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Wine Legends of 2011: Château d’Yquem 1921

Every month in the magazine we celebrate a different bottle of wine that we believe should be recognised as a 'wine legend', this year's selected 12 include Dom Perignon 1961, Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 and Graham's Vintage Port 1945.

Wine Legends of 2011: Château Lafite-Rothschild 1982

Château Lafite-Rothschild 1982 Pauillac, Bordeaux, France

A legend because…

This was an headline vintage of outstanding quality throughout Bordeaux, with ripeness levels not seen for many years. The style of wines proved a terrific shot in the arm for claret, especially on the US market. Indeed, some criticised the vintage at the time for an almost Napa-like (thus atypical) opulence and predicted a short life for the wines. Such criticisms have largely proved unfounded, and the top 1982s are still going strong, establishing the vintage as the most celebrated of the last 50 years. Lafite in particular has maintained a youthful character, developing harmony as it ages.

Looking back

Baron Eric de Rothschild, the current manager, was already running Lafite in 1982. Today the vineyard is 107 hectares, but back then it was about 90ha – still larger than any other first growth. There’s no ‘winemaker’ at Lafite, but the technical director then was Jean Crété (ex-Léoville-LasCases).

The people

The debonair Baron Eric is serious about his wines. He enjoys participating in the final blending, though is willing to be overruled by his team of professionals. A year after he took over the management in 1974, he hired Professor Emile Peynaud as consultant. The cellarmaster in 1982 was Robert Revelle, who succeeded his father Georges. It was not until 1983 that Charles Chevallier became Lafite’s deputy technical director; he later became technical manager of not only Lafite but the other properties – Rieussec, Duhart-Milon and Evangile – that form part of the group.

The vintage

The unusually warm growing season resulted in grapes of perfect ripeness and enormous concentration and richness. The harvest began early, on 16 September. Some less well equipped estates had trouble controlling fermentations during the hot weather, but this was not an issue at Lafite. Some estates overcropped as the yield was generous, but dilution was rare. Acidities were fairly low, but the best wines, such as Lafite, had sufficient tannic grip and structure to ensure a long, interesting life.

The terroir

Lafite lies at the northern end of Pauillac. The soil is deep gravel on perfectly drained, gently undulating slopes. Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant variety, but in some vintages Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot play a part in the blend. Lafite’s neighbours are Mouton and Cos d’Estournel, both robust and flamboyant wines, which makes it strange that Lafite is renowned for an ethereal lightness that does not stand in the way of its ageability.

The wine

Winemaking practices have changed little at Lafite. The grapes would have been picked by hand, selected in the vineyard, and brought to the winery for destemming and fermentation in large wooden vats (stainless steel tanks were only installed in 1988). The fresh wine was then aged in new barriques, produced at Lafite’s own cooperage, for almost two years before bottling. During the ageing period, the wine would have been regularly racked and then fined before bottling. But selection for the grand vin was less stringent than it would become from 1985.

The reaction

Cask tastings revealed a vintage of almost Port-like richness and weight. Perhaps spurred on by the enthusiasm of the proprietors, the press and trade mostly reacted very positively, and 1982 was soon regarded as a blue-chip vintage, confirmed by steadily rising prices for the top wines. Robert Parker compared it to the superb 1959, and detected remarkable concentration in the wine, noting that it retained elegance despite its power and unctuousness. Michael Broadbent also rated it highly from the outset, and his subsequent notes remarked on its fragrance and slow evolution. In 2001 he wrote: ‘So much on show, so much left to show.’ Clive Coates MW writing a year later, thought the wine fresh, classy and intense, adding: ‘It will get even better as it gets more decadent.’ The Chinese love affair with Lafite and the stature of the 1982 vintage has made this among the most sought-after – if not the most sought-after – wine in the country. D “Lafite is renowned for an ethereal lightness that does not stand in the way of ageability”

The facts

  • Bottles produced: No record
  • Composition: 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc
  • Yield: 40 hectolitres per hectare
  • Alcohol level: 12.5%
  • Release price: 170 francs per bottle (around e17), which rose on the export market to 225Fr (e22.50)
  • Price today: between £47,000 and £54,000 per case (£3,915 to £4,500 a bottle) and rising

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