Most of us can point to an instant that changed our wine lives. For some, it's a single bottle that captures the moment (1968 Heitz Martha's Vineyard for me) when a wine transforms into something extraordinary.
There are great moments, and then there are great eras and the benchmark vintages that define them. For me, the vintage that changed everything was 1982.
My early interests in wine focused on California, and one category in particular: Napa Valley Cabernet. It was the gold standard.
The great vintages from the late 1960s and 1970s were benchmarks: 1968, 1970, 1974 and 1978 were among the most distinctive, the kinds of years that inspired passionate debate. They all had one thing in common: ripeness. At the time, a few thought they were a bit overdone; there were also many who preferred, for good reason, the odd-numbered years—1969, 1973, 1975 and 1979—which were cooler vintages marked by softer wines. Either way, these were golden years for Napa Cabernet.
Throughout the 1970s, I was introduced to the other great wines of the world, courtesy of collectors who were happy to show off the gems of their prized cellars. At the time, Bordeaux was considered the greatest wine region in the world. Burgundy lovers were, of course, dissenters, but wines from both regions were considered essential cornerstones in a trophy cellar.
Burgundy was always the more challenging wine. Vintages of that era were spotty, and, as is still the case today, most of the greatest wines are both rare and expensive. Bordeaux, with its volume, was the easier buy, yet aside from the glorious 1966 vintage, most of the years that followed—1970, 1975 or even 1978—didn't excite me, certainly not the way the Napa Cabernets of the era did.
Then along came 1982 in Bordeaux, with the most magnificent outpouring of great wines the world had ever tasted. Odd to think about it today, but it was as if the Bordelais had borrowed a page from the Napa Cabernet script from the 1970s and intentionally picked riper. 1982 Bordeaux was even called a "California vintage."
Odd, too, that at the same point in time, California vintners, hearing complaints from some quarters that their wines were too big, had changed style. "Food wines" were picked at lower sugar levels, with higher acidity and lower alcohol, which reset the stage and set California back a few years.
It's hard to credit one person for Bordeaux's phenomenal turnaround in 1982. But most agree that Emile Peynaud, the famed enologist, inspired the changes that led to a new style of Bordeaux. He preached letting the grapes ripen more fully, rather than be picked for fear of rain. He urged careful selection, both in the vineyard and the cellar; oddly, 1982 produced a bountiful crop in Bordeaux, allowing vintners the opportunity to make even sharper distinctions between their best wines and declassifying, or bottling the lesser lots under second labels.
When the 1982s were poured in the States in 1983, it was a revelation. I have to think that even the winemakers were amazed by what they had achieved. The exchange rate only sweetened the deal. When the 1982s were sold as futures, it was six francs to the U.S. dollar. Château Lafite sold for $41 on release, probably close to $33 as futures; Lynch Bages sold for $13 on release; Le Pin was released at $23 a bottle. Compare that buying power versus today's. Last year, $1 traded against a euro at $1.50.
The 2011 Bordeaux barrel tastings are now getting underway, to be followed by the futures campaign. Could anyone in 1982 have foreseen the record prices reached in last year's en primeur for the 2010 vintage?
1982 was the perfect time for American wine drinkers to invest in Bordeaux in a big way, which is exactly what happened. A lot of the credit for the great 1982 vintage is due to Mr. Peynaud. And the wine world will never be the same.