Bordeaux is on a roll, and wine lovers are agog.
With the release of the 1986 vintage red wines of France's most prestigious wine region, those who collect wine for aging in their cellars are having a tough time deciding what to do. Should they buy a case of Chateau Latour and a case of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, or should they buy a three-bottle assortment of a whole lot of stuff?
No matter, they are eager to spend their money, in spite of high and rising prices, and in spite of the fact that their cellars are already full from their enthusiasm of the recent past.
Bordeaux is almost never blessed with so many great vintages in a row, and never have so many good vintages coincided with large harvests too. (Great quality and large quantity are supposed to be impossible together, say viticulture experts.) And with six excellent vintages in eight years, there are fears that the consumer will simply say "enough!" and stop buying.
Yet, even though the multitude of top-quality vintages confounds longtime observers of Bordeaux, they merely shake their heads and reach for their wallets yet one more time.
The 3-Years-in-10 Rule
It once was said that Bordeaux would have a great vintage only three years in 10, and during the 1940s, only 1945, 1947 and 1949 were rated exceptional. Through the 1950s, one could rate '53 and '59 as tops; in the '60s, the great vintages were 1961, 1966, and, if one wanted to stretch a point, toss in 1962.
And although the 1970s offered the usual complement (1970, 1975, 1978), a number of other "off" vintages showed better than expected. That set the stage for the 1980s, a wow decade. Red wines of 1981 were hard but showed classic lines; 1982s were highly praised, and the vintage was rated one of the best of all time (though I never thought the wines were that impressive, considering them to be far too ripe and diffuse in character, certainly not classic Bordeaux).
Then 1983 and 1985 were rated as excellent, and we are hearing experts rate the 1986s as equivalent to the best of all time. (And now chateau owners are touting the 1988s.)
The expert in the current case is Paul Pontallier, managing director of Chateau Margaux and a man not given to extravagant claims. Yet at a dinner staged here May 2 to show off some of the best 1986s, Pontallier remarked that 1986 was "quite an extraordinary year, as good as 1945 and 1961, with the same level of concentration (of fruit)." That sort of talk excites wine collectors, who rarely hear anyone draw parallels with the Year of the Victory--1945--or 1961.
Pontallier compared the heralded 1982 wines with the 1986s:
"In 1982 we had a level of maturity (of the grapes) that we don't often get, and the reason was the high heat before the harvest. It gave us an incredible ripeness. Perhaps it was too hot, I don't know. But 1986 was better.
"We had drought and high heat in 1985, but it was even hotter and drier in 1986, and these wines show the true characteristics of a dry vintage, and the true product of the terroir , the soil. They are very concentrated wines, tough wines. The only thing we have to be afraid of is, it will take such a long time for them to develop."
The reference was to the fact that the '86 Bordeaux are now so hard and tannic that they will need years in the bottle to smooth out. The best will need many decades. But there is ample depth of fruit and complexity for them to become drinkable.
Most wine lovers fear long-term aging not at all. The longer-lived a vintage, the more they want it. And the '86s certainly will satisfy them.
At the dinner staged last week by Steve Wallace of Wally's on Westwood, nine of the 1986 Bordeaux classics were served. Only one, Chateau Haut-Brion, failed to impress and the major difference between the others was style.
Top wine on my score card was the Chateau Margaux, a magnificent wine that exceeded the others on the basis of a bit more finesse and classic lines. The Margaux is just as deep as the others, but has an aftertaste that goes on and on, with hints of cherries, cassis, cedar and sandalwood.
At $75 a bottle it is expensive, but wines like this don't come along very often, and Wallace expects that the price will rise to $100 a bottle as soon as the first run of wine sells out. Which could happen in days, such is the word on the '86s.
It's splitting hairs to say which wine was next best, but on my list, the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild bested the Mouton by a shade. I preferred the fruit in the Lafite to the oak in the Mouton, though both are intense and loaded with potential. Both are also about $75.
Another wine with grand potential, but on a smaller--and less pricey--scale, is the second label of Margaux, which is called Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux. At about $22, the wine is an excellent value, and one all wine lovers should consider.
Second label wines are those some producers make from grapes off younger vines and from some barrels that don't match up to the high standard set by the house for its primary brand. The Pavillon Rouge is a hard, lean wine that nevertheless exhibits the classic Bordeaux flavors, with deep fruit and broad aftertaste.
Others worth looking for, though I haven't tried them yet, are Les Fiefs de Lagrange (Chateau Lagrange), Les Forts de Latour (Latour), Haut-Bages-Averous (Lynch-Bages), Reserve de la Comtesse (Pichon-Lalande), Clos du Marquis (Leoville-Las Cases) and Les Tourelles de Longueville (Pichon-Baron).
For those who would like to see an '86 develop a little more rapidly, two St. Emilion wines (which use more Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon) that I would suggest are Chateau L'Arossee (about $40) and Chateau Cheval Blanc (about $75). Neither wine was served last week at the Wallace dinner but tasted a month ago showed incredible charm and depth.
I also loved the 1986 Pichon-Baron, mentioned here a few weeks ago.
All merchants I have talked to have said that response to the 1986s has been very good, especially considering their high prices, and a number said they expected to see prices for these wines rise rapidly as they start to get into short supply.
All this is a little surprising since it is generally assumed that Americans are a bit tired of buying expensive imported wine. After the near-fanatical interest we all showed in buying the 1982 and then 1983 Bordeaux, U.S. wine consumers also responded with eagerness to the exciting 1985 red Burgundies.
And then there was a wave of interest in 1984 and 1985 California Cabernet Sauvignons and more interest in 1985 Italian red wines.
In addition, consumers are being asked to buy two great vintages of Bordeaux at the same time. Not only are the 1986s here and going fast, but "futures" prices for the reportedly fine '88s are being posted.
And the sad fact is that prices for the as-yet unbottled 1988s (they're still in cask) are actually "a hair higher than the first offering of the '86s," according to one wine merchant.
True, all this homage being paid to Bordeaux requires the spending of a lot of money to get in on the game, but a lot of wine consumers are putting off the new BMW until next year, figuring they may never see the 1986 Bordeaux at prices this low (!) again.
On the other hand, it's pretty heady stuff when a man like Paul Pontallier is moved to say about the 1986 Bordeaux:
"The complexity of these wines is higher than our capacity to understand them."
Oh, Paul, you sweet-tongued devil.
Wine of the Week: 1986 Kenwood Zinfandel ($11)--Classic berrylike spice and intense, fairly rich fruit overcome the higher tannins and make the wine a powerful and complex match with hearty pasta dishes. The wine also appears to have the makeup to age well.