'Off' vintages offer a variety of results


I recently did some bottom-fishing for wines from less popula vintages. The results were mixed, but the successes outweighed the failures, and each wine had a lesson to teach. Most are wines that moved to retail stores several years ago, so some might not be widely available.

* 1984 Domaine Richaume Cabernet Sauvignon, Cotes de Provence ($11.29). While cold, rainy 1984 was a poor year in most of France, it was not at all bad in sunny Provence. This wine is fully mature, with good spicy fruit. SUCCESS.

* 1988 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($12). The 1988 vintage produced many thin, one-dimensional wines in the Napa Valley. Groth is a fine producer, but this was not one of them. No wonder it's being dumped at a cut-rate price. FAILURE.

* 1988 Hess Collection Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). A stylish, fruity wine that lacks the complexity of a top-notch vintage. At $12 to $14, it would be a decent value. MIXED

* 1987 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett ($9). This underrated German vintage produced some splendid, racy, dry German wines that give a startlingly clear impression of the individual vineyard character. This particular wine was intellectually compelling, but didn't jump off the Pleasure Meter. MIXED

* 1986 Schaller Riesling, Cuvee des Amandieres ($12). This bitter wine taught a lesson: Don't buy an unfamiliar off-vintage wine unless somebody recommends it. FAILURE

* 1986 Trimbach Riesling, Cuvee Frederic Emile ($19). It's less full than a top-notch year, but it has the steely, smoky grace and complexity you expect from this classy Alsace producer. Watch for price markdowns, because many consumers will worry that it's over the hill. It actually needs a few years to peak. SUCCESS

* 1987 Altare Vigna Arborina ($29.95). This Piedmont red is an exceptional wine for any vintage, with layers and layers of fruit, spice, coffee and tar flavors. It's not far behind the magnificent 1985, yet I've been watching the 1987 languish on the shelf for about two years. It's already been marked down from $39 at Calvert Discount Liquors, and owner Geoffrey Connor admitted he'd be glad to part with it for $25. That's about right. SUCCESS

* 1986 Altare Barolo ($25, down from $32). For a 1986, this is awfully good. There's more fruit in relation to the tannin than in most 1986s, but it's far from the concentration of the best 1978s or the friendliness of the best 1985s and 1982s. For a 1986, it's mighty good, but at $25, it's fully valued -- at least. SUCCESS

* 1989 Terra Rosa, Laurel Glen Vineyard, Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, $10.49). All of Laurel Glen's wines, from the top-of-the-line Laurel Glen cabernet, through its Counterpoint second wine, through this incredibly inexpensive Terra Rosa, were exquisite in the difficult 1989 vintage. The mountain vineyard site certainly helps, but give some credit to winemaker Patrick Campbell. SUCCESS

* 1987 Chateau Lafaurie Peyraguey, Sauternes ($28). I guess this is inexpensive since the 1990 is over $50, but it's still pretty expensive. The 1987 vintage yielded virtually no "noble rot," and rain diluted crops throughout Sauternes, but the excellent Lafaurie-Peyraguey came through -- a tribute to the newfangled process of cryoextraction. Not for aging. MIXED

* 1987 Chateau Chasse-Spleen ($18), Gloria ($17) and Tour Haut-Cassan ($12). All are excellent for 1987s, but the Chasse-Spleen stands out far above the others. This exceptional wine from Moulis has all the class of a better vintage, such as 1988, but with softer tannins. Drink them all over next two years. SUCCESS

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