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The pleasure derived from tasting Yquem is difficult to describe.
It offers a myriad of well-balanced, complex flavours that generate even more harmonies over time. The impression that remains is reminiscent of a quote from Frédéric Dard "the silence that follows a piece by Mozart, in which the listener remains suffused with the music". This reflects the fact that Château d'Yquem stays on the palate for a remarkable long time, providing a unique, prolonged pleasure. There is a lovely expression in French to describe Yquem's tremendously long aftertaste: il fait la queue du paon, which means that it spreads out like a peacock's tail.
It is always difficult to describe wine-tasting experiences with any precision. The senses of sight, smell, taste and touch are all stimulated virtually at the same time. While gifted tasters can identify some of the aromas and flavours in a glass of Yquem in an effort to define its complexity, they never really succeed in communicating its essence or explaining its mystery. Mere analysis, whether chemical or organoleptic, is not sufficient to account for Yquem's greatness. Yquem tells a unique story... It starts with the bouquet. Although not always very outgoing in young vintages, it is marked by fruit (apricot, mandarin, and occasionally tropical fruit) and oak (vanilla and toasty aromas). Older vintages, on the other hand, have an extraordinarily complex fragrance as soon as the bottle is opened, with hints of dried fruit (dried apricot, prune, stewed fruit, and marmalade), spice (cinnamon, saffron, and liquorice), and even flowers (lime blossom, etc.). The first impression of Château d'Yquem on the palate is always very silky, and often sumptuous. It then fills out, "coating the palate". This fine wine has a strong, but never overbearing character, with great elegance and poise. It always maintains a balance between sugar and acidity (sweetness and freshness). A touch of bitterness can also contribute to the overall harmony. Château d'Yquem's aftertaste is legendary, and it tells another story, which lasts and lasts…
Certain connoisseurs consider it outrageous to drink a young Yquem and believe that opening such a monumental wine before its thirtieth birthday is tantamount to a sacrilege. Others, on the contrary, think that Yquem can be enjoyed at all stages in its life.
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.
The 1982 vintage in Bordeaux changed the wine world as well as changed my life. It was the first vintage I tasted from barrel as a young wine writer working for the American magazine The Wine Spectator, and I was amazed how gorgeous the quality of a young red could be from barrel.
I remember the first barrel samples I tasted during the summer of 1983 at Chateau Prieure-Lichine with the late wine author and vintner Alexis Lichine. The wines were so fruity with soft and rich tannins. They seemed too drinkable for a young wine, yet Lichine who had over forty years of experience tasting young wines told me the wines were “exceptional” and “some of the greatest young wines ever produced.”
He had invited some of his winemaking pals from the Medoc to a lunch at his chateau following the tasting. And he kept telling them, which included such names as Bruno Prats (then Cos d’Estournel), Anthony Barton (Leoville-Barton) and Jean-Eugene Borie (Ducru-Beaucaillou) that young writers like myself were the future of the region and that they had to make me understand that 1982 was a great year. He was upset that the New York Times and some other magazines had come out saying that the new vintage was not outstanding do to it seemingly early drinkability.
It was also a time an American lawyer in his mid-30s began writing full time on wine, creating a newsletter called The Wine Advocate. Many say Robert Parker built his career on advocating the greatness of Bordeaux’s 1982 vintage, although he obviously did much more.
More importantly, 1982 vintage marked a big change in the way Bordeaux was produced. It underlined fruit and ripe tannins in reds as well as a slightly higher level of alcohol and lower, or less strong acidity – higher pH. This is what gave the wines such wonderful texture, or drinkability in their youth.
It was a big change from most vintages before 1982 that produced hard and tannic wines that needed years, even decades to soften. The 1982 vintage became a model vintage for red Bordeaux in the future, and arguably for the wine world at large. Think of all the fruit-forward reds that are produced today in the world – for better or for worse. Alcohols are at least two, sometimes three or four degrees higher. Tannins are stronger yet riper. And natural acidities are lower. Chapitalization – adding sugar to the fermenting grape must to increase alcohol – seems a thing of the past.
“Young wines are so drinkable now,” said Alexander Thienpont, the winemaker of Pomerol’s Vieux-Chateau-Certan and Le Pin. The latter made its reputation on early drinkability. “It’s what people expect in a modern wine today.”
I believe some of the change with the 1982 was due to the “California” like growing conditions the Bordelias spoke of at the time. The summer was extremely hot and sunny. The harvest was warm and mostly clear of precipitation. Grape yields were high with many of the best wine properties making more wine per hectare than set by French authorities. In fact, the late Jean Pierre Moueix of Chateau Petrus always told me that the 1982 vintage would have been at the same level as the 1945 or 1949 vintage if yields had been lower.
Yet, the experience of the growing season and harvest in 1982 made a whole new generation of winemakers in the region understand the importance of picking grapes later and riper. They understood early on when wine critics such as Parker and myself as well as members of the US wine trade enthused so much about the 1982 reds from barrel. This also was the beginning of the popularization of barrel scores used to purchase wines.
The US market was the biggest market to buy top notch Bordeaux with the 1982 vintage. It began a decade of intense buying of Bordeaux in the states with consumers buying first growth and second growth as well as Pomerols and St. Emilion. Americans regaled in the wine’s juiciness and beauty. They also made a shit load of money if they held on to the wines in sold them later. For example, most of the first growths sold for about $40 a bottle in 1983 as futures and some are now as much as $3,500 a bottle. Prices for 1982 are down slightly now, but the price appreciation over 30 years is impressive after 30 years.
So is the quality of the wines still for the most part. I am lucky enough to drink top 1982 on a regular basis, and the best ones never cease to amaze me with their generous and complex fruit and polished, ripe tannins. Bottle variation can be a problem because many of the top names have been bought and sold and stored all over the world, but on a whole it is a treat to drink a great 1982. And the vintage always reminds me of my beginnings in the wine world
James Suckling has been writing about and tasting wine for over 30 years. He worked for 28 years as a senior editor of the American wine magazine The WIne Spectator, and in July 2010 he left to start his own website www. jamessuckling.com and wine events company. He also is wine editor of the Asia Tatler group with luxury magazines through the region including Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, and Malaysia. His specialty is Italy and Bordeaux, but he enjoys tasting and discovering wines from all over the world. His most recent great wine adventure was tasting 57 vintages of Chateau Petrus in the Hamptons, but he also just enjoyed sharing great Barolos from Bruno Giacosa, Roberto Vorezio, and Giacomo Conterno with wine lovers in Seoul.
by James Sucking