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1983 Debutantes Get Lost in Shuffle : Consumers Seem Diverted to Higher-Priced Vintages

May 29, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Six of the world's most renowned red wines, also known as the debutantes, Bordeaux's elite first growths, made an auspicious 1983 vintage debut at the Hotel Bel-Air. Performing well and reflecting a good harvest, the wines, though deserving, may not command the adulation and prices reserved for the spectacular vintages of 1982 and the too-quick-to-be-acclaimed 1985.

The wines--Chateaux Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Petrus--are caught in the middle of a succession of first-quality vintages (some authorities include the 1981), causing consumers to be diverted to the higher-priced, more attention-getting vintages. It is not unlike the situation in 1963 and 1964, when buyers overlooked the modest-tasting 1962s in favor of the highly touted 1961s. The '62s remained unrespected and unloved for almost a decade, but when they bloomed, they turned out to be super buys representing wines of exquisite charm and delicacy, whereas many '61s even today remain unyielding and not wholly developed.

Still May Be a Steal

Whereas the '62s were inexpensive, the '83s may not be. No matter the cost, they're likely to be less than the now hard-to-find '82s and by comparison to the '84s, they are a steal with greater fruit, roundness and flavor depth. What I like about the '83s is that they will mature quickly to provide a full measure of supple, round taste without the higher alcohols of '82, nor the leanness of '81. It is too early to judge '85.

For a new collector, the forward, generous, soft, appealing taste and texture of '83 claret could be just the thing, provided prices do not escalate during this period of a decreasing dollar in relation to the French franc. With major buyers looking still to 1982, and even to 1985, it is conceivable '83 prices by comparison may appear attractive.

The debut dinner, sponsored by Steve Wallace, a wine shop owner, and Miklos Dora, Baron Philippe de Rothschild's representative, and cooked by Joseph Venezia, hotel chef, and Spago's Wolfgang Puck, also honored Christian Moueix, the young UC Davis-trained wine maker scion of Petrus. He modestly claimed his wine was not showing well as he found it a bit closed but believed it would develop a lovely lean intensity from its high extract, notwithstanding a damaging pre-harvest hailstorm.

The Current Favorite

Currently, Petrus is the darling of the wine cognoscenti, evidenced by soaring prices for the '82 at $5,000 per case. In big harvest years only 5,000 cases are produced.

Unquestionably, Moueix understated the wine's charm, character richness and intensity, as it will be a winner. Interestingly, there was as much interest for his Napa Valley California-French venture "Dominus," a joint venture with heirs of the late John Daniels, former owner of Inglenook Vineyards. The wine will be a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from grapes of old and new vines, the latter from a vineyard Moueix started in 1982. The wine will be released in November at around $30 to $35.

Margaux, after a dull 1970 decade, and now in the determined hands of Paris-based Corinne Petit, may be the class of the '83 vintage. On a roll of fine wines in 1979, 1981 and 1982, the '83, though a bit closed, is showing better than the others with heaps of good characteristics like lovely balance, intensity, delicious softening, mellowing flavors and ever so long on flavor. Marked by a fine cassis aroma, it has re-established its reputation as a wine that shows superbly well early, much like the days of the 1940s and 1950s, but yet with greater structure and intensity. It is a superb bottle.

Mouton, 1983, may not be as long-lasting a wine as its general reputation suggests. There is some cassis in the nose, but with a long deep Pauillac style, assisted by traditional eucalyptus flavor and a trace of wood. Perhaps the most closed of the debutantes, it should develop with customary bigness and richness, while long-term aging ability may be suspect.

Latour, known for big structure, deep concentration and muscular style, did not disappoint. Its big, thick robe did not overpower as in other years, yet it was there, but with a new wrinkle, a change of style in an attempt to capture early softness with the addition of 25% Merlot grapes. Formerly, it was a 90% Cabernet Sauvignon wine, but frankly I have no trouble enjoying it now with the pleasures of its multiple flavors. It should age for a decade or more.

Lafite showed elegance, but without the balance and layers of flavor characteristic of its 1982. Silkiness of texture and some chewiness are most welcome, plus a trace of oak and new-found suppleness of style. Good aging propensity is here, also the product of a change of style from the vintages of the '60s and '70s. Haut-Brion in a forward, charming (for the winery) style, shows good silky texture and depth of flavor in a not-too-robust mode that Moueix suggests may not be as long lasting as the others.

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