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1980s Bordeaux in Review: The Top Wines from the Best Bordeaux Vintages of the '80s
By John McDermott
Dec 13, 2023
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I’ve written previously on my personal love of aged wines and how anyone can explore this wondrous world, even on a modest budget.  That said, trying some of the world’s best and most ageable wines during their peak drinking window is a privilege that doesn’t come around often for most wine lovers, myself included.  Last month, however, I had the privilege to attend a dinner where we tasted through some of Bordeaux’s best offerings, all from the top vintages of the 1980s.  This was quite the treat, to say the least, and provided an excellent lesson in Bordeaux’s aging potential.

Bordeaux is a fascinating wine region.  Divided by the Gironde estuary that splits into the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, Bordeaux wine is frequently referred to as coming from the “left bank” or the “right bank,” denoting whether the wine comes from the villages to Southwest (i.e., left) of the Garonne River or to the Northeast (i.e., right) of the Dordogne River.  The most notable villages of the left bank are Saint Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint Julien, Margaux, Pessac-Leognan, and Sauternes, while the most notable villages of the right bank are Pomerol and Saint-Èmilion.  Bordeaux wines are almost always blends, and painting with a broad brush, one can expect the villages of the left bank to rely more heavily on Cabernet Sauvignon, while the right bank focuses more on Merlot.  And while the vast majority of Bordeaux wine is meant to be drunk early (as is the case in most any wine region), many higher-end offerings coming from the villages listed above can be some of the world’s most sought after and most ageable wines.

At this particular dinner, our tasting lineup included the following wines with their village of origin denoted in parentheses: 1989 Clos Fourtet (Saint-Èmilion), 1989 Leoville Las Cases (Saint Julien), 1989 Haut Brion (Pessac-Leognan), 1989 La Mission Haut Brion (Pessac-Leognan), 1989 Clinet (Pomerol), 1989 Margaux (Margaux), 1989 Tertre Roteboeuf (Saint-Èmilion), 1989 Mouton Rothschild (Pauillac), 1985 Cos d’Estournel (Saint Estèphe), 1983 Palmer (Margaux), 1982 Lafite Rothschild (Pauillac), 1982 Latour (Pauillac).  It was a phenomenal sampling of top wines from Bordeaux’s top villages, including one wine from each of Bordeaux’s famed First Growths and a few “Super Seconds” as well (“First Growths” denotes wines from estates that are classified at the highest level under the Bordeaux’s ranking system that was developed in–and has remained nearly unchanged since–1855, while “Super Seconds” refer to wines that have not been ranked as First Growths, but which are commonly held in the same esteem as First Growths today).  

So, why focus on the ‘80s?  As noted above, the best Bordeaux wines are some of the most ageable out there.  Top wines can age and improve for multiple decades, with some drinking well half a century later or more.  Indeed, many of the wines above are cited as being in their peak drinking windows right now, with some commentators suggesting that they may go much longer.  Moreover, the 1980s saw multiple phenomenal vintages, with 1982 and 1989 frequently cited as among the best, along with 1985 to a lesser extent.  Thus, our endeavor focused on top wines from these vintages, with the notable exception of the 1983 Palmer, which bucked the trend and put out what is commonly regarded as a truly phenomenal wine in 1983, when most wineries saw a slight decline in quality when compared to their 1982 vintage.

After a light Champagne aperitif and hors d'oeuvres, the meal commenced with our first flight of the night.  We started with a Right Bank pairing:  The ‘89 Tertre Rotebeouf and ‘89 Clos Fourtet.  Both were drinking well, but the Clos Fourtet was the standout.  The Tertre Roteboeuf was beautifully and potently perfumed, showing aromas of crushed roses, tree moss, and ripe black cherries.  On the palate however, the wine was slightly more linear, showing bright red cherry flavors, good acidity, and velvety mouthfeel.  I rated it 93 points and would drink it now rather than waiting any longer.  By comparison, the Clos Fourtet was still brooding, dense, and imposing.  Notes of pipe tobacco, leather, and earth combined with a palette of lush red fruits and integrated tannins.  It is drinking phenomenally well now, and it will last at least another decade to come, if not longer.  This was one of the standouts of the night, garnering a 97-point rating, which is especially notable because this bottle is frequently found for less than any other from the lineup.

Following that, we turned to the Left Bank with a flight comprising the ‘89 Leoville Las Cases, the ‘85 Cos d’Estournel, the ‘85 Margaux, and the ‘83 Palmer.  Sadly, the ‘83 Palmer was corked and could not be enjoyed–a shame, as it was the one that I was perhaps most looking forward to trying that night.  Of the remaining wines, the ‘85 Cos d’Estournel and ‘85 Margaux stood out.  The Cos d’Estournel can best be described delicate and elegant.  It led with bright floral notes fading red fruit, and its balance was spot on.  I rated it 96 points and would drink it over the next few years.  Delicate in its own way, the Margaux was also drinking quite well and will last a bit longer than the Cos d’Estournel of the same vintage.  I’ll note that at least a few attendees to the dinner ranked it as their top wine of the night.  It was not quite that for me, but it was a fantastic wine that I rated 95 points.  While still bright and lively, the Leoville Las Cases simply wasn’t a standout among a night of standouts, earning a still laudable 93 points but ultimately being lost within the lineup.

Next up, we had what was perhaps the heavyweight head-to-head matchup of the night:  ‘89 Haut Brion and ‘89 La Mission Haut Brion.  Without a doubt, these were my favorite two wines of the night.  Both showed a striking amount of structure at 34 years old.  Classic notes of graphite, tobacco and leather mixed with a lush, dark cherry note.  In the end, I preferred the La Mission Haut Brion, as it had a bit more primary fruit and structure left, earning 99 points.  The Haut Brion was ever so slightly more delicate and subdued, earning 97 points.  Both wines are drinking fantastically well right now and will continue to do so for multiple decades to come, though the La Mission Haut Brion will likely outlast the Haut Brion.

We ended the dinner with a mixed flight of four:  The ‘82 Latour, ‘82 Lafite, ‘89 Mouton Rothschild, and ‘89 Clinet.  The ‘82 Lafite joined the ‘83 Palmer in sadly succumbing to cork taint.  Of the remaining three, the ‘89 Clinet stood out most.  It was filled with notes of chocolates, coffee, kirsch, and ripe red cherries.  Tasted blind, I would have hardly pegged it as being half its age, given just how alive it was.  This wine will last another 10 years at least, and earned a score of 96 points.  The ‘82 Latour was another striking wine, showing both power and grace.  Still structured even 41 years on, it danced between lifted floral notes and deeper notes of fruit and earth.  While striking, I didn’t rate as high as some other critics, giving it 96 points–though perhaps our bottle simply wasn’t showing as well as some.  Finally, the ‘89 Rothschild garnered a score of 94 points.  It too was drinking quite well, showing classic notes and graceful aging, though it stood out less than its counterparts.  

At the end of the night, there were only outstanding wines (save for the two flawed bottles), though a few stood out among the rest.  The ‘89 La Mission Haut Brion and ‘89 Haut Brion topped the lineup, with two right bank wines, the ‘89 Clos Fourtet and ‘89 Clinet coming in as runners up.  Moreover, the ‘89 Clos Fourtet surely takes home the best value award, as it is frequently found for a fraction of the price of the other three.  That said, if you have the chance to drink any of the wines from the lineup, they are all drinking well right now, and a few will continue to drink well over the next 10 to 20 years.     

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