Note: Back when I reviewed them, I set aside a few wines to taste when they are more mature. In this occasional series I report on wines from the cellar that I probably should have tried earlier, but thought them worth a shot anyway.
In the mid 1980s, we Wine Spectator editors reviewed all the wines we published at our offices in San Francisco. The wine world was smaller then, and those tastings would include classified growths from Bordeaux.
In going through my cellar recently I found two bottles of Château Pichon-Comtesse de Lalande 1984. That was a forgettable year for Bordeaux, but insiders know that the crew at Pichon-Lalande made a surprisingly good wine in that vintage despite the poor quality around them. The Merlot crop was a bust across Bordeaux, so the wines were primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, and only those who held out to pick late made anything decent.
In early 1987, when those wines were released, we were in a transition period at the magazine. James Suckling had moved to France to cover Europe for us, but we were still tasting some of the wines in San Francisco. I honestly can’t recall if those two bottles were leftovers from a tasting or if I bought them on a lark because they were relative bargains. I do know I meant to drink them within the decade.
As the years went by and they remained unopened, I expected to include them in one of my corkscrew massacres, where I invite a few easy-going friends for dinner and keep opening questionable bottles until we find one we like. Inevitably, in those circumstances, we made discoveries.
On this occasion, however, it was just me and my wife. We were about to kick back and watch a DVD from Netflix. “How about finding us a bottle of wine?” she suggested. I thought about the ’84 Pichon. I decided to open and decant it. If it was drinkable, fine. If not, there were plenty more to open. A sort of mini-massacre.
I held the bottle up to the light. It looked clear, and had a ruby cast to it. That’s good news because it meant the wine had not oxidized. I opened it and smelled fruit, another promising sign. I decanted it carefully and lost only a couple of tablespoons at the bottom to the inevitable haze of sediment. In the decanter, it looked like a classic old Bordeaux, brick red with only a tinge of brown around the edge.
The first taste was a bit rough in texture, but the fruit was there, and the wine showed no sign of oxidation. We drank the whole bottle over the course of the one-hour 45-minute movie. That’s not something we do very often, so it’s a testament to how nice the wine was. I checked the label for an alcohol statement. The importer’s label said 12.5 percent, which for that rainy vintage may well have been pretty close.
The surprising thing about this wine was how balanced and complete it was. It was soft in texture, once the tannin got exposed to air, with a plum and chocolate character, dusky spices lurking in the background. It tasted wonderful, but the finish faded pretty quick. The wine stayed fresh and appealing through the movie, but each sip ended on an evanescent note.
It didn’t taste older than five or six years. If I didn’t know what it was, I would have guessed it was a good mid-priced Cabernet that perhaps had seen some age before bottling to make it more acceptable commercially. Given that, I doubt if I would have guessed Bordeaux. Maybe Italian? Californian?
That says something about what was happening at Pichon in those days. The owner, May de Lencquesaing, was investing heavily in equipment and improving the vineyard practices, and you could taste it in the wines. This 1984 came on the heels of a fabulous 1982 and an outstanding 1983. A second growth, Pichon-Lalande was challenging the elite of Bordeaux in great vintages, but the payoff for all that investment often comes in lesser vintages, allowing you to make good wine when others can't.
In a 1997 Pichon-Lalande vertical, Suckling rated the wine 88 points, noting “impressive quality for such a dreadful vintage.” He liked the dried plum and dark chocolate aromas and flavors, the full body and fine tannins, but especially the concentration of fruit. That’s probably why the wine tasted so fresh and young. It had its fruit in balance with the other elements.
The other moral to this story is that even when you expect a wine to be dried up and gone, the good ones can surprise you. Even in a bad vintage, good producers can make wines that go the distance. Would this wine have been better 10 or 15 years ago? No doubt it would have been more vibrant. But for sipping in front of a movie, it served the purpose nicely.
Paul M Hummel — Chicago, — December 19, 2008 3:10pm ET
Jim Gallagher — Jim Gallagher — December 19, 2008 3:44pm ET
Jordan Horoschak — Houston, TX — December 20, 2008 10:55pm ET
Fred Brown — December 21, 2008 4:29pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 22, 2008 1:40pm ET
John Jorgenson — Seattle, — December 24, 2008 6:55pm ET
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