For a bad year, 1981 Bordeaux are pretty good


Wine trivia question: What vintage preceded 1982 in Bordeaux?

Reply: Hmmmm, could you give me a hint?

When the roll of great Bordeaux vintages is called, 1981 won't be on it.

Soon after the harvest there was a brief flurry of hype touting its red wine as the equal of such vintages as 1970 or even the revered 1961. That died down fast, however, and when the spectacular 1982s roared onto the scene, 1981 faded from sight faster than the last Mary Tyler Moore sitcom.

By the end of the decade, the 1981s had been pushed further back into obscurity by a quartet of fine Bordeaux vintages in 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1989. Last year, Wine Advocate publisher Robert M. Parker Jr. ranked the vintages of the 1980s commune by commune, and 1981 hovered between seventh and eighth place. Some top national retailers basically waved at the whole vintage -- dropping it from their catalogs as if it were a stinker on the scale of 1984.

But as Mr. Parker said when he first reviewed the 1981s back in 1982, it was a basically a good vintage overall. It might have been great, Mr. Parker wrote in his book "Bordeaux," but for early October rains that diluted the character of a very promising crop.

Ten years later, those rains don't appear to have been too disastrous. Judging by a recent tasting of 15 top 1981 Bordeaux -- hosted by Barry Fleischmann, an Owings Mills wine enthusiast and co-owner of the Innovative Gourmet catering firm -- it may have been the least of the decade's good vintages, but it's a long way from mediocre.

Of course there were disappointments. A few of the most exalted chateaux produced wines far below their usual standards. One First Growth was barely drinkable. And there are easily a dozen 1982s that far surpass even the best of the 1981s.

Still the best of 1981 are very good indeed -- classically structured Bordeaux reds designed to unfold subtly rather than overwhelm. At 10 years, the top wines are approachable, but few appear to be on the brink of expiring. Most of the lesser wines, of course, are fully ready to drink.

For me, as well as for the group, the star of the show was Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, a wine I had dismissed as a lightweight when I first tasted the vintage seven years ago.

Well, live and learn. Lafite did what it does so well and added flesh and suppleness with the years, revealing dimensions that were hidden in youth. Ripe black-currant fruit combines with nuances of cedar and pipe tobacco in a most smooth, stylish way, and the finish goes on and on. It doesn't happen every vintage, but there are some years in which Lafite justifies its status as the world's most famous red wine -- and 1981 is one of them. This classic Pauillac should continue to improve for another decade or more.

The downside of the vintage could be seen in the performance of 1981 Mouton-Rothschild. This usually stellar Pauillac was fiercely tannic, with little flavor besides that of seaweed.

A bad bottle? Maybe, but other tasters said Mouton's sorry performance was consistent with other recent tastings of this wine. Will the fruit ever emerge? Possibly, but it seems to be a long shot, and while a "dumb stage" can be forgiven in a top growth, such unpleasant flavors at the age of 10 cannot.

In general, 1981 seemed to be a less than impressive year for the Medoc "super Second Growths" -- wines that were classified in the second rank in 1855 but mounted a strong challenge to the First Growths during the 1980s. Cos d'Estournel (St. Estephe) was a skinny wine, dominated by astringent tannin; the meager fruit seemed to be boxed in with cardboard. Leoville Las-Cases (St. Julien), a star for most of the 1980s, seemed to be drying out.

Ducru-Beaucaillou and Gruaud-Larose both performed quite adequately for Second Growths, but there was nothing "super" about these two St. Juliens' 1981s. Gruaud was very charming, in a ripe chunky way that invites current consumption; Ducru was more elegant and structured, with several years of improvement ahead. Neither, however, had that extra measure of intensity these wines show in their best vintages.

The only Medoc "super-Second" to truly shine was Pichon-Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande (Pauillac). Its success in 1981 should hardly come as a surprise, though, since Pichon-Lalande was simply the most consistently brilliant red wine in all of Bordeaux through the entire decade. The 1981, virtually bursting with ripe fruit, combines brawn and elegance in a way that only the best wines do. (Tasting it blind, I thought it was Chateau Latour.) You can drink it now, but its tannic backbone will keep it going for decades.

Meanwhile, Latour was playing a game of role reversal. Once celebrated for its density and stubbornly slow evolution, Latour during the past decade has become almost cuddly. The 1981 is plummy, soft, mature and charming -- words that you would never have applied to a 10-year-old Latour from a good vintage in the old days. Don't get me wrong; it's a wonderful wine, but when you find a Latour acting like this it's a bit like catching Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing the Comtesse's dress.

Whatever identity crisis Latour may have been going through, Chateau Margaux was entirely in character. The 1981 is a textbook Margaux, with that classic black cherry and cedar flavor and a satiny skin over rippling muscles. It's a wine of extraordinary depth and complexity, just starting to reach a plateau that should continue for decades.

The commune of Pomerol was clearly one of the success stories of 1981, even though its flagship, Chateau Petrus, put in a disappointing performance in this tasting. Two of its challengers, Certan de May and La Conseillante, made brilliant wines, while perennial No. 2 Chateau Trotanoy did a typically excellent job.

For me, the Certan de May was the surprise of the tasting, offering explosively rich, beefy flavors and years of potential improvement. But if Certan de May is a blockbuster, La Conseillante is an aristocrat. The tannins have largely fallen away, leaving behind elegant, complex fruit flavors in full maturity. For drinking right now, this may be the best 1981 of all.

For the most expensive and coveted wine in Bordeaux, Petrus' )) showing was a letdown. The flavors of the 1981 were basically correct, but for a Petrus the wine seemed slim and dilute, and the finish faded all too quickly. Perhaps it's in a "dumb stage," but the flavors seemed to me to have peaked. (The group disagreed, naming it the No. 5 wine, but only after having seen the label.)

Two other wines, Chateau La Mission Haut Brion (Graves) and Chateau Cheval Blanc (St. Emilion) turned in typically fine performances but really didn't stand out in this crowd. The Cheval Blanc can be enjoyed now; the La Mission needs another five to 10 years.

For the record, my top wines were Lafite, Certan de May, Margaux, Pichon-Lalande and La Conseillante. The group picked Lafite, Pichon-Lalande, La Conseillante, Margaux and Petrus.

Overall, the 1981 vintage was a bit of a mixed bag. At less rarefied levels, the wines were even more inconsistent. Still, if a vintage like 1981 can rank as low as seventh in a decade, that says a lot about the spectacular success enjoyed by Bordeaux in the 1980s.

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