Does anyone remember the 1981 bordeaux? That was the vintage that preceded the great and legendary 1982 vintage and has been eclipsed in stature and publicity by the 1983 vintage, too. It was a vintage that produced good, sometimes very good, but rarely exceptional wines.
However, while it may have been obscured by subsequent vintages, '81 did produce about a dozen superb wines followed by a horde of good, medium-weight, balanced, somewhat lean wines that stylistically resemble many of the bordeaux wines produced in 1979 and 1978.
The Bordelais call the '81s "elegant, classic, typical wines with finesse." Certainly, they are more typical of what Bordeaux does in a good vintage than are the powerful, opulent, incredibly concentrated 1982s, and the powerful, aggressively tannic 1983s.
One should take a look at the 1981s now. The justifiable hype and publicity over the 1982s has pushed the prices for those wines to levels that border on the absurd, and the 1983s have begun to follow suit.
Because of the attention consumers have given to the '82s and '83s, retailers and wholesalers have been discounting their 1981s. I have followed this vintage closely since its inception, tasting the wines from the barrel four times and doing numerous tastings from the bottle.
Listed alphabetically are 13 wines that stand out as superb, not only as 1981s but as bordeaux in any vintage:
1. Certan de May, Pomerol, $25.95: For true students and connoisseurs of bordeaux, the wines now being made at this small property are worth a special effort to find. The estate is tiny and the age of the vines high, but the winemaking is very traditional, aimed at making true vins de garde, with plenty of extract. The 1981 and sensational 1982 vintages come close in quality to the great Petrus at one fourth the price. The 1981 is similar to the excellent 1979, only a trifle fatter and deeper, and marginally less tannic. Deep, dark ruby in concentrated flavors, this is a wine not be missed.
2. Cheval Blanc, St. Emilion, $38.95: I had this wine several times from the barrel, and also twice in comparative tastings before bottling. It is a different wine, relatively rich, spicy, plummy, with soft, silky flavors, very good concentration and moderate, soft tannins. It can be drunk now, but ideally it needs 3-5 years of cellaring.
3. La Conseillante, Pomerol, $18.95-$19.95: A great success for La Conseillante, this wine does not have the weight, power and authority of Petrus, Certan de May or Trotanoy in 1981, but it is a remarkably elegant, balanced wine with layers of gorgeous, plummy, sweet, spicy, ripe fruit. The right touch of new oak barrels adds complexity without overwhelming the rich, savory, supple, lush fruitiness. This is a lovely wine for drinking over the next 6-10 years.
4. Ducru Beaucaillou, St. Julien, $19.95: An excellent success for the vintage, the 1981 Ducru Beaucaillou requires 8-10 years of cellaring because of its tannin, but offers deep, dark ruby color, plenty of concentrated black currant flavors, a deft touch of oak aging and an expansive, very long finish. It is a superbly crafted wine, which unfortunately happens to have been made in a vintage that preceded perhaps the greatest Ducru ever made.
5. Gruaud Larose, St. Julien, $16.95-$18.95: Another great success for the vintage, the 1981 Gruaud Larose can even challenge the 1982. Very dark ruby color, with a full intensity bouquet of ripe black currants, spicy oak, plums and violets, this wine is very concentrated on the palate with rich, tannic, lingering flavors and a full-bodied texture as well as great length. It should be cellared for at least 7-10 years.
6. Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac, $38.95-$49.95: The 1981 Lafite is quite an outstanding wine and potentially almost as good as the more powerful and richer 1982. It was the last wine made by Jean Crete, the talented manager who retired after this vintage. It is relatively dark in color with a bouquet loaded with aromas of black currants, spicy oak, anise, fresh leather and violets. Deep, rich, very concentrated, yet extremely elegant and long in the finish, this is a medium- to full-bodied Lafite that needs a good 10 years of cellaring.
7. La Mission Haut Brion, Graves, $35.95: As every bordeaux enthusiast knows by now, La Mission Haut Brion was sold to the American-owned Haut Brion in 1983. The name will continue, but no doubt the style of wine will be different starting with the 1983. The 1981 is an outstanding wine for the vintage. Dark ruby-purple, it is a big, concentrated, rich wine with much fruit and tannin and will take a decade to mature. I would rank it behind the 1975, 1978 and 1982, but certainly better than the 1979, 1974 and 1971.
8. Latour, Pauillac, $39.95 -- $49.95: I am convinced that the style of winemaking at Latour has changed since the late 1970s. Despite denials by the winemaking staff, the 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1982 are much more supple and velvety for young Latours than what existed in the past. Nevertheless, they are still sensational wines. Incredibly, 1981 has more in common with the ultra-smooth style of Pichon Lalande than anything produced at Latour in the pre-1975 period. Not that this is a malevolent occurrence, because the excellence, complexity and richness of the wine is still present, but one wonders why the personality and character of Latour should change after such remarkable success. The color of the 1981 is dark ruby, the bouquet offers plenty of ripe cassis and spicy oak, the flavors are generous, silky, moderately tannic and quite long in the finish. It is quite a full-bodied wine for a 1981, and it should be fully mature in 8-10 years, but last for 15-20.
9. Leoville Las Cases, St. Julien, $19.95: At present, Leoville Las Cases is making superlative wines. The 1981 no doubt will live in the shadow, given the herculean effort turned in by Leoville Las Cases in 1982, but make no mistake about the 1981, it is very, very good. Quite dark ruby, with a spicy, oaky, ripe berryish bouquet of moderate intensity, this big, tannic, full-bodied, amply endowed wine has quite good length and concentration. It should be fully mature by 1994.
10. Margaux, Margaux, $35.95-$39.95: If you haven't heard it enough already, Chateau Margaux is consistently making the best wine of all the Medoc first growths. In weight and texture, the 1981 is close in style to the 1979 but seems a trifle more precocious and perhaps more complex. It is a stunning wine. The bouquet suggests ripe cassis fruit, spicy vanillin oakiness and violets. On the palate, the wine is extremely concentrated, tannic and very long in the finish. It should be given a full decade of cellaring before one experiences its magic.
11. Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, $37.95-48.95: This is a very fine Mouton. I prefer it to the 1979, 1978 or 1976. It is not nearly so rich as the 1975 or 1970, and of course it will, like every other Mouton produced this century save for the 1929 and 1945, always take a back seat when compared to the legendary 1982, but the 1981 does have its own inimitable style, and the Mouton people liken it to the 1971. It has a dark ruby color, moderately intense, leathery, fruity bouquet, tough, tannic, austere flavors, full body and a biting finish. Again, 7-8 years of cellaring is certainly recommended.
12. Petrus, Pomerol, $65 and up: This is a monumental bottle of wine and unquestionably the wine of the vintage. Christian Moueix compares it to the marvelous 1971, but it tastes bigger and more tannic to me. The color is dark ruby-purple, the bouquet explodes upward from the glass, inundating the nose with ripe cassis scents, spicy vanillin oak, grilled almonds and toffee. Incredibly rich, viscous and full-bodied, this amazing, multidimensional wine will need a good 15 years of cellaring to reach full maturity. What fun millionaire collectors will have 20 years from now comparing the 1981 to what might well turn out to be the wine of the century, the 1982.
13. Pichon Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac, $15.95-$22.95: This outstanding dark ruby wine is lusciously fruity and concentrated, with a gorgeous balance of spicy new oak, deep cassis flavors and complex scent of violets. It is precocious and quite supple, so I would not hesitate to drink it over the next 6-7 years. It seems to resemble the 1979 more than the 1978, but it is softer and fruitier than the 1979.