One of the joys in being part of both the Southwold and Ten Years On tasting groups is the middle night dinner, where members bring special bottles from their own cellars based on a specific theme. This year, the 2012 Ten Years On tasting gave us a great excuse to look at the legendary 1982 vintage forty years on. This was an exciting prospect, particularly for me, as I have had much less exposure to these wines than the more senior members of the group. It is well known that 1982 launched Robert Parker’s career when he hailed the ripe, seductive style as a great vintage. Of course, he was not alone in that view, though there were dissenting voices concerned with the ripeness of fruit and tannin paired with low(er) acidities that could affect the longevity of the vintage.
The ripeness debate continues with modern vintages, but things are now starkly different as the climate changes. 1982s have alcohols nearly all below 13% and acid-fruit profiles that, though solar, remain harmonious and savoury. Modern Bordeaux can regularly come in over 15% and fruit can be jammy or dried, with arresting tannins caused by vines shutting down due to heat and drought stress. The increasing ripeness of modern wines has of course been led by consumer and critic palates, but as we swing back the other way and younger generations become increasingly conscious of alcohol intake, it must be a target to see these levels return closer to established norms. Viticulture and vinification must continue to advance if we are to see continued balance and high potential – hot and dry vintages can raise alarm bells rather than signify high quality and will increasingly do so without change.
Back to 1982. Early flowering through what were high temperatures at the time was followed by temperatures marked as “scorching” in that summer – though they were in fact in the high 20s and low 30s Celsius (though persistently so). This warmth lasted through to September – first growths in Pauillac were picking from the 16th, and quickly; most had picked by 3rd October. It seems incredible now that a hot vintage could be picked through to October and have 12.5% alcohol. Yields, viticultural practices and winemaking techniques have their part to play in this, and hopefully by looking to the past we can assure the future. There are encouraging signs - Lafite 2018 was harvested from 17th September to 5th October, and managed to come in at 13.5% with full phenolic ripeness. The 1982s were gorgeous from the tank and barrel according to producers and merchants alike; the volume and quality of the vintage cemented Farr Vintners as a Bordeaux specialist. Over time the best wines have clearly shown the potential to age for decades, but is it now, finally, time to say they should be drunk up?
We were lucky to have many of the great names of the vintage on show, but the evening highlighted the importance of a good seal, good luck and good storage conditions. Forty years is a long time to expect a cork to hold its contents without faltering, and unfortunately several bottles did not show their best as a result, with others suffering from cork taint. By this time, there are no more great wines, only great bottles. This is in itself a good reason to open mature bottles sooner rather than later if you are risk averse. We encountered nearly 10 wines that were corked, oxidised, madeirised or otherwise imperfect on the night, a shame but perhaps best to prevent sore heads the next morning. The wines below are not an exhaustive list of the wines opened, rather interesting and great bottles that stood out to me.
The night started with Champagne, reviving tired palates. Both the Clos des Goisses 2008 (magnum) and Dom Perignon 1992 (original release) were on point – the former showing ripeness of site and acid of vintage in perfect harmony, the latter still finely etched and fresh at 30 years of age. One of the great joys of the night was the following magnum of Domaine de Chevalier Blanc 1992. Most older white Bordeaux (though younger than this) show their age, taking on waxy oxidative characters that lack much of the vibrancy that gets me excited. This, however, was remarkably pale and showed equally youthful tendencies on the palate. Full of energy and still primary in so many ways, I would be hard pressed to say it were 10 years old, let alone 30! A brilliant effort.
We then got on to the serious business of the 1982s. From the right bank, Pavie, Cheval Blanc and Magdelaine were a window into Saint Emilion's past. The old regime at Pavie was quite different to the modern, rich and full-bodied wines that are now made here (even if they have been tempered in recent vintages). This led to scant praise and suggestions the wines would hollow out quickly. However, this 1982 was sweet and smoky, very meaty with an almost bone broth quality but retained some oily black fruit. It needs drinking up but showed better than many early reviews suggested.
Cheval Blanc was wine of the night for many. Two perfect bottles were shown, voluptuous and seductive with a real sheen of fruit that defied their age. Powerful, remarkably youthful with highly polished tannins. I found myself saying the wine was almost too seductive to be at the very top tier - but if wine is not supposed to bring pure joy, then what is the point? This is outstanding St Emilion and without doubt one of the wines that could effortlessly age further.
Magdelaine was one of the positive surprises of the night, though perhaps it shouldn't have been such a shock. From a great vineyard that has now been subsumed into Belair Monange, two bottles showed superbly. Old school in the best possible way, it brough dark fruit, blood, scorched earth and iron with a chalky depth that was never drying. It is very rare to find St Emilion like this any more, which is a real shame. A gem.
We move now to the left bank. Brane Cantenac had an initial 76 point rating from Robert Parker, but this wine was a real surprise. Mature and savoury yet chalky and well-defined, it punched well above its weight and showed well from two separate bottles. Dried flowers, cedar and old library. This was without doubt one of the value picks of the dinner and one I will be looking out for in the future!
A magnum of Calon Ségur was just as expected - deeply earthy, smoky and savoury. Grippy and grown up, this was as much about Saint Estèphe as 1982, with dark fruit, tobacco and smoke to the finish. 1982 Pichon Lalande is worthy of its 100 point rating in a good bottle, but unfortunately this one wasn't firing on all cylinders. It was still a delicious, seductive and soft wine, with highly expressive aromatics and silky structure to promote bright fruit. Yet, we agreed that better bottles are definitely out there. Imperfect yet still at least mid 90s in rating.
A trio of Saint Julien wines showed consistency at forty in the same way the appellation does at Southwold and Ten Years On tastings. The Léoville Las Cases is another 100-pointer and you can see why. It is still muscular and strict, one of the only wines at this dinner that still felt as though it needed time to resolve. The question is whether it would ever get there, such is the remaining bite and deeply savoury fruit. It may be that this wine will always be richly tannic until it dries out. Very impressive, but not the most seductive wine of the night. The magnum of Talbot by contrast was an absolute joy. Soft, silky tannins had fully melted into the wine, yet there was real substance underneath. The solar tones of the vintage were there to see, but this remained classic and cool, cutting still fresh blackcurrant fruit against cedar, undergrowth and hints of dried fruit. Succulence and depth. This punched well above its weight. Outstanding.
Gruaud Larose 1982 suffered the same fate as Pichon Lalande - the bottle was not completely faulty, yet it was not perfect either. This 100 point wine can be absolutely magnificent when on form, but on the night it was simply a very good wine - somewhere in the mid 90s in terms of score. The nose was hyper floral, fragrant and lively, softening with lots of dried fruit, cedar and leather. A perfect bottle would be very long but this just didn't quite have the oomph.
The final trio of reds are the first growths: Haut Brion, Lafite and Latour. Haut Brion was a great bottle - it brought gravelly, earthy tones and intensity together with silky texture. Hugely complex with such great typicity. It does not garner particularly high scores from critics but this was my wine of the night. Lafite was served from magnum and showed both sweet and savoury sides in perfect balance. It was not the most powerful example here, but the precision and depth were still clear to see. Surgical and refined as it should be, I would be drinking this now rather than keeping it. Latour was another good but not great bottle in the vein of Pichon Lalande and Gruaud Larose. This wine can be sublime when on form. This was still a good showing - deep, full of graphite and dark fruit, smoky and crunchy with tannins still at this age. Though this was not the 100-point wine it can so often be, I have full confidence based on the structure here that better bottles will continue to age gracefully for decades more.
The final bottle of note proved that Sauternes should never be written off. 1982 has never been considered a great, or even particularly good, vintage for Bordeaux's sweet wines. Yet, the bottle of 1982 Yquem we tasted was magnificent. Full of caramelised citrus, layered sweet smoke and savoury spice, ginger and saffron, it was broad without heft, bursting with dried fruit through to a long finish. A brilliant end to the evening.
This dinner raised and answered many questions - the state of the changing climate, the fallability of corks in older wines, the confirmation of great bottles rather than great wines, the fact that critics' scores are not always to be taken as gospel, and that 1982 remains a great vintage (though one that should really be drunk over the next decade other than few exceptions). One thing was never in doubt - the generosity of the members in this group to dig deep into their cellars and unearth legendary wines to be shared. It is very easy to be blasé about these sorts of dinners, particularly when several wines don't live up to their reputations or are outright faulty - but that isn't really the point. As a junior member, having the chance to share the wines and the stories surrounding the bottles, how they tasted from barrel and in their youth is invaluable, as are the stories of the people themselves. I thank everyone for their generosity and look forward to the next one.