Surprising Clarets : Cantemerle's '84 and '87 Wines Belie Vintages' Poor Years

IN ITALY, it has long been known that the leftover portion of a good bottle of red wine may be even more glorious the next day. It is considered an act of generous sharing when the host pours this fondo di bottiglia, or "bottom of the bottle" for a friend.

That's because the taste of the wine deepens for a time before it spoils. The significant question, of course, is: How long will the wine expand, if at all, before it expires?

Oxygen is at the root of the matter, and many variables affect its interaction with the wine, from the amount of airspace in the bottle (a bottle 25% full will oxidize faster than a bottle 75% full, the ratio of air to liquid being greater) to the age and quality of the wine. A splendidly constituted young wine may present itself with more joyous depths in retastings as many as 24 hours after opening, tannins subsiding as esters of bouquet expand. Wines more than 20 years old are apt to taste best soon after opening, then quickly decline. But there are always notable exceptions. I shall never forget a 1912 Latour that grew and grew in the glass, getting better for hours, until the last drop was savored.

Wine is significantly better when the grapes are properly matured and ripened. Thus, vintages for clarets become important. Everyone knows that 1982 was a spectacular year, with intense fruits for wines of splendid longevity. But, like many famous winemakers in tastings in chateau cellars, I found '83s often were better, more classical in depth and roundness. Vintages of '85 and '86 were well structured, but nature was not so kind in '84 and '87. Sometimes, however, good wines are produced in poor years, proving that making wines from only the most perfect clusters can and has produced outstanding results.

In years such as '84 and '87, the fine chateaux of Bordeaux make what is known as a selection severe of their many aging casks of wine before making the assemblage for bottling. Let us say that out of 100 barrels, only 35 are deemed worthy of the label. The 35% selection severe permits a very good wine to go forth. But because the vintage does not have a good reputation, the price will be much lower. It becomes bargain time for the astute collector who is buying wine for enjoyment rather than investment.

When I was in Bordeaux in June, I made my first visit to Chateau Cantemerle in the Haut Medoc.

Chateau Cantemerle, beautifully restored and maintained by Domaine Cordier, sits amid 125 acres of healthy, well-tended vines. The quality of the wine, in wine authority Hugh Johnson's words, "is now exemplary, with concentration, depth and length."

The Cantemerle is one to relax with and enjoy, hours after opening. The '84 selection severe is $19.50 , while the '82 is $37.50. Both are available in Southern California.

In the cellars of Chateau Cantemerle, with Domaine Cordier spending millions of francs to update the wine-making facilities, we tasted the '87 from the wood and determined it to be well-balanced, an obvious find. A 40% selection severe with a dominant percentage of Merlot had produced a marvelous, tongue-wrapping claret of great complexity. It's a tip to remember when this Chateau Cantemerle 1987 comes to market . . . soon, but not tomorrow.

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