1980s a Médoc lover’s guide
- Friday 22 November 2013
The 1980s represented the decade Bordeaux badly needed after the 1970s – now remembered for quality at the start and the end of the decade, while the overheated market that crashed due to the oil crisis, poor weather and a wine scandal has largely been forgotten.
Until the 1980s, there was very little money for investment at even the most prestigious estates. I remember Ronald Barton telling me that while the prices for his 1970 Léoville- and Langoa-Barton had finally permitted him to repair the roof on the château, those for the 1971s had allowed him to do the same on the barrel cellar. Demand, principally from America and fuelled by inflation in Europe, saw the attractive, but lighter 1971s outselling the longer-term 1970s, to be followed by the large crop of very indifferent 1972s charging even more.
The hike in the price of oil brought this to a halt, markets collapsed all over the world and continued thus through uninspiring vintages of 1973 and 1974. That year, the scandal involving négociant Cruse, one of Bordeaux’s most powerful merchants, forced it to sell both Lafon-Rochet and Pontet-Canet and, according to Decanter’s Michael Broadbent, ‘sounded the death knell for the old-school négociants who had dominated the Bordeaux trade for so long. After 1975 there was gradual recovery and the next decade took the Bordeaux market to greater and more stable heights’.
Following a decade that had begun so optimistically and crashed so badly, expectations from both the châteaux and the markets were not high in 1980. The 1978 vintage had been saved from disaster by a miracle of fine weather to produce quite tightly knit wines, while the pleasant 1979s, the largest Bordeaux vintage since 1934, found few takers. So with the first vintage of the new decade, nobody thought of little more than ‘muddling through’. No one was prepared for the 1982 vintage, which was to bring such a remarkable change to Bordeaux and its wines.
As a decade, the 1980s matched the 1920s for the number of successful years: three great vintages (1982, 1985, 1989), two very good (1986, 1988), two good (1981, 1983) and three adequate (1980, 1984, 1987). The difference from the 1970s, apart from better weather, was more investment in the vineyards and cellars, later picking of healthier grapes, more selection into second wines and the increasing use of consultant oenologists, whose precursors had been Professors Pascal Ribereau- Gayon and Emile Peynaud.
While 1982 could be described as Bordeaux’s first modern vintage, by the end of the decade modernity had been matched by consistency.
A remarkable decade: 1980–1989
The descriptions of the vintages that follow (and the star ratings out of five) are drawn from Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine. Comments on the wines’ en primeur offers from Sebastian Payne MW of The Wine Society are added to show the market conditions of the time
A cold spring caused late and uneven flowering, weather remained cool and wet until August, but the vines took time to catch up, the harvest beginning only in mid-October to produce an average-sized crop of adequate quality. Sebastian Payne MW, looking at 1978, 1979 and 1980 together, described 1980 as ‘certainly not wine for investors… the best have charm comparable to 1973’. I must have sold some of these in my Paris shop Les Caves de la Madeleine, but I don’t recall the vintage.
Opposite to 1980, with an early flowering and a warm, dry summer that was slightly marred by rain in September that swelled the grapes. Described by Michael Broadbent in Vintage Wine as ‘a good claret vintage, the sort the British buy for drinking’, Payne offered it as ‘the best at least since 1978: aromatic, fruity with good backbone; drink after six to 10 years, St-Julienclassed growths particularly good’. Broadbent gave no first growths more than three stars; Cos d’Estournel, Montrose, Pichon-Lalande, Lynch- Bages, Gruaud-Larose, Palmer, Talbot and d’Issan all got four. If well kept, should still show life.
1982To quote Broadbent: ‘A milestone: the combination of richness and perceived quality matched the economic climate. It was the first really important and well-timed vin de garde since 1970, and perhaps the first universally touted, ripe-for-investment vintage of the post-war period.’ Did people invest in wine pre-war? Of course, the great houses, the livery companies and the college cellars did, but 1982 and US critic Robert Parker (who started The Wine Advocate in 1978) opened it up to the world. This was the first modern, ripe Bordeaux vintage (1947 and 1959 were certainly ripe, but they were not modern). After a long gap, 1982 showed how good claret could be if the climate provides ideal growing conditions – early flowering, a hot dry summer, harvest from mid-September in great heat broken by rain, then more sun to see the Cabernets ripen to perfection. Some dismissed the wines as Californian in style, but the proof is always that ripeness cannot be diminished, and many of the 1982s are still going strong. The Wine Society described them as ‘exceptionally successful… with balance and depth, which they will retain as they mature’. There were no duds, and from my cellar, even La Tour Carnet and Desmirail rose to the occasion, while Léoville-Barton, opened on my birthday in 2003, ‘filled out in the glass, lissom but strong’. At a Boodle’s club dinner five years ago, the explosive character of Pichon-Lalande (given five stars by Broadbent and described as ‘delectably well-upholstered’) outclassed the more classic firmness of Léoville-LasCases. The first growths are superb, still with a good future.
Broadbent gave this vintage three stars, linking it with 1981, but I would put it higher, especially in the southern Médoc. A wet spring delayed flowering until June, the summer began hot and dry, then August was humid, causing a little rot, with dry conditions returning for a late, large harvest at the end of September. The style was more classic after the opulence of 1982, and Château Margaux is the acknowledged wine of the vintage. At a Decanter tasting in 1999, Broadbent found ‘distinct signs of age and tiredness’. My view, more than a decade later, is that they need opening well in advance and to be drunk with food. Payne called them ‘more concentrated than 1981, less round than 1982, but with lovely ripe fruitiness combined with longlasting flavour and finesse’. Wines over the past decade from my cellar have included Léoville-Barton, always a little tight, an impressively Lafite-like Duhart-Milon-Rothschild, some lovely d’Angludet, probably past it now, and (tasted in January 2013) a concentrated yet fragrant Cantemerle, the last vintage before the old vines were replaced. Broadbent gave the Cantemerle just one star, but The Wine Society sold 500 cases. Not a vintage people agree about, but the best wines are still drinking well.
Wet weather in the spring disrupted flowering, but less so in the Médoc than for the Merlots on the Right Bank, followed by a dull summer and a harvest in adequate conditions in early October. The wines were lean and charmless at the start, only the northern Médoc maturing with some success, particularly in St-Estèphe. Among the first growths, Broadbent gave three stars only to Mouton, two to Lafite and Margaux, and none to Latour; with three stars for Beychevelle, Cos d’Estournel, Lynch-Bages and Ducru-Beaucaillou. Whatever they had when young did not last for long.
A wet spring pushed the flowering into June, but then things improved through July and August to make 1985 the driest summer since 1961 and hotter than 1982, with a fine September bringing the very large crop to perfect ripeness. 1982 had taken many châteaux by surprise, but by 1985 more controls were in place and, according to Broadbent, ‘only the unlucky or incapable made a mess of their ’85s’. Declaring this his favourite vintage of ‘this splendid decade, typifying claret at its best’, he gave five stars to Margaux and Mouton (Lafite and Latour getting 4.5 stars), Cos d’Estournel, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Haut- Bailly, Haut-Batailley, Léoville-Barton (LasCases and Poyferré getting 4.5 stars), Lynch-Bages and Pichon-Lalande, all of which are still going strong. I shared his enthusiasm and, for the first time, made a large and successful en primeur offer at my Paris shop. The Wine Society was positive: ‘Very large crop, 12% bigger than 1982, grapes going into the vats at 30°C so cooling essential, quality between ’82 and ’83, a Merlot year in the Médoc unlike 1986.’ These wines have given me great pleasure, perhaps more so than the 1982s as they were much less hyped. I would love to come across this vintage again towards the end of its third decade.
A dry, hot summer held the promise of another great vintage until heavy rain at the end of September forced the harvest date back while swelling the grapes to produce a crop even larger than 1985. The natural exoticism of Mouton met these conditions head on to produce the wine of the vintage, but for most of the rest, Broadbent noted in 2001 that ‘they might, just might, turn out well… they are, of course, “food wines” and unlikely to go over the hill without plenty of notice’. The Wine Society was more positive: ‘Powerful, long-lasting classic wines for laying down; very fine Cabernet in Pauillac and St-Estèphe, some superior to 1985 but with less obvious charm.’ This was my view and I bought quite a lot. D’Angludet and the more chunky Lascombes from Margaux had flesh to match the tannins, while I noted a Monbrison (a good Margaux cru bourgeois) as ‘a classic inky claret’ on New Year’s Eve 2006; recently, my last bottle still showed depth and vigour, but little Margaux charm. A Léoville-Barton opened in February 2013 was strikingly young still, but still packing an iron fist. The best 1986 Médocs will keep Left Bank addicts interested for another decade, while Merlot fans should give them a miss.
A late, prolonged and uneven flowering was followed by a warm but humid July, and hopes brought by a sunny and dry August and September were dashed by continuous rain during October, with the late-ripening Médoc vineyards suffering badly. The Wine Society described 1987 as ‘a keenly priced vintage for early drinking’, placing it superior to 1980 and 1984, no doubt due to better winemaking than better weather. Broadbent described them as ‘quaffable luncheon wines, now faded curiosities’. I never had any in my cellar.
A wet spring was followed by drier weather than usual from July through September, but with only average temperatures, leading to a late harvest of grapes, once ripe, with thick skins for good colour and high tannins. While the market for the 1986s was bullish due to the success of the 1985s, the opposite was true for the ’88s, the reputation of which was quickly overwhelmed by the exuberant ’89s. But time has shown that these are classic Médocs in a reserved manner that have taken time to open but are now at their peak. For Payne they were ‘well worth laying down, the right sort of tannin, but not many have charm, similar to 1966’. I bought only a few cases, noting La Gurgue, a Margaux cru bourgeois, in 2006 as ‘still tight, old style, fine expression’, and Haut-Bages-Liberal in early 2011 as ‘good colour, classic “lead-pencil” Pauillac; old style’; another, opened in February, seemed to have gained in richness and flavour. The 1988s may be ‘old style’ when compared with clarets from the 1990s, and especially the 2000s, but that is not a detraction. When I want a richer claret, I switch to Pomerol and St-Emilion, so I accept them as they are and am sad to be down to my last few bottles, for the vintage still has a future. Margaux 1988 served at John Avery’s memorial dinner this January was superb: lovely fragrance, smoothness and depth, fine and dry with beautiful texture. Tasted in November 2000, Broadbent gave it two stars, but the potential for four stars and ‘possibly five-star when fully mature, say 2010-2020’. As usual, Michael and I agree.
A cold winter was followed by a hot, dry May that led to an early flowering, followed by the hottest summer since 1949 and the earliest harvest of the ’80s. Sugars were high and tannins relatively low, lending an early flamboyance to the wines, but as they matured the tannins grew to match the ripeness, making these wines, alongside those of 1982, the ones to prize. The Wine Society was succinct: ‘An extraordinary year with Pauillacs conspicuously outstanding.’ Broadbent had the first growths’ (and the three Léovilles’) drinking window at 2010–2030. The Léoville-Barton I served in 2004 received great acclaim. Broadbent gave five stars to Pichon-Lalande and Grand-Puy-Lacoste, and recently I opened the latter’s stablemate Haut-Batailley: fresh and fragrant with the warmth and sweetness of the year, perfect now. The great quality of 1989 was shown recently by two second growths, Durfort-Vivens in Margaux and Gruaud- Larose in St-Julien: both had a dense, young colour and great energy, the Durfort fragrant and precise, the Gruaud gamey and broad, both with years ahead.
The 1980s brought Bordeaux into the modern era. It has become more modern since and ever more is expected from these wines. I noted that the bottles, undisturbed in my cellar since release, which I had the pleasure of drinking for this article, stated levels of alcohol of 12% or 12.5% – certainly not the case today.