Which 1980s and 1990s vintage wines are ready to be drunk now? DAVID PEPPERCORN MW passes on the benefit of his detailed knowledge
1980: This was the latest of the vintage wines since 1922 and many properties did not start harvesting until mid-October. Quite stylish light wines were made, most of which were at their best, and drunk, in the late 1980s. I have not tasted one in the last year, but Saint-Emilions and Pomerols are likely to be better than Médocs as the Merlot was that much riper.
1981: After good weather during the summer, it rained during the harvest. The wines have breed and some concentration as a result of slightly below-average yields.
Médoc and Graves: Although overshadowed by later vintages, these are well-structured wines of pedigree, if sometimes small wines. They have lasted well.
Recommended: Batailley (v), Sociando-Mallet
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: Some Saint-Emilions can be full and quite luscious in flavour, while others are rather light in body. Some Pomerols can be lean and dull.
Recommended: La-Tour-du-Pin-Figeac (Moueix)
1982: This is a classic hot-season vintage where climatic conditions permitted a very large, record harvest to ripen, at a time when few were controlling their yields. At the time it was regarded as the best vintage since 1961. Today one must enter a caveat: yes, there are many glorious wines, but there are also wines where dilution owing to a lack of selection now shows through.
Médoc and Graves: Really ripe Cabernets and very rich Merlots give the best wines great opulence, marked vintage character and individuality. These are glorious wines to enjoy now but most will continue to keep and improve for some years to come.
Recommended: Beychevelle, *Ducru-Beaucaillou, *Lafite, *Latour, Clerc-Milon, *Leoville-Las-Cases, *Mouton-Rothschild, *Margaux, Lynch-Bages, *Pichon-Lalande *Sociando-Mallet, *Talbot, La Tour-de-Mons, *Haut-Brion, Rochemorin (v)
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: Wines of great opulence and richness, reminiscent of 1947. Characteristically, many wines were already delicious to drink when young but have matured well, where not over-produced.
Recommended: *Cheval Blanc, *Figeac, *Pétrus, *Petit Village, Larcis-Ducasse, *Trotanoy
1983: This was another large crop, with a lot of rain in early September, but then perfect, hot weather right through the vintage. In general, the wines have looked a shade dry in comparison with 1982, because the strong tannins are tempered with less flesh.
Médoc and Graves: Now the wines are mature, the high yields and patchy selection have resulted in some disappointments. Too many wines now seem dry, austere and lacking harmony, but the best are powerful and quite assertive with plenty of character.
Recommended: Gruaud-Larose, *Margaux, Palmer, *Pichon-Lalande, *Sociando-Mallet, *Haut-Brion
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: There are some serious disappointments due to high yields, but the successful wines have more flesh and are more attractive drinking now than their counterparts on the Left Bank.
Recommended: *Cheval Blanc, *Ausone, *Pétrus
1984: A cold, wet May brought on the worst ‘coulure’ (failure of flowers to set) in the Merlot in living memory. Rain and storms in late September did little to help, and a perfect October couldn’t salvage a cause that was already lost. The Médocs were lean and mean and the Saint-Emilions and Pomerols were worse still.
1985: This was the driest September on record, and sustained heat and a warm, dry October ensured the ripening of a record crop. The hallmarks of the year are high, and consistent overall quality is coupled with a charm and breed that reminded me at the time of 1953. However, although the vintage came out at high prices, the initially cheaper 1986s have now overtaken them in price although they are not so appealingly ready to drink. Why? I don’t know. It is one of the riddles of the market.
Médoc and Graves: Outstanding wines in Graves and Margaux, but a rigorous selection was vital in Saint Julien, Pauillac and Médoc where yields were high. Waiting for full ripeness in the Cabernets was important.
Recommended: *Leoville-Las-Cases, *Pichon-Lalande, Haut-Marbuzet, Langoa, *Latour, Prieuré-Lichine, *Margaux, *Sociando-Mallet, *Haut-Brion, Haut-Bailly, *Mouton-Rothschild
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: Sugar levels in the Merlots were even higher than in 1982 and the level of quality among the leading ones was very high, but yields here were not as high as in 1982.
Recommended: *Cheval Blanc, *Tertre Rôteboeuf, *La Tour Figeac, Larcis-Ducasse, Fontenil (Fronsac)
1986:A perfect flowering led to a record crop, beating 1985, and a good summer brought it to ripeness with heavy rain around the equinox but dry conditions for harvesting. The result was the most tannic year since 1975 and some classic wines at the highest level where strict selection was enforced.
Médoc and Graves: A classic Cabernet year of slow-maturing wines that are only just beginning to show their true stature. The best are among the top wines of the decade but most still need time.
Recommended: Gruaud-Larose, Prieuré-Lichine, *Sociando-Mallet, *Beychevelle
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: There was less rain here than in Médoc and the Merlot did better. The Pomerols are particularly powerful and tannic, while the Saint-Emilions are more charming but usually less powerful.
Recommended: Pavie, Lyonnat
1987: After a warm summer, heavy rain during the harvest produced soft, generally fruity wines that were at their best when drunk young, although there are some pleasant surprises among those that survive.
Médoc and Graves: The Cabernets were more adversely affected than the Merlots. Generally the wines are light in body and rather short.
Recommended: Léoville Barton, Bahans-Haut-Brion
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: With their high proportion of Merlot, these wines are often supple and fruity, but mostly should have been drunk.
Recommended: No examples tasted recently
1988: A wet spring followed by a drier than average summer resulted in marked variation in maturity between different grape varieties and between different sites in the same vineyard. The wines began by looking as tannic as 1986, but in the end these tannins have matured well and often seem fine and elegant. However, the maturation has been slow and the wines are only recently beginning to show their undoubted qualities. This is a classic year.
Médoc and Graves: Here the wines are less powerful than the 1986s, but are classically structured and well-concentrated.
Recommended: *Léoville-Las-Cases, *Pichon-Lalande, *Sociando-Mallet, Lascombes, *Haut-Brion, Bahans-Haut-Brion, Marquis-de-Terme
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: The Saint-Emilions are exceptionally rich and well-concentrated, usually superior to the 1986s, while the Pomerols are opulent with real depth of flavour.
Recommended: *Cheval Blanc, Canon-la-Gaffelière, *Troplong-Mondot, *Gazin
1989: The earliest vintage since 1893 was the result of a particularly warm, dry, sunny summer and a flowering that began on 20 May. The wines are high in alcohol with luscious fruit and soft ripe tannins in the style of 1982 but with more concentration and power.
Médoc and Graves: Selection because of high yields has meant that the leading growths have done proportionately better than the lesser ones. Now that the wines are approaching maturity, the 1989s here seem to have more depth, structure and richness than the 1990s. The Graves seem lighter and more elegant in contrast to the Médocs.
Recommended: Lafon-Rochet (v), Lilian Ladoueys (v), Gruaud-Larose, *Lynch-Bages, *Léoville-Las-Cases, *Pichon-Lalande, *Pichon-Baron, *Sociando-Mallet, *Haut-Brion, Cruzeau (v), La Louvière, Rochemorin (v)
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: Very dense-textured wines of exceptional structure, but now they are mature, comparisons with 1990 generally favour the later year, the opposite to the left bank. Perhaps in some cases the Merlots were picked over-ripe, so lack the bloom and life of 1990.
Recommended: *Corbin-Michotte, *Cheval Blanc, *Troplong-Mondot, La Fleur (v), Roc de Calon (Montagne) (v), St-André-Corbin (St Georges) (v), de Bellevue (Lussac) (v), *Vieux Château Certan, Bonnet (Bordeaux) (v)
1990 There were many similarities between the growing season of 1990 and 1989. However, a combination of heat and drought in July blocked the maturation for a time, so the date of vintaging was later, and after the experience of 1989, more attention was paid to the ripeness of the tannins. This has been a greyhound of a vintage with enormous charm right from the beginning.
Médoc and Graves: The crus bourgeois of the northern Médoc did well, but selection was very important with yields high, and now the first bloom of youth has passed, some wines look a shade threadbare beside the 1989s.
Recommended: *Mouton-Rothschild, *Léoville-Las-Cases, *La Lagune, Lilian Ladoueys (v), Moulin Riche (v), *Talbot, Marquis-de-Terme, *Margaux, *Latour
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: A combination of ripe, concentrated Merlots and exceptional Cabernet Franc has produced wines that combine structure with rich, luscious fruit. The Pomerols have fine concentration.
Recommended: *Troplong-Mondot, *Canon-la-Gaffelière, Pavie-Decesse, *Petit Cheval, *Cheval Blanc, Tour St Christophe, Roc de Calon (Montagne) (v), de Bellevue (Lussac), St-Georges (St-Georges), *Pétrus, de Sales, *Le Pin, *L’Eglise-Clinet, *Latour à Pomerol
1991: A frost on the night of 20 April was the most destructive to strike Bordeaux since 1945 and cold weather delayed the development of secondary buds. A poor September and rain during the vintage meant that only in very few sites, where a high proportion of first generation buds survived, was it possible to produce real quality.
Médoc and Graves: A few vineyards close to the Gironde made a handful of fine wines and these are now at their attractive best.
Recommended: *Léoville-Las-Cases, *Sociando-Mallet, Pichon-Lalande, *La Mission Haut-Brion
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: Here there were no redeeming features as only a small part of the Côte de Pavie escaped.
1992: This was an exceptionally wet year, especially during August and right through the harvest. The crop was large, although well-run properties did succeed in making quite pleasing, light, early drinking wines. Médoc and Graves: Wines with a good proportion of Merlot tended to do best and concentration machines proved their worth.
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: The Merlots did well but the Cabernet Franc had problems. The best wines have supple, attractive fruit, but drink up!
Recommended: Canon-la-Gaffelière, Troplong-Mondot
1993: After a much better growing and ripening season, a thoroughly wet September dashed hopes for a quality vintage. Only the most organised producers succeeded in making significantly better wine than in 1992.
Médoc and Graves: These wines are now at their peak and the fruity and quite characterful successes are drinking well.
Recommended: Léoville-Las-Cases, Sarget, Gruaud-Larose, Sociando-Mallet, Réserve de la Comtesse, Haut-Brion, La Tour-Haut-Brion
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: The Merlot did much better than in 1992 but the Cabernet Franc still had problems, although there are a number of pleasing wines now at their most enjoyable.
Recommended: Troplong-Mondot, Canon-la-Gaffelière, Belair, La Croix-de-Gay, Bégot (Bourg), Fougas-Maldoror (Bourg)
1994: An early flowering and just the right summer weather produced grapes which by the beginning of September were of 1982 and 1990 quality. Then heavy rain followed by showers until the end of the month dashed the hopes of a truly great year. But with excellent basic materials, the feeling was that this was a much better year than 1993, although so far the development of these wines has disappointed and they often seem blunt and dull.
Médoc and Graves: The secret of success here was the ability of the Cabernet to ripen. Pessac-Léognan and vineyards near the Gironde did best. Most wines are still not ready, but a few are beginning to give enjoyment.
Recommended: Léoville-Las-Cases, Pontet-Canet, Gruaud-Larose, Pichon-Lalande, La Mission-Haut-Brion, Smith-Haut-Lafitte
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: There is a good overall level of quality, although most wines still seem blunt and closed. There are a few which can now be enjoyed.
Recommended: Belair, Figeac, Petit Cheval, Gazin, Vieux Château Certan
1995: At last, after the disappointments of 1993 and 1994, this was the vintage that Bordeaux had been waiting for. Again the growing season was excellent, but the September rainfall was much less serious and from 20 September into October a run of perfect weather enabled ripe grapes to be harvested without anxiety. There is a great regularity of quality at all levels, so while most of the top crus are not yet ready, many lesser wines are now delicious drinking.
Médoc and Graves: Classic fruity Cabernet wines with style and breed, still mostly chunky and quite tannic, but the Graves are more forward and are well worth exploring now.
Recommended: Haut Bailly, Les Carmes-Haut-Brion and most southern Graves
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: An excellent vintage here, with real richness and beauty of flavour, but most wines are not yet ready. Concentrate on the Saint-Emilion satellites, Lalande de Pomerol and especially Côtes de Bourg and the Premières Côtes.
Recommended: *La Croix-St Georges, *Petit-Cheval (v), Rouget, Chantalouette, *Roc de Cambes (Bourg)
1996: After a very hot June and July and a cool, rainy August, three weeks of sunny but cool weather in September produced high sugar levels coupled with higher than usual levels of acidity. This means the style of the wine is quite different from 1995 – more elegant but not so rich.
Médoc and Graves: This was a fine Cabernet Sauvignon year in which the wines have more length and sheer style than in 1995, but less power. Most Médocs need more time but there are some excellent wines in the Graves to enjoy now.
Recommended: *Haut-Bailly, La Garde, *Larrivet-Haut-Brion, Le Sartre (v), Rochmorin, Le Crock (v) – also look for AC Médoc, especially: Fontes, Haut-Canteloup, la Pirouette, La Tour-de-By, Lacombe Noaillac, Le Temple, Les Moines, Les Ormes Sorbet, Loudenne, Lousteauneuf, Noaillac, Pontey, Rollan de By, St-Aubin, Sistignac
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: Certainly less good than 1995 – many of the lesser crus are mean and going nowhere – but there are some stylish wines, and look out for Côtes de Bourg and Fronsac.
Recommended: *La Croix Toulifaut, *Cantelauze, Haut-Sarpe, L’Oratoire, *Canon-la-Gaffelière
1997: This was a very unusual year in that the flowering began in early May but continued intermittently for nearly four weeks due to cold weather. The resulting unevenness of maturity continued right throughout the growing season, so vintaging was prolonged and difficult. The wines are forward with much charm, but were sold at too high a price en primeur.
Médoc and Graves: Stylish wines whose reputation has been damaged by excessive prices, but they make nice drinking if you can find some of the deals going around.
Recommended: Some excellent second wines, La Closerie de Camensac, *Pagodes de Cos, Réserve de la Comtesse, *Petit Mouton, *Tourelles de Longueville, Connétable de Talbot, *Amiral de Beychevelle, *Dulac, then *Lafon-Rochet, Branaire, *Sociando-Mallet, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, La Garde, Larrivet-Haut-Brion, Le Thil Comte Clary, Sanansot-Dupré
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: Many wines have developed extremely well so that in certain cases they are preferable to the variable 1996s.
Recommended: *Figeac, *Troplong-Mondot, L’Oratoire, Canon-la-Gaffelière, Yon-Figeac, Calon St-Georges, (St-Georges)
1998: The character of this year comes from an exceptionally hot August, and the rain which fell just before the harvest, and again at the end of September, had less impact than many expected. In particular, there are a host of deliciously ripe, fruity wines from lesser areas which are beginning to drink very well.
Médoc and Graves: The Cabernets have fared better than some premature judgments allowed, but it is too early to start drinking the Médocs. Some southern Graves are worth investigating.
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol: Here the success of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc produced some great wines but it is too early to consider drinking them. Instead, look for Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Francs, Bourg and Blaye and Premières Côtes. In a recent tasting, there were more good, enjoyable wines to be found at this level than from 1995 or 1996.
1999: The wines are lighter than the luscious 1998s, but are attractive and stylish. There will be good medium-term wines from both sides of the river and, as with 1998, some good drinking from lesser areas in a year’s time.
Written by DAVID PEPPERCORN