1988 Bordeaux: Should You Buy?


Oh, the dilemmas we face. Buy the 1988 Bordeaux now hitting store shelves? Put a deposit on the 1990s? Or perhaps pay in advance for the 1989s? Aargh! What to do?

No self-respecting wine snob would be without a few cases of the acclaimed, unreleased 1989 Bordeaux. And the still-in-barrel 1990s are highly regarded. Yet there, sitting on your local shop shelf, are the voluptuous and enticing 1988s--at prices we have been told are reasonable.

Reasonable? Forty dollars for Chateau Pichon-Baron? Ninety for Lafite? This is reasonable?

Ah, but of course, this is Bordeaux. And like the yacht, if one has to ask the price, one cannot afford it. Still, it is a must for the cellar.

Having tasted the five First Growth wines from 1988 and a few of the also-rans, I know it is indeed an excellent and full-bodied vintage, offering wines with loads of concentrated fruit and greater-than-usual accessibility. The wines are worth consideration because they will undoubtedly age beautifully.

Yet this whole business of buying expensive wine has always left me feeling a bit guilty. Can I, in conscience, recommend you peel off $700 for a case of '88 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, even though it is one of the best wines of the vintage? Wouldn't you do better to wait a while until the wines have developed something in the bottle?

It's true that if you wait the wines will escalate in price. But buying before release, or upon release, has recently proven to be a sound financial move only in rare instances.

That is because of the multitude of great vintages from Bordeaux in the last decade. It used to be said that Bordeaux would have two-and-a-half great vintages a decade. In the 1950s, for example, you could count 1953 and 1959, with favorable remarks about '52 and '55. In the 1960s, you had 1961, 1962 and 1966. In the '70s, there were 1970, 1975 and 1978.

No one knows why--global warming, perhaps?--but in the 1980s, Bordeaux was blessed with six truly great harvests. There were great vintages in 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1989, along with plaudits to a personal favorite of mine, the lighter but elegant 1981s. Moreover, '84 produced some good wines. And 1990 may prove to be the year that rivals them all.

What drives wine prices up fastest is scarcity. In the 1970s, not a lot of wine was made, and prices rose as one great wine after another became unavailable. But production of Bordeaux has risen steadily since the end of World War II, and the 1980s produced a flood of great wines.

Without scarcity to drive the prices to the moon, bargains abound. More about that later. On to the 1988s. They are wonderful wines, which I verified when I tasted a range of them at a recent dinner staged by wine merchant Steve Wallace.

Of the First Growth wines, I liked Margaux best. At first it was less aromatic, but with a little aeration the wine showed remarkably complex scents of cherry pipe tobacco, clove, smoke and cedar, and it had a dramatic, penetrating fruit quality in the taste that lasted long without astringency. At $75 to $90 a bottle, it is one of the most expensive wines of the vintage, but a monumental effort.

Those who like richer, more potent wines (and who always choose Latour) will love 1988 Latour. Its prototypal power is matched by concentrated yet graceful fruit. The wine is plump and oaky with a load of depth. Not a shy little wine. The price for Latour ranges all the way from $75 to $100 a bottle, depending on who is offering it.

I was impressed with the 1988 Haut-Brion ($80 to $90), which in some past years has proven to be rather curious. This Haut-Brion is atypically fruity (usually it's reticent at this young stage) and has ample richness and power.

One of the most elegant and refined wines of the five, Lafite-Rothschild ($80 to $90), offers more grace and elegance, not as oaked a wine as some of the others, but with pretty elements such as a delicate citrus note intertwined with cherry-cassis flavors.

I enjoyed Mouton-Rothschild ($100), but I and other tasters at the Regency event didn't feel it measured up to the greatness of Mouton from some other years. We found a powerful and dense fruit quality, but it was combined with a meaty/earthy complexity that, though appealing, was somewhat eccentric. Three bottles were sampled and all had the same characteristic.

Ranked alongside the top wines was the sublime La Mission Haut-Brion ($60), a delightfully rich wine with cassis and toast in the aroma and a taste that was very rich and voluptuous. It would be hard not to drink it soon, though it will age wonderfully.

I also liked the impressive Pichon-Baron ($30 to $40, a "value" of the vintage) for its plummy, spicy elegance, a sort of dusty-oak note and a powerful, full-bodied taste. Those looking for a bargain might investigate the second label of Margaux, 1988 Pavillon Rouge, which should sell for about $22 to $24.

The Duchesse de Mouchy, who runs La Mission Haut-Brion, once observed that the wines "are snapshots, not moving pictures"--mere glimpses--and at this stage of development they showed just a hint of what they will be.

All the more reason, I suggest, not to buy heavily now. There is little likelihood that by waiting you will miss out on great wines. That is, given the great vintages coming up, these 1988s are wines that will surely be available in three years and at prices I feel will be competitive. (Keep in mind that by not buying now, your cash can earn interest.)

Since 1989 and 1990 Bordeaux are the vintages currently being praised, I feel certain that the 1988s will be looked on less favorably, kind of the way 1981 was overlooked in the rush to grab 1982s.

Look, for example, at the underrated 1981 vintage. Today you can find top 1981 Bordeaux for $25 to $50 a bottle--and at some of the auctions (Butterfield & Butterfield, Christie's, Sotheby's), 1981s come up often at prices quite reasonable. (Just recently I bought a case of 1981 Chateau Figeac in magnums for $200, equivalent to $16.66 per 750-milliliter bottle.)

And for about the same price that a bottle of 1988 Latour would cost you today, you can get 1981 Latour with seven years of aging and have a wine that much closer to drinkability.

Wine of the Week

1985 Tenuta di Argiano Brunello di Montalcino DOCG ($24)-- Brunello di Montalcino might be called monster Chianti, for it is made from the Sangiovese Grosso grape, which is closely related to the variety grown in Tuscany that makes the less-dense wines of that region. Brunello, not widely known in its own country 20 years ago, is now recognized worldwide as a powerhouse red wine.

Biondi-Santi and Fattoria dei Barbi make the best known and, consequently, most expensive. Argiano, a smaller producer near Siena, isn't as well known; thus the wine is priced at a fraction of the top wines. By law, Brunello must be aged at least 3 1/2 years in oak, which can hurt more fragile wines. But this version has power and richness, with an intense violet and cedar complexity and a trace of anise or tar. A wine worth cellaring for the next century.

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