The fabulous '82 vintage in Bordeaux and the steeply rising price of the wines make a strong case for wine as an investment. Consider the opening futures prices for some '82s when they were quoted in the spring of '83, and what those same wines bring today -- when you can find them. Ch.ateau Lafite opened at $475 a case and now costs $720. Mouton-Rothschild went from $445 to $650, La Mission Haut-Brion from $350 to $550, Brainaire-Ducru from $98 to $190, and Ch.ateau La Lagune from $93 to $192. Ch.ateau P,etrus, the winner in the appreciation sweepstakes, opened at $625 and now costs a mere $1,800 a case.
We could all retire on the '82s if we had had the foresight and the capital to buy big and early. It sounds easy enough with hindsight but in fact wine is a risky investment if monetary return is all you're interested in. (Gustatory return is another matter.) So much depends upon the perception as well as the quality of a vintage. You must have faith that the vintage is as good as the critics say, and they don't by any means agree. If the investment is for the long term, then the wine must develop according to its promise. So far no device has been invented to provide such assurances.
Now we are up against the '83s, and people are wondering whether to buy them. The '82s made such an impression that considerable steam has been taken out of the sale of '83s, apparently a good vintage but without the enormous fruit and concentration of its predecessor. The '83 futures have been priced higher than the '82s when they appeared, without reflecting the tremendous growth in the dollar's strength; some consumers consider that a delicate rip- off by the Bordelais, with good reason.
Meanwhile, back to the '82s. The Sommelier Society tasted half a dozen recently, with interesting results. The wines were Ch.ateaux Coufran, La Lagune, Prieur,e-Lichine, Pichon-Baron and de Salles. All had great color, very appealing fruit for such a youthful vintage, and remarkably soft tannins. The de Salles ($12) seemed too soft and delicate for such a young wine, even though it is a Pomerol made mostly of merlot. The Prieur,e-Lichine ($12) was pleasant but extremely light. The La Lagune ($15) was almost black, and oaky; it had more body than the previous two wines, but was also very forward. Some tasters felt it would last decades; I thought it lacked sufficient tannin for that kind of age. The Coufran was also soft and no great value at $7.
The big surprise was the Pichon-Baron, a ch,ateau that suffered a decline two decades ago and still has a reputation for producing indifferent wines. The '82 had an off nose in the beginning, but this soon dissipated. The wine showed more guts than the others, with good fruit, extraordinary body and a clear potential for development. At $12.50 a bottle, in the current bull market for '82s, it is a bargain.
There was some discussion of putting some '82s on restaurant wine lists, because of the vintage's notoriety and remarkable forwardness. The problem is that the '82s should soon go through a period of unapproachability, known as "dumbness," when the wine enters another stage of development and becomes hard and unappealing. "They had better go into a dumb stage," said one commentator, "or we're all in trouble."
Otherwise, people will be rapidly revising their forecasts about the '82s' capacity for decades of development. That would disappoint a lot of investors in expensive new bordeaux.