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.

Mentzelopoulos, then only in her late twenties, was up to the task. ‘If it was your estate, would you buy them?’ she asked. Peynaud hesitated before saying no. The fermentation continued without any accident, or additional coolants.

As a result of the heat and the sheer voluptuousness of the wines ‘most growers felt the low acidity meant it was merely a quick-maturing Californian vintage’, says Bill Blatch, a leading international broker in Bordeaux. Such US focus came at an ideal moment. The 1975 vintage had set off a steady recovery from the slump which had devastated Bordeaux in the early 1970s. By 1982 the recovery had achieved what seemed at the time an astonishing momentum. The 1980 first growths had fetched a mere FF80 (francs), a price which had risen by a half for the superior 1981s, and the 1982s had more than doubled to FF180 – sharp rises which dampened demand. Moreover, British and European buyers, suspicious of the longevity of wines that were so agreeable when young, saw no reason to buy them. As a result the en primeur campaign started slowly, though prices crept up after the summer lull. When they then galloped ahead, it was thanks to increasing demand from the US.

‘In those far-off days there was less communication,’ says Michael Aaron of leading New York wine store Sherry-Lehmann. There was none of the rush to Bordeaux to taste the en primeurs; visitors from the US were relatively rare. So the handful of buyers who dealt in futures, including the biggest of all, Ab Simon of Seagram Châteaux & Estates, relied on advice from experts like Blatch and often bought before they had tasted the wines themselves. According to his friends, Simon, who feared he wouldn’t be able to buy enough wines, had a ‘hissy fit’. The subsequent financial backing he got from Seagram enabled him to dominate and influence what was otherwise a very narrow market.

US impact

The US thirst for fine claret was first slaked by another lush vintage, 1959, with

wines initially offered by Sam Aaron of Sherry-Lehmann and boosted by articles

from journalists such as humorist Art Buchwald. US buyers had been badly burnt by the boom and bust of the early 1970s, though had crept back to buy some of the 1981s. But the 1980s boom, above all on Wall Street, was just beginning and, as global wine consultant Michel Rolland points out ‘you have to sell these wines; the economy counts’. This boom was multiplied by the strong dollar, worth ten old francs – nearly twice today’s value – making any French product a bargain.

The result, wrote Michael Broadbent, was that 1982 was ‘the first universally touted ripe-for-investment vintage of the post-war period’, and established the supremacy of the US influence on the Bordeaux market. It helped that there was plenty of wine, for the yield was double that of 1947. But even in the early 1980s only a handful of US stores sold claret en primeur and there was little US press interest in Bordeaux. Unfortunately for his reputation, Robert Finigan, then the king of US wine critics, shared the historic belief that great clarets had to be undrinkable when young, and any wine that was palatable would not mature into great wine. After only a brief visit to Bordeaux, Finigan told Simon and Aaron the 1982s were ‘too agreeable to last’. ‘We shall see’ replied Simon. Twenty years later, Broadbent noted that 1982 Pétrus had ‘life everlasting’ and that other wines had a long life ahead.

In contrast to Finigan, Robert Parker Jr, a 35-year-old lawyer whose Wine Advocate had started publication in 1978, grew ecstatic about the vintage. In two issues of his newsletter, first in late March 1983 then in June the same year, he used words like ‘opulent’, fleshy’, ‘rich’, ‘viscous’ and ‘big and breathtaking’ –terms which would be his benchmarks in the years to come. But the wines (and he) only achieved true stardom in January 1984, when he gave his first 100 points to 1982 Pétrus and Mouton- Rothschild, by no coincidence the two richest wines of the vintage. Parker’s marking system, devised by accident early in his career, proved ideal to reassure USwine-buyers.

As Elin McCoy wrote in her Parker biography The Emperor of Wine, ‘It was universally understood by average Americans and seemed completely straightforward’ – if only because it was based on the marking systems used in US schools. In another unintended result, the precision of Parker points was an ideal base for the increasing investors attracted by his apparent certainty (see p60).

A new revolution

The 18 months following the 1982 vintage marked the start of the US domination of the en primeur market. It was also the trigger for what has been called the ‘Bordeaux revolution’, though even Rolland calls it ‘evolution not revolution’. At its most extreme and ridiculous comes the statement by William Echikson in his book Noble Rot:‘In the rubble of Bordeaux’s old order, I discovered a revolution’, although the real revolution lay in drinkers’ perceptions of what was required in young claret, as much as in the wines themselves. There is no doubt, though, that 1982 was the vintage which finally put paid to the previously ingrained idea that late beauty came only through early suffering on the part of tasters, though the supremacy of ‘soft’ tannins had been demonstrated 30 years earlier. Anthony Barton of Léoville-Barton remembers how ‘at first everyone preferred the hard 1952s to the delicious 1953s, but the 1952 never came round, leaving the field to the 1953s,’ which, according to Broadbent produced ‘some of my all-time favourite wines’.

In fact, the technical evolution bringing ever-riper grapes and thus softer but still long-lasting tannins had started in 1952 when Peynaud bought a car. The new-found mobility it gave enabled him to spread his beliefs, previously confined to vineyards within bicycling distance of Bordeaux, across the Médoc. Peynaud believed a winemaker’s role was to bring out the inherent qualities of the grape. Over the following decades, Parker exploited his ever-increasing influence toimpose his own ideas on the role of the winemaker. Although he appreciated great wines of any style, his love was not for classic claret but rich wines, praising one young wine as like ‘young vintage port’.

Even in the Rhône, his favourite region, he prefers the strongest wines – Guigal provided nine of the 19 100-pointers Parker awarded during the first10 years of the Wine Advocate’s life. Parker’s rise to power coincided with a new concentration on events in the vineyard.

As Charles Chevalier, winemaker at Lafite puts it, ‘Peynaud knew little or nothing about viticulture’. Bruno Prats of Cos d’Estournel told me at the time ‘We’ve made all these improvements in the cellars, now we must concentrate on securing the best raw material.’ The need for riper grapes had been shown by the series of poor harvests throughout the 1970s which naturally led to an increasing emphasis on producing riper grapes. Hence the steady introduction of a host of improvements during the 1980s and 1990s, stripping the leaves to increase access to sunlight, removing the greenest bunches, and the installation of sorting tables on the way to the fermenting vats to remove unripe or rotten grapes. One result of the increased discipline, and of the steadily increasing temperatures thanks to climate change, was that chaptalisation (the adding of sugar, almost universal 30 years ago) is rarely necessary for, as Rolland notes, ‘We’ve been trying to ensure that every element in the grape – the polyphenols as well as the alcohol – is properly ripe, a difficult task.’

As a result, it was the improvement in viticultural techniques that influenced thousands of growers far below Parker’s radar which led to the increase in claret’s alcoholic strength in the past 25 years – in 1982 it averaged just 12.5%, at least a point below today. The price of the 1982s has continued to rise as Europeans realised they’d stay the course. By the mid 1990s they were fetching more than three times the price of the excellent 1983 vintage. Unfortunately, as Tom Hudson of Farr Vintners says: ‘Because the 1982s had been so approachable from such a young age, there aren’t many left’. To take the extreme example, Pétrus 1982 cost a seemingly ridiculous £10,000 a case 10 years ago, but today the few remaining cases fetch between £30,000-£35,000. The same applies to the first growths, although their positions in the hierarchy have changed over the decades.

At first Mouton was the star, but it was overtaken by Latour. Recently it is Lafite that has soared to the top of the 1982 first growth price league at £20,000 a case. The reason? For Chinese buyers – an increasingly important force in the market – the name of Rothschild is more significant than that of Parker, ensuring that even Carruades de Lafite has leapt in price. To paraphrase the old hymn, at the name of Rothschild every knee shall bow. And so shall we, to the 1982s.

  • See also: David Peppercorn’s Bordeaux vintage report from 1982 – 2005

  • For more on wine vintages from Bordeaux and across the world, see decanter.com‘s Vintage Guides page.

    Written by Nicholas Faith