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Some Compare With the '61s : The 1985 Clarets: It Was a Very Good Year, but Select Them Discriminately

January 15, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Pierre Tari, proprietor of Chateau Giscours and chief of Bordeaux's Union des Grands Crus, hosted a barrel sampling preview of 1985 claret recently at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Currently touted as a vintage capable of challenging the acclaimed fine vintage of 1982, the 1985 is also compared to two of Bordeaux's greatest, 1961 and 1945.

The real question is whether the claims are commercial hype or early, well-founded prognostication. It is not likely that the '85 is as good as either the '61 or '45; it was not as intense nor as concentrated a crop as the other two. Yet, from the taste, it is obviously a super vintage because of high dry extract, ample tannin and deep color. Several claret authorities describe the vintage as perfect.

By no means did 1985 start out as a perfect vintage. Marked by severe January frost, the growers were talking about conditions as severe as 1956, when many did not make any wine. The summer brought perfect conditions, especially during harvest when dryness and heat prevailed, permitting grapes to be picked in optimum condition. Except for the vintages of 1961 and 1964, there has not been a warmer September.

In general, the wines will not be as fat and fruity as '82, but it is conceivable that some wines may resemble the intensity of '61 and should age beautifully because of appropriate tannin. Other '85s may suffer, however, from crop oversize, with some chateaux not achieving intensity and concentration levels that will be the hallmark of the best of the vintage. Merlots ripened beautifully, but some Cabernets did not achieve the high sugar levels of either '82 or '83.

One of the great pleasures of the '82 vintage (still to be found today) is the number of petits chateaux available, many less than $5, that reflect a lot of fruit, flavor and early charm, characteristics not likely to be found in the '85s. The basic difference is that '85s of major chateaux will show wines of greater power, structure and elegance, whereas fatness, fruit and early charm will not be there. For many it will be a question of style, but if tasting reveals high flavor concentration and intensity (on a level of the '61s), then buy posthaste, since those claret assets are always hard to come by.

Price is a problem, especially with a fine, well-promoted vintage. Depending upon the status of the dollar, expect to pay from $20 to $30 for lesser growths and $50 or more for firsts. Buying futures conceivably could save considerable money and reduce some bottles to less than $20, but of course, there is the problem of tasting and being very selective--so that a dollar spent will reward with commensurate quality.

There were many successes among those I tasted. Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe, showed lovely early-on aromas, a cherry-like soft and velvety taste, with ample access and appeal. With a lot of fruit and charm, this wine is a winner, as is Leoville-Barton, which showed a mellowing softness, although with substance and structure underneath. There is lushness with power and as much fruit and flavor as the hailed '82 version. A must buy.

Good Cellaring Potential

Chateau Giscours for the past two decades has done well with off vintages as well as fine ones. No deviation here. There are nicely developing flavors with plenty of tannin and a bit of heat, plus a larger structure than is generally found in a Margaux wine. It is impressive for cellaring.

Langoa-Barton, Saint-Julien, reflected power and intensity and a bit of wood in a bigger style than usual and with enough tannin to provide the proper platform for class aging. Another candidate for aging is Chateau Pontet-Canet, with a subdued nose but long-on-the-palate richness, good balance and a core of tannin perfect for future development.

As a group, Saint-Juliens fared extremely well. Branaire-Ducru exhibited soft richness, in-depth fruit and sported an elegant Cabernet-like nose. This wine, along with Leoville-Barton, may indicate the region's quality and '85 success, which would be a target taste when searching for the best of the harvest. Consider, too, that although the district does not include any first growths, there are many traditionally fine wines such as Leoville-Poyferre, Leoville-Las-Cases, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Gruaud Larose, Beychevelle and Talbot.

Two other Margaux bottles did well, too, but without the powerful structure of the others. Chateau Kirwan showed little nose, more wood than expected and a hardness, yet with ample fruit and tannin suggesting considerable aging time. It is a superior Kirwan to previous years. Chateau Siran showed a more open nose, suggesting violets and a soft cherry-like taste with good fruit, yet a bit of hardness from tannin to assist in aging. Both are worthy of collecting.

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