Nineteen-eighty-three was supposed to be the forgotten Bordeaux vintage. Only a year before, Bordeaux had given birth to the most publicized, promoted -- and quite probably, best -- bordeaux vintage in decades.
Good vintages that follow great ones rarely get the recognition they deserve. Many recalled the yawns that greeted the excellent '62, '71 and, to some extent, '79 bordeaux. Most experts predicted the same for the '83s.
The experts were wrong.
No, the 1983s are still not the equal of the '82s overall, as some had predicted early on. But they're here now, they were bought with cheap francs -- and they taste extremely good.
This last fact was amply demonstrated to Washingtonians at the "Debut of the 1983 Bordeaux Vintage" dinner and tasting at the Four Seasons on April 28. As the event's sponsors admitted, "debut" was perhaps something of an exaggeration. Bottled last year, some of the wines have been available in area shops for several weeks or more. Indeed, the wines for this tasting had been shipped directly from their respective chateaux several weeks earlier, to avoid travel sickness.
The tasting was primarily designed as a showcase for the first growths, but several lesser ranked (and less pricy) growths were also included, and showed very well. Listed in order of my preference, the wines were as follows:
Chateau Margaux ($55 to $80): Magnificently perfumed, incredibly opulent and concentrated, this wine is a perfect marriage of power and finesse -- in short, the quintessential Chateau Margaux. Despite some rather tough tannins, the extraordinary density of the fruit might tempt some to drink this wine now. Resist. Ten to 15 years of patience will almost certainly be richly rewarded. While waiting, you might wish to try Chateau Margaux's excellent second label, Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux, available in various vintages around town. It's very stylish, is generally ready to drink upon release, and costs about half as much.
Latour ($60 to $80): So fruity and lush was the 1983 Latour that it seemed to bear a closer resemblance to a barrel sample than to a final bottling. The Latour winemaking team is increasingly striving to make wines with "round" tannins that will permit both adequate aging potential and pleasurable drinking upon release. This example appeared to be a notable success in this program, and is particularly impressive given the tendency of this vintage to produce rather aggressively tannic wines.
Lynch-Bages ($20 to $25): The consistently fine showing of fifth growth Lynch Bages in comparison tastings with the top bordeaux is one of the best arguments for a reworking of the highly influential 1855 classification of the chateaux of the Medoc. The bouquet, dominated by floral and spice nuances, is absolutely first rate. The wine is one of the biggest '83s, with plenty of tannin, and even more fruit.
Petrus ($150): With production so limited and selection so strict, Petrus is often in another class from other top bordeaux in quality as well as price. This year, it's distinguished mostly by the latter. Quite tannic and relatively tough on the palate, the wine nevertheless has an exceedingly fine bouquet, a beautiful color, and a powerful finish.
Mouton-Rothschild ($55 to $75): This is a very forward Mouton, which helped it show extremely well. Along with Haut Brion, it was the wine that several tasters said they would choose if they were to select one wine for dinner the next evening.
Haut-Brion ($55 to $70): Just as the merlot helped the Magdelaine stand out, the classic earthy graves taste and aroma clearly set this attractively forward Haut Brion apart. This is probably the best choice among the first growths for near-term consumption.
Magdelaine ($30): The 80-percent merlot content of this Moueix St. Emilion estate presented an interesting contrast with the cabernet dominated medocs. Richly plummy and spicy, there was also a hard tannic edge that gave the wine an aggressiveness that is unusual in merlot-based wines. Indeed, it had considerably more backbone -- and perhaps a bit less flesh -- than most fans of St. Emilion wines may be used to.
Gruaud-Larose ($17 to $25): Earthy and pungent on the nose, Gruaud-Larose was the most deeply colored wine in the group, and perhaps the most backward in its development. It is another massively styled Gruaud that appears to lack the outstanding balance of the 1982. (One taster commented that it had shown considerably better at the New York tasting the evening before.)
Lafite Rothschild ($60 to $80): Lafite is said to be a difficult wine to evaluate when young, and this example seems to prove it. Rather skinny, with an exaggerated herbaceousness in the bouquet and in the flavor, Lafite appeared to be suffering from bottle sickness. In all likelihood, however, the wine will develop splendidly, as has the excellent 1981, which showed equally poorly at early tastings.
Clerc-Milon ($15): Fifth growth Clerc Milon, another property of the Baron Philippe de Rothschild, won't disappoint anyone looking for a well made Pauillac. Though certainly not in the quality league with the other wines in this tasting, it's not in the price league either. Overall, a stylish, finesse-oriented wine with a nice concentration of fruit.