1982 versus 1990 Bordeaux
When you receive an invitation to a comparative tasting of all Premier Crus from the two great vintages of 1982 and 1990, you drop everything and clear your diary. 1982 and 1990 represent the beginning and end of perhaps the greatest era in the history of Bordeaux. During these nine years there were only two vintages that could be seen as disappointments: 1984 and 1987. It could rightly be stated that the period from 1945 to 1953 produced similarly great wines; this is true for the top wines, but the overall quality reached new heights during the 1980s.
1982 was a milestone for the Bordeaux trade, coming as it did after the difficult decade of the 1970s, which was marked by the Bordeaux crisis, and the ensuing collapse of the 1972 bubble, the oil crisis and rapid inflation. On top of this there were a series of disappointing vintages.The financial markets had stabilised by the time the 1982 wines were offered in the spring of 1983, and by this time there was a large new group of potential wine buyers. There had been an influx of new magazines about wine and good living, and the public was ready to spend money. The American Dollar was high against a weak French Franc and, most of all, the wines were spectacular.
There were several reasons for this.
An early, even flowering, a warm but unspectacular summer and an exceptionally hot period during the end of August and the first half of September. It was this heat that made it possible for the record harvest to not only to fully ripen, but also to concentrate the fruit. The harvest started on September 14 and was finished before heavy rains commenced on October 2. Another reason for the success of the vintage was that most châteaux had invested in their cellars and were able to work such a large and hot harvest. It was now possible to control the fermentation temperatures better than in earlier hot vintages, such as 1947. The grapes produced wines with such high natural alcohol that chaptalization became unnecessary. They showed deep colour, high and unusually soft tannin levels and a better acidity than first thought, as well as great fruit concentration. The media hype was great, particularly thanks to the advent of new wine magazines - this was the vintage that cemented Robert Parker’s reputation. The prices rose rapidly and have not looked back since. I remember all Premier Crus (including Pétrus) being offered to end consumers for around 50 euros en-primeur in 1983.
The scene when the 1990 vintage came along was quite different. There was a surplus of very good to great wine on the market – for the first time there was talk of three great vintages following one another. This lead to most châteaux lowering their prices by about 20 per cent compared to their 1989 prices, even though the quality was outstanding. There had been a steady increase in prices during the 1980s, but they were now more or less back to the opening prices of the 1982s. It was again a record harvest, but because most châteaux had by now introduced a ‘second wine’ and due to the fact they were more selective with regards to quality, there was actually less wine being bottled as ‘Grand Vin’ than in 1982.
We have been following both these vintages from a comparatively early age, as they were both precocious and easy to drink from the start. The top wines from both vintages are spectacular, but the overall quality is much higher in 1990. Here the wines were equally successful on both sides of the river, and even minor châteaux produced something special. We have always found most 1982s from the right bank to be too alcoholic and lacking in structure; indeed many are now ageing rapidly.
So, which vintage would claim victory?
It was easy in the case of Château Mouton Rothschild to pick the winner, given their 1990 has always been the disappointment of the vintage. It is now maturing rapidly and should be drunk or, even better, sold to someone who only cares for the name on the label. The 1982, on the other hand, was always seen as one of the stars of the vintage. Deep coloured with a great concentration of up-front fruit. Good, fresh acidity and a long finish. The only thing that worries me a little is the massive amount of tannins still present.
The 1990 Château Lafite Rothschild is a lovely and charming wine, full of warmth and style. A classic, elegant Lafite. It is ready to drink now and will bring pleasure for some time to come. The 1982 Lafite is ‘The Superstar’ in the eyes of the Chinese and this has led to the wine reaching new record prices at every auction in Hong Kong and beyond. The wine is very good – more concentrated than the 1990 and still very youthful. We would call this a draw.
1990 Château Haut Brion is one of our favourite wines – a heady nose of tobacco, spices and leather. Lovely, soft fruit and ready to drink now, but don’t be fooled – this will age forever, just like the 1959 and 1961 Haut Brions. The 1982 Haut Brion is also a beautiful, charming wine, offering great drinking pleasure, but it does not quite have the exotic charm of the 1990.
Drink soon as we don’t see it improving with age. Victory for 1990.
The bottle of 1990 Château Margaux was not a good bottle; the wine had a mature colour and lacked the usual structure and freshness. This is normally a good, soft wine, so we assume that this bottle had been stored under conditions that were too warm. The 1982 was also now quite mature with soft fruit and needs drinking soon. In this case it is a win for the 1982, although normally we would call it a draw.
Château Latour is usually the wine that needs the longest of all the Premier Crus to show its true class. 1990 was unusually soft and not at all typical of a Latour at an early age. It is a very good wine with soft tannins and great balance. Château Latour produced, for me, the greatest of all 1982s. A fantastic, mind-blowing wine, which combined the classic Pauillac style and backbone with spectacularly concentrated and sensuous fruit. It was joy to drink now and will continue to be so for the next hundred years. Another win for 1982.
Both 1990 and 1982 Château Ausone showed mature colour, nose and fruit.Both were quite pleasant to drink but not really up to Premier Cru standard in either vintage. A draw.
We have often given the 1990 Château Cheval Blanc a perfect score in blind tastings, as this is one of the most hedonistic wines we have ever had the pleasure to drink. We have compared it to Sophia Loren in the 1960s – soft, round, voluptuous, sexy and not a hard edge anywhere in sight. This is the uncrowned successor to Cheval Blanc’s legendary 1947.
We have, on the other hand, never quite understood the constant raving about Cheval Blanc’s 1982. A very overrated wine for us – too alcoholic and overripe. In fact, it is always lacking the structure necessary to be really good. Not bad, but certainly nowhere as good as its reputation. A clear victory for 1990.
1990 Château Pétrus is a fabulous monument of a wine. Indeed, it displays the deepest colour of all. Still quite closed, but a giant waiting to come out and blow us all away. Very, very long finish. A great wine! The 1982 Pétrus is a wine with a fantastic reputation that, similar to the Cheval Blanc, has never really impressed me. Soft, mature and attractive but lacking the structure of a great wine. Another clear victory for 1990.
The luncheon was rounded off in style with Château d'Yquem from both vintages. 1982 was a difficult vintage for Sauternes, being caught as it did by the copious rains of October. Lightweight and really not very good. The 1990 is an opulent, soft and forward Yquem. Attractive and ready to drink now. 1990 prevails again.
All in all a wonderful afternoon with marvellous wines where, in our eyes, this time 1990 showed itself to be the more complete vintage.