Growing conditions were good, yields were high and the results promised to be truly extraordinary. James Lawther MW rolls back the years and recounts initial reactions to the 1982 vintage.
The 1982 Bordeaux vintage has acquired a semi-mythical status – and perhaps rightly so. Overtly rich, ripe and generous, it was reminiscent of the great vintages past – 1947, 1953, 1961 – but became the touchstone for a new seductive style of Bordeaux. It also relaunched the en primeur market in a big way and, after a decade of economic gloom, provided much needed cash for vineyard investment.
The winter and spring of 1982 proved to be relatively mild, sunny and dry. Temperatures rose to 22–28°C in May and there was only a little frost damage in isolated areas of the Médoc. The flowering for all grape varieties took place rapidly and in good conditions, with the mid-flowering recorded on 4 June. ‘The profile of the vintage was drawn from the moment of the flowering, which was the earliest in 25 years, and augured well for the maturity of the grapes and an early harvest,’ remembers May-Eliane de Lencquesaing of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. July was scorching, with temperatures in the high 20s and 30s°C for most of the month, but despite the semi-drought conditions, the vine stressed but didn’t block. August turned slightly cooler, the nights fresh with rain at the beginning of the month prolonging the véraison, particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon, and the estimated start of the vendange. By now it was also clear there was going to be a bumper crop.
Come September the weather was again hot and sunny with temperatures back up to 28 to 30°C. In the Médoc, the harvest was underway by 13 September, with the pickers out at Châteaux Latour and Mouton-Rothschild on 16 September and a general mobilisation the day after. Overall it was a relatively rapid harvest, with the last grapes being picked around 3 October. Rain fell on three or four occasions, causing the odd break in proceedings. Clearly the exceptional summer and fine weather during the harvest were responsible for the success of 1982. Thanks to the quality of the fruit, this was a vintage that literally made itself. It was also a high-yielding year. In fact, it was one of the biggest crops for red wines ever seen in the Gironde, with 3.5 million hectolitres of appellation red compared to 2.5 million in 1981 and 3.3 million in the previous record year of 1979. ‘There was not the viticultural reflection there is today and much of the vineyard on the Right Bank had been replanted in the 1960s after the 1956 frost, meaning that the vines were relatively young, and high-yielding,’ says Hubert de Boüard of Château Angélus.
The instant indicator of sugar levels, however, looked more than promising with 12.5–13° for the Merlot and 12–12.5° for the Cabernet. ‘You have to go back to 1947 or 1961 to find an alcohol potential as high as this,’ the daily journal of wine brokers Tastet & Lawton records. The fruit was also apparent. ‘I remember the cellars had the pungent aroma of cooking jam,’ recalls Jean-Claude Berrouet, technical director of J-P Moueix.
The fermentations, though, were not always easy to conduct, given the heat and absence of the sophisticated systems of temperature control seen in operation today. ‘We had cooling blankets on six tanks and two pieces of cooling equipment installed for the harvest, but had to work in shifts around the clock to regulate the temperature and be very attentive,’ says May-Eliane de Lencquesaing. The 1982 vintage had the sort of ripeness of flavour and texture that was rare for Bordeaux, with producers and experts describing it as ‘Californian’ in style. ‘Everything we tasted from the earliest months was dark, rich and delicious, almost like sampling port,’ recalls Eric Samazeuilh of Tastet & Lawton.
The producers felt it was a good wine, but there were doubts about the low acidity and its ability to age. ‘My recollection is that many of the producers were unsure of what they had. The general sentiment was that it was a freakish vintage of great ripeness and richness, but was there enough grip and acidity for the wines to be considered classic?’ remarks wine critic Robert Parker. In some quarters there was no hesitation. ‘Raoul Blondin, the legendary winemaker at Château Mouton-Rothschild, told me it was one of the three greatest wines he had made and that I should taste it alongside the 1961 for confirmation. I did and to my mind they were both in the same league,’ says négociant Bill Blatch of Vintex SA. Barring a few dissenters, the British wine trade was generally very positive about the wines and bought heavily. ‘The noise coming from Bordeaux was inescapable so we were expecting great things before we got there,’ says Clive Coates MW, then the director and wine buyer for Les Amis du Vin. Sebastian Payne MW, chief wine buyer for The Wine Society, remembers being very enthusiastic and buying and selling, while John Armit sunk £1 million into buying stock, such was his belief in the vintage. The late wine writer and Bordeaux expert Edmund Penning-Rowsell also liked the wines very much.
American buyers were interested, too, but controversy over the vintage was created and fuelled by what appeared in print. The two leading American critics of the time, Robert Finigan and Terry Robards of the New York Times, panned 1982, but their views were opposed by Robert Parker, then a relatively unknown wine writer from Baltimore. Parker’s detailed endorsement of the vintage in his newsletter The Wine Advocate, and their dismissal of it, caused much debate, but ultimately established Parker’s credibility with the wine trade and the growing body of consumers.
It has to be remembered that at this time Bordeaux was struggling out of a long period of difficulty and initially there wasn’t the buzz in the market that one might have expected. Prices on the Place de Bordeaux rose by 15 to 25% compared to 1981, so there was no exaggerated hike and large quantities of the first and second growths were available with little competition. ‘We were selling Pichon-Lalande at £100 a case and nobody saw how cheap the wines were,’ says Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners. The market took off slowly, the price pushed up by a gradual snowball of factors that included a strong dollar, speculation among the brokers and négociants, the voice of Robert Parker and growing American interest. The value of the wines from two prominent estates demonstrates the rise: Mouton-Rothschild opened at 170FF in March 1983 and by June 1984 it had risen to 320FF, while over the same period Lynch-Bages moved from 55 to 115FF. ‘The 1982 vintage established Farr Vintners as a Bordeaux specialist, but we only really got going in 1984 on the back of a strong dollar and rising market,’ comments Browett. Nonetheless, many people saw their investments increase in value, which augured well for future en primeur campaigns.
The wonderful thing about 1982 was that it was magnificent throughout Bordeaux, from generic wines through to the crus classés – something that only happens in exceptional years. It was hedonistic, with the wines a pleasure to drink from the start, often before the more astringent offerings of the 1970s. This instant appeal, with fruit to the fore, provided a new reference for Bordeaux.
In terms of ageability, a number of wines showed signs of tiring at 10 to 15 years, but this is probably par for the course. The rest have reached their plateau for drinking and are now at their very best. All, that is, except the very top wines – the first growths and a few others – that still exude the potential for long age. A ‘classic’ vintage, no, but in all other respects a fabulous year.
Written by By JAMES LAWTHER MW