1982 HAS TURNED out to be an exceptionally fine year for the wine consumer. A bountiful, and in some places, extraordinary harvest across Europe's major wine producing regions has winemakers, importers, distributors and consumers joyously optimistic that 1982 will be the fourth good European vintage in the last five years. From a historical perspective, this is an unprecedented occurrence that should continue to propel sales of imported wine.
Even California's harvest, irresponsibly written off by several prominent writers before any grapes were even picked, has turned out much better than most observers expected. If 1982 augurs well for the quality of wine both here and abroad, the year also provided quite a few other interesting developments.
Perhaps the most traumatic wine event of 1982 was the sudden slump in premium California wine sales. It was only two years ago that Time magazine featured California wine in a story about the "Golden Age of California Wine." Who would have believed the California wine bubble would burst so quickly? The current state of the domestic wine industry is no doubt in the midst of a shakedown as consumers shift their allegiance to the European imports that are providing some astonishingly good buys--a result of a very bullish American dollar combined with unsettled political and economic situations in key European wine-producing countries such as France and Italy.
California wine producers will no doubt survive this turnabout in interest, yet I suspect quite a few wineries (financed to the hilt and guilty of producing mediocre wines at exorbitant prices) will be swallowed up by more profit-oriented, better-managed firms. Certainly, 1982 will be remembered for the year in which many fine expensive California cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels, which had been so highly sought-after and strictly allocated to retailers in the past, were left sitting on the shelves as consumers searched out the best values from France, Italy and Spain.
As consumers turned more and more to imports, several trends became apparent in 1982. The sales of French wines were significantly higher. Connoisseurs flocked to purchase the better bottlings of the 1979 bordeaux, a highly useful, large vintage of well-made wines that will provide charming drinking over the next decade. Consumers also discovered the rich and complex full-bodied wines of France's Rho ne Valley. Wine selections from the best small producers of this region have never been better, and the top Rho ne Valley wines should provide great pleasure for years to come for those who had the foresight to purchase them.
Alsatian and Loire Valley wines have made a strong comeback as well, and of course champagne, never out of favor with the consumer, remains as strong a choice for that special wine celebration as any wine produced in the world.
Burgundy continues to be prohibitively expensive, yet prices are somewhat lower at present than they were several years ago. It is not much solace to the consumer, but some of the very finest white and red burgundies can now be purchased for under $25, rather than the $35 to $40 these wines fetched several years ago.
1982 also will be remembered as the year of the super-expensive Italian wine. Italy's greatest red wines can stand up against any of the finest wines of any country in the world, and it seems ridiculous to expect producers of such wines to give them away because the wine world thinks all Italian wines should cost no more than $3.99. But several producers of very fine Italian wines, notably Gaja in Barbaresco and Biondi Santi in Brunello, have gone too far when they ask $40 to $50 for new vintages of their wines. Such prices seem absurd when there are equally fine wines, perhaps even better wines from Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello, that can still be purchased for $8 to $15 a bottle. Despite the excellence of the finest Italian red wines, double-digit priced Italian wines will continue to meet resistance from consumers.
It seems too much to expect the consumer to pay $8 to $15 for a bottle of barolo or barbaresco that will require 15 to 18 years cellaring to shed its harsh tannin, when there are other alternatives that will require less patience as well as less money. However, for those individuals who have cellars and the prerequisite patience, purchasing the best Italian wines from the best vintages (such as 1978 and 1979) will undoubtedly provide magnificent drinking in the future.
While I tasted thousands of newly released young wines last year, 1982 provided me with plenty of splendid opportunities to taste great vintages of rare, old wines from the cellars of connoisseurs and collectors. The standouts:
Among the very young wines, the 1979 Chateau Margaux (still available for around $35 a bottle), and the 1981 Chateau Margaux and 1981 Chateau Petrus (both still in barrels awaiting bottling in the fall of 1983) were three of the most impressive wines I tasted. All three were loaded with potential for future greatness.
As for older wines, several specific bottles stood above the crowd, and they represent the sorts of extraordinary characteristics that make wine so interesting a beverage and so unique a discussion topic. I tasted, and in these cases drank, five wines that were as close to perfection and sublimity as a wine can be. Interestingly, three of the wines were from the 1959 bordeaux vintage, which, while very, very good, was supposedly eclipsed by the 1961 vintage. I maintain that all three of these wines, a 1959 Lafite Rothschild, a 1959 Haut Brion and a 1959 Latour, are superior to their 1961 counterparts, which I have also tasted in the last year. None of these three wines was fully mature, but all had the enormously interesting bouquets and intense, very well balanced, luscious, lingering flavors so common in wines of this caliber. My favorite two wines of 1982, the two wines that are unforgettable, were a 1952 Petrus, and 1969 Co te Ro tie "La Mouline," a Rho ne wine from the firm of Guigal.
The 1952 Petrus was tasted at a blind tasting of older pomerols and st. emilions held by a local collector. At the same tasting was the legendary 1947 Cheval Blanc, plus several other vintages of this particular chateau, as well as several vintages of petrus. The wine that outshone them all, including the exceptional 1947 Cheval Blanc, was the 1952 Petrus, a mammoth, huge, chewy, ripe, fruity wine, which after 30 years still tasted remarkably young. I doubt that I will ever forget this wine, and hope to have the good fortune to taste it again.
One wine I am not likely to see, much less ever taste again, simply because less than 300 cases of it were made, is the Co te Ro tie from the 70- to 80-year-old vines of the La Mouline vineyard of Etienne and Marcel Guigal. The secret of this wine is not so much expert winemaking, which it received, but the fact that the wine was made from such old vines. Few vineyards anywhere in the world can claim such old vines, and the miserly amount of wine produced from these old vines results in an incredibly concentrated, full yet soft and highly concentrated wine that must be tasted to be believed. After four years in small oak barrels and nine years in the bottle, this wine had developed a bouquet to which words would never fully do justice. It was filled with all the things that one could hope for in a wine and was as rich and as well balanced as any wine I have ever tasted. While I am unwilling to say that it was the greatest wine I have ever tasted, it was for 1982, the most memorable.