from undeniably great vintages.
Be that as it may, I point to a recent illustration of how surprised we may turn out to be by the longevity of the 2017 vintage, despite any supposed shortcomings. This example is provided by another underestimated vintage of eminent drinkability when young, a good amount of which I drank when I too was young. This is the 1957 vintage, that came into being 60 years before the current one we are now assessing. The wines were born with a number of disadvantages. After a frost-bitten spring and a rainy summer, including one of the coldest Augusts on record, things picked up with a hot October. The wines had lots of acidity but little richness. However, as noted by Michael Broadbent in his Vintage Wine book, the British trade regarded it rather highly and bought it up. The American market too, if I am to judge by its regular presence at special family dinners in the mid-1960s. The wine most served, and the one I remember best, was the Pichon Baron, if only because I found so fascinating and evocative the label’s image of the two griffins – the legendary creatures with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion, and the head and wings of an eagle. It was, as I remember it, a very pleasant and easy-drinking red, but not one destined to join the annals of long-lived wines. Imagine my surprise when I came across it again just last year at a wine event in Brussels, at sixty years of age (the wine, I was beyond that already). There were at this tasting many illustrious and superb wines from various vintages, including Mouton, Lafite, Palmer, and Cheval Blanc, but what I remember best is the Pichon Baron 1957 and the excitement of all the Belgian sommeliers present at this event who proclaimed it the wine of the evening, as it was so beautifully balanced, fresh,…and still eminently drinkable.
It appears that it was not just an isolated incident of that magic bottle that shines beyond the usual range of a vintage wine. A few months later, I came across the website post of Dr. Richard Chen, an amateur but highly qualified and experienced wine enthusiast based in Singapore who has tasting opportunities that would make you green with envy (see his blog https://winebyric.com).
Dr. Chen tasted the Pichon Baron 1957 three times over as many months earlier this year, and had this to say:
« Absolutely beautiful in its ruby brilliance and great purity of fruit, highly effusive in red plums and complex tangerines with a lovely lift while its entry on the palate is relaxed and gentle, its acidity still sublime amidst soft minerally textures, displaying good concentration, linearity and length. Perhaps neither quite as deep nor as complex as Pichon Baron from the best vintages but its freshness is amazing. »
So chances are that 2017 will give similar pleasure and more in 60 years’ time.
As for the “agebility” of vintages giving early drinking pleasure and revisited decades after, it is instructive to look at the results presented by Michel Bettane of a wine tasting held in 2002 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the 1982 vintage. He was invited by the famous California-based wine collector Bipin Desai – in his spare time, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of California Riverside –to participate in a comparative blind tasting in Los Angeles of 25 leading growths of Bordeaux. Each château was represented by flights of three to four major vintages, always including 1982, chosen by the producer, stretching from 1959 to 1998. All that was asked of each taster was to select the vintage he or she felt to be the best in the flight.
The objective was to determine whether 1982, then benefitting from 20 years of aging, deserved its lofty reputation. The concept was that if 1982 arrived in first place for at least ¼ of the wines presented, it unquestionably merited its status as an exceptional vintage, and if not, as noted by Bettane, the debate would continue in the coming years! It should be pointed out that as is often the case with such events, a good part of the jury was made up of, in addition to wine writers and wine merchants, non-professional tasters, wine collectors and enthusiasts, some of whom may not have been the most experienced of tasters. *
*In his own commentary on the Pape Clement 1982, served only at the dinner, Michel Bettane noted that although the wine was very much corked, it nonetheless pleased several of the wine tasters present.
The result of the comparative tasting held in April 2002 was not as favorable to 1982 as expected, especially because of some stiff competition from 1961 (notably for Latour and Palmer) but also…1990.
After all the combined votes (from professionals and non-professionals alike**) were counted for the 25 wines presented in three to four vintages, 1982 was in front for only four of the wines. This was to be compared to 1961, eight times the winner among 13 wines served with that vintage included. As for 1990, it mounted the podium six times out of the ten flights that comprised wines from that vintage. Also to be noted, the consensus among the tasters, Michel Bettane included, was that the 1982s did not put their best foot forward in “pure tasting” circumstances. It was when they were served at the meals following each of the three-day tasting program that they were more appreciated. Interestingly, Bettane himself, while highly praising the best wines of this vintage, did not place 1982 in the lead position very often. The stated conclusion by Bipin Desai, organizer of the event, was “1982 is not THE greatest vintage but one of the very good vintages, not necessarily better than several vintages we tasted.” Nevertheless, the consensus was that the tasting event clearly demonstrated that the early detractors of 1982 as being too good to last had been proven wrong.
**A tally showed that professionals and non-professionals gave the nod to the same wine for only half the flights. In addition to Bettane, the professional wine writers included Jancis Robinson, Steve Tanzer, Clive Coates and Serena Sutcliffe.
Et quo vadis 1982?
Recent tastings have shown that the best are holding up more than well. As remarked by Jane Anson of Decanter after a late 2016 horizontal tasting with top wines from that “misunderstood” Bordeaux vintage: “A few of them tasted like they were barely getting going.” She went on to give the coveted 100 points score to a trio of wines: Latour, Magaux, and Pichon Comtesse. Let’s drink to that while waiting for the 2015, 2016, and even 2017 wines to age!