Latour ’82 Bested by ‘81?
How is it possible that this 1981 Château Latour was better than the last bottle of 1982 I had? For anyone who knows me, the answer is predictably simple: provenance. Without even jumping into the sticky dilemma that is counterfeit wine (the slippery slope that quickly leads to the vast over-simplification of a much larger problem), after nearly three decades in a bottle, simple storage and exposure to the elements is more than enough. Entrust a stranger in a van with a pristine bottle that has been stored under ideal circumstances for thirty years and see what happens. What mine eyes have seen, behind-the-scenes over decades past, is ample fodder for a Cellar Confidential book franchise.
The ’81 vintage, while elegant and sophisticated today, was entirely overshadowed by her little sister—and Parker’s first darling ‘vintage of the century’—’82, and then once again by her even younger slightly more sinister sister, ’83, the naughtiest of the three. As Matthew Wilson suggested, ’81 is more about Latour; ’82 is about the vintage. And, yes—in the interest of full disclosure—I have had better ‘82s and ‘83s than I have ‘81s. But it so happens that the last bottle of ’82 Latour I had—which was purchased from a venerated auction house, in ‘original wooden case’—was cooked. The proud new owner didn’t know the difference, and I was decidedly conflicted about telling him, but it was my duty. Fear overtook his eyes as they instantly darted back toward his cellar, the door obstructed by overflowing boxes from his latest purchases. Conversely, this recent bottle of ’81 had been stored under ideal cellaring circumstances since its release. Hence, my mantra: provenance.
Parker, along with a willing and conscious consortium of retailers and producers used this very ’82 vintage to simplify wine purchasing decisions and shift the consumers’ attention to individual wine scores and vintage charts—both of which lived conveniently under his dominion. Oh yes, and he sold a bunch of magazines, building one of the most formidable, lasting brands in the history of the wine industry. Well, countless ‘vintages of the century’ later and after innumerable revisions to the ubiquitous vintage chart, the American consumers’ co-dependency is finally dwindling. But, it’s always astounding to me that, even today, intelligent humans who spend millions of dollars on wine are reliant upon one man’s anointment. Grown men—many of them captains of industry, who are fiercely opinionated and confident in most matters—are reluctant to buy certain vintages because Parker said not to.
When one concentrates on consistent producers and wines that have been stored flawlessly with an unbroken chain of custody, vintage becomes a lot less relevant. Of course, certain years are abysmal—many of which should be avoided—but one shouldn’t damn a vintage because he’s trying to sell the next. As an example, I have had the great fortune of tasting consistently from the Mähler-Besse cellar—the most important collection of Bordeaux in the world, which dates back to 1892. I can assure you that you won’t find a better expression of any given vintage on earth; and their ‘off-vintages’ taste better than most ‘blockbusters,’ so you can image what an ‘82 might taste like from their cellar. But the trick, of course, is what happens to the bottle after it leaves the safety of a cellar like this. Three decades in a bottle, under pristine storage conditions, can be ruined in twenty minutes in the trunk of someone’s car.
I had the pleasure of opening this bottle of ’81 Latour with a friend whose collection is vast and very intelligently built—he knows what he likes and buys a lot of it. But, given the vintage, he was convinced that this bottle, from one of the most hallowed houses in all of France, was going to be ‘less than stellar’ in his words. I had the advantage of having tasted another bottle from the very same original wooden case (a sibling, if you will), and I already assumed it to be great. Bottle variation does occur, but I was very confident. Upon opening the bottle, I knew that we were safe and as I poured his glass, releasing the bouquet, his eyes lit-up.
The Château Latour 1981 posed elegant aromas of mature black fruit, wet leaves, dank earth, tobacco and distinct mint, with an underbelly of intense ripe fruit; in time, more herbaceous notes and spiced nuances developed. The palate, while advanced, delivered layers of smoky earth, elegant black fruit, ripe figs, dried figs and a distinct nuttiness. The finish could have been longer and fuller, but this was truly a lovely wine. Not to be paired with big flavored foods and meant to be drunk sooner than later; moreover, had this particular bottle sat on a liquor store shelf, for the last decade or two, it would have been an entirely different experience. Yet another reminder that a great wine is only as good as its history.