A 1981 horizontal, where neither of the two outstanding wines are red Bordeaux
The shadows of greatness can be a very cold, damp place, and for good reason. 1982’s big splash must have left its older sibling sitting on retail shelves over the past few decades, complete w/ cobwebs piling atop their worn, tired labels. Often overlooked and somewhat maligned, I wondered if 1981 had anything going for it besides the fact that it wasn’t 1980. Is there anything special that’s locked up in those lonely old bottles, or have they already gone quietly into that goodnight? Well, any investigation involving wine is a worthwhile one, and oddly enough, two terrific vinous experiences (complete w/ 1981 birthdates) emerged from this study. Unfortunately, for Bordeaux’s sake, they were not claret.
Now don’t get me wrong, the wines involved in this horizontal were not awful, but the term ‘claret drinker’s vintage’ strikes me as overly apologetic w/ regards to 1981. If claret means hollow, short and attenuated, perhaps the phrase would be apropos….but I suppose semantic discrepancies abound in our beloved hobby. It’s not like the estates were run of the mill either, as the line-up included Vieux Chateau Certan, La Conseillante, Haut Bailly, Pichon Lalande, La Mission Haut Brion & Leoville Las Cases. Out of the group, I found La Mission to be the most affable, albeit in a foursquare fashion. The Lalande was a bit weedy, yet still packed a punch, and while there was a sense of delicacy to the Leoville & La Conseillante, I imagine their flavors faded quicker than ‘81 vintage hype after the ‘82s arrived on the scene. Pleasant without profundity was perhaps the conceit of the vintage, at least from this small sample size. While it is tempting to purchase the more regal Chateau from off years at lower prices, this group of ‘81s did little to validate that logic. I didn’t score any wine higher than 88 points (most were in the low to mid 80’s).
Wait a minute…didn’t I have a bit more rosy theme for this vintage? See I got all caught up in Red Bordeaux that I completely forgot some of the Graves estates make white wine too! Well, our horizontal tasting saved the best for….first. A blind white wine of unknown origin (and pristine provenance I might add) was graciously donated by Ben Goldberg to kick things off. Well folks, it was just about all downhill after this one. The white was shimmering (in what I thought was its youth), with fascinating detail to its nose of pine, powdered stone, candle wax and marzipan scents. The attack was surprisingly sweet, w/ a honeyed, quince-like flavor buttressed by a round, almost grassy palate that flowed brilliantly to the finish. The complexities of the ’81 Laville Haut Brion Blanc were as intricate and precise as they come, and she was a simply outstanding bottle (91 points, in most anyone’s book).
The ‘other red,’ which we were told was an ’81 as well, couldn’t have been further from the Left Bank of Bordeaux if it tried (at least from a qualitative standpoint). The poise and depth were immediately evident, as the bouquet of rosemary, damp underbrush, cedar, sweet cherry and hints of high quality balsamic left a big impression on all of our olfactory senses. The sense of vivacity and intensity in the wine’s mouth-feel was tremendous for an ’81, w/ a sappy, almost succulent texture filling out the body from cheek to cheek. As it aired, it seemed to go from strength to strength, picking up steam on the juicy, persistent finish. This was easily the liveliest ’81 I’ve tasted to date, and to my palate, only Beaucastel came close in quality to this performance by Vega Sicila’s Unico (94 points).
What a coup! How does a Spanish stalwart come out on top in a horizontal of ’81 Bordeaux? Always beware of the ringers I say, but this got me to thinking, did the sun only shine in Spain in 1981? Was Laville lucky in that they picked before harvest rains? Are there any Chateaus that truly stood out in this vintage? I’d heard a rumor that Penfold’s Grange was a contender in 1981, but I personally haven’t had the pleasure of making its acquaintance….are there any wines out there from a forgotten vintage that come to mind as truly being exemplary?
As a prologue, I felt privileged to have tasted the Unico….I mean a lot of geeks know the great vintages, but how cool is ’81 pillow talk?!