These iconic wines have been in the ‘long left cellar’ for nearly three and a half decades, and in that time I’ve wondered about when to broach them and who to share them with. It has been a nagging problem at the back of my mind all that time, but it has also been a source of delight thinking and planning the possible solutions.
The wines are truly iconic. Thirty years ago, first-growth Bordeaux reds were the epitome of the wine world. Sure there was, and still is great Burgundy and Rhone, and the special wines Piedmont and Tuscany; great Californian reds were not quite there yet. But across the whole world, claret took centre stage. In this country where we are cooler-climate Pinot Noir-centric, and to a lesser degree enamoured with Syrah, the Bordeaux-variety Blended Reds seem to have taken a knock-back. But those with a global perspective will know the reality that Bordeaux still rules the roost. Just go to any true English wine merchant or trader in the U.S., or in any part of Asia. And look what heads the list at any reputable auction house – anywhere on the planet.
These are the big three – Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild. These still command the greatest respect and prices (allowing for bizarre anomalies – does this include Petrus?) They are the first growths of Pauillac. The other first-growths Haut-Brion in the Graves, and Margaux in Margaux are equally revered, but the tight-knit grouping of the three Pauillacs make them a unique trio. It wasn’t always this way; it was Lafite and Latour, with Mouton joining them by legal decree only in 1973.
The wines are all the quintessential left bank Bordeaux reds. Consistently over decades, the character has been the same, and reflect their geographical and geological position in the appellation, the cepage, and philosophy of winemaking and style, including tradition. In short, the Lafite-Rothschild is the most elegant. In blind tastings with the other two, it often is overlooked by those newer to the wines. But it always develops well in the glass to reveal a complex myriad of flavour detail, with perfect structure to match. Clearly Cabernet Sauvignon-based, but Merlot has its say. The Latour can be a stupendous monolithic expression of Cabernet Sauvignon purity and intensity. The drive and line is really unmatched by others. Yet it has the most wonderful sense of style and class. It usually is the longest-lived. Then Mouton-Rothschild, vigorously promoted to its proper place to first-growth by Baron Philippe. Mouton is the most opulent and exotic, and also features the richness that Cabernet Sauvignon is capable of. It has the attributes that draw drinkers to its array of decadence.
And then the vintage. In the context of years around 1982, 1975 was the last classic year. Then the hot 1976. 1977 was a disaster – cool and wet. But 1978 was miracle year, saved by a classic Indian Summer, Most 1978s are elegant but have been beautiful. 1979 was another excellent year, maybe a bitmore soft and forward than ideal. 1980 was a lean, green year, pretty in its youth only. 1981 was an elegant, correct vintage. Then 1992, deemed too hot – the wines were sweet and fleshy, and the U’K. experts said they’d develop quickly. 1983 was a hot and very dry year, with ripe fruit and not enough freshness. 1984 a cool year that people tried to talk up. Then finally, the lovely pairing of 1985, more balanced and proportioned, and 1986, the superb wines with the hard core that would take a long time to show their best. It took American Robert Parker to recognise the greatness of 1982. This vintage of claret made his reputation, which stands today. Begrudgingly, the Brits came around to his perception. The 1982s remain among the great vintages to date.
So with life at the crossroads, SWMBO and I decided to open the bottles. It was at Nessie’s pre-Christmas dinner, and we had a number of special guests, including The Chairman. Around a dozen of us all up. The perfect number to share a bottle for a good taste. There were the usual fears. Would the corks come out well – they did. Will there be any wines corked – no. Would any show brettanomyces – no. Thank goodness, they were all go. How did they look and drink. We took the usual serving order as the way to do it.
On first impression, all were dark-coloured still. They all smelt of the same ilk. The similarities stronger than the differences. Classical blackcurrants and black fruits, with a touch of secondary and tertiary development. Concentrated, deep and dense, and clearly complex detailed. Then they began to separate into their individual identities. The 1982 Ch. Lafite-Rothschild Pauillac was the most elegant. Fantastical in its array of aromatics and flavours. Black fruits with softer redder fruits. Beautiful nuances of herb and earth with pencilly oak. Refine and perfectly judged tannins. It was a complete experience. Then the 1982 Ch. Latour Pauillac. The most intense and penetratingly linear wine of the three. Cassis and blackcurrant heaven. Bright and sweet fruit with a tad more acid and tannin structure. Absolutely no coarseness, just class and breed. Beautifilly handled pencilly oak again. And followed up by the 1982 Ch. Mouton-Rothchild Pauillac. For me the most divisive. This had the most primary expression, still sweetly ripe, yes, opulent, blackcurrant and cassis flavours. The richness of this wine had it all over the other two. But the tannin extraction and structure the least refined. Again, not course, but still needing time to resolve. Votes for the best were pretty much evenly split, though my choice was for the Lafite.
It was a special moment in time in my tasting and drinking experience, as it was for all the other dinner guests. We possibly could have made more of the occasion, but this occasion was more than memorable, and made it a stand-out. Of course we couldn’t add others to the dinner list and share the bottles with more people. But the line has to be drawn – on when to open them and who is going to be there. Then don’t look back.