Friday, October 16, 2009

1981 Chateau Haut-Brion

With all the talk of the potential of the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux, it seems appropriate to address one of the most perplexing issues in wine: That of vintages right before or immediately after the legendary ones.

Perhaps it should be expected—the same curse, after all, befalls perfectly good movie sequels that weren’t quite up to the lofty standards of the original at first glance. But just like, say, The Godfather Part II, a great many wines produced in years after the legendary ones turn out to be deserving of far more attention than they initially got. And, in fact, they often surprise and charm in the long run.

I’m thinking here of the 2004 and 2006 vintages in Bordeaux, both of which had the unfortunate luck of following highly publicized and clamored-after ones. (And, in the case of 2004, it suffered a double-dose of bad luck: That terroir-driven year found itself sandwiched between the opulent 2003 and the operatic 2005.)

The good news, though, is that, when it comes to these less-publicized vintages, there are often great deals to be found. And, even more important, remarkable wines to be enjoyed.

This was thrown into sharp relief yet again at a dinner this past Monday night. I visited a BYOB in Philadelphia with my friend Scot “Zippy” Ziskind, who I’ve written about here before. He’s one of the most highly regarded custom storage, humidification, and cooling experts in America, owner of ZipCo Environmental Services, Inc. and My Cellar wine storage, and a passionate collector of Bordeaux.

That night, we enjoyed, among other treasures, the 1981 Chateau Haut-Brion. And, as is so often the case when it comes to wines from next-to-great vintages, this one was a stunner. 1982, of course, is considered one of the best…and, indeed, they are remarkable wines. But there’s a high cost that goes along with that kind of reputation, and it’s not just monetary: Too many people, it seems, still get rather myopic when it comes to great years, and too often ignore the excellent wines from less-famous ones.

This wine in particular was magnificent, a fully evolved, silky masterpiece with aromas of flowers, damp earth, smoke, and a singing strain of lavender. On the palate, it was perfectly balanced, with lovely acidity providing lift to the exotic spice, tobacco, and smoky, grilled notes. The flowers came back on the finish and lingered on with persistence and elegance. It was a truly great wine by any standard.

The lesson here is simple: Don’t focus on marquis vintages at the expense of the supposedly lesser ones. Because when all is said and done, bottlings from years surrounding the most famous ones often evolve into wines that are every bit as sublime in their own way as their more famous siblings.

That, really, is the beauty of great wine: You never know where you’re going to find it. Or, for that matter, when.


Miguel Lecuona on October 16, 2009 at 9:49 AM said...

Nice post, Brian. And I concur! I was born a mere 10 days after the all-time great Bordeaux vintage of the 20th century, 1990. KIDDING. 1961 was that year of course, and I was a 1962 babe by just a fraction! So that is one I am exploring. Most recent was a 1962 Ausone, auction bottle, brought back to Bordeaux to share with the wine maker (you met Philippe last May, the day of the great hail storm of 2009), and paired it with a 2003 he brought. That 62 was alive, well, and as you say, surprisingly charming. Everyone who tasted it wanted more -- a good reaction that pushes beyond mere admiration -- it was lovely to drink!

I am now on the hunt for great 88's, a few friends in Pomerol say it was the first of the trilogy years, and compared to 89-90 they sell for a song. We'll see what they have left in the tank soon enough, I found a couple here in St. E.

Pull those corks!

And PS -- yes, the 2009 has fantastic raw material in most every sector of Bordeaux. The wine makers now have the burden of "not F-ing it up"!

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