1982, viewed by many as the greatest vintage of modern times, saw the US
get its taste for en primeur, and the Bordelais discover ripeness. Twenty five
years after it was first tasted, NICHOLAS FAITH goes back in time

1982, viewed by many as the greatest vintage of modern times, saw the US get its taste for en primeur, and the Bordelais discover ripeness. Twenty five years after it was first tasted, Nicholas Faith goes back in time.

The 1982 vintage was never going to be a normal one. For a start, as Christian Moueix (now of Pétrus, then of his family négociant firm, JP Moueix) points out, ‘It was a perfect summer, like those of 1989 and 2005’.

For Jean-Bernard Delmas, then managing Haut-Brion, ‘It was an armchair summer, hot and dry, so there were no diseases, no insects to worry us’. He was not exaggerating. The winter had been mild, April was dry and sunny and, apart from a few scattered hailstorms, May was as promising. June and July provided an excellent, if very warm, mix of sunshine and showers, while August and early September, with temperatures at 30°C, did nothing to damage the grapes or prevent an early harvest – starting September 15, even in the northern Médoc. The result was Merlot of more than 13% potential alcohol, even finerthan the Cabernet which reached more than 12% – levels then deemed remarkable.

It was not the first such post-war vintage. 1959 was potentially as good, though

because of the poor quality winemaking at the time, ‘half of it ended up as vinegar’, said Moueix. In 1982 ‘everything was easy’. To his father, the legendary Jean- Pierre, the Pétrus that year resembled the 1947, but with two major differences: yes it was ‘concentrated and powerful’, but it was ‘less dense’ than its predecessor. An almost unbelievable comment to me, given that the 1982 Pétrus I tasted early in 1983 was the most dense, concentrated claret I’ve ever had.

Nevertheless, every commentator remarks on how the perfect balance of these wines means that they are, in the words of one poetic expert ‘like big men dancing lightly’. The grapes may have been ripe and the summer hot, but it was not as hot as 1947, so there was no sign of the burnt taste which marked the wines. Still, theripeness of the grapes and heat at harvest time required proper cooling equipment,which only a few estates had. At Château Margaux, the normally unflappable Emile Peynaud panicked, worrying that excess temperatures in the château’s old wooden vats would stop fermentation. He phoned Corinne Mentzelopoulos, managing the estate after the death of her father André

the previous year, and asked her to sanction the purchase of £20,000 of cooling pumps.