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Debutantes Bow at Bel-Air Dinner : First-Growth Clarets Presented to Devotees of the Grape

July 02, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Affectionately dubbed as debutantes, 1984 first-growth clarets were presented recently at a dinner at the Bel-Air Hotel by wine merchant Steve Wallace. The dinner honored Alexandre de Lur Saluces, owner of Sauternes' Chateau d'Yquem, and Jean Michel Cazes, proprietor of fifth-growth Chateau Lynch-Bages. The event is an annual one initially established by Chateau Mouton's Baron Philippe de Rothschild.

The 1984 debut was not as auspicious as those of 1981, 1982 and 1983, a series of excellent vintages (some bottles may still be available). Those years gave claret lovers an awesome trio of the best, thus spoiling any overwhelming enthusiastic interest in the 1984, considered an average vintage. When I tasted clarets from some of the lower-classed chateaux earlier, I determined that 1984, best described as useful, is a vintage to enjoy while waiting for a more successful harvest, such as 1985.

The term useful describes a crop not for long-term cellar aging. Many bottles do not contain the intensities of flavor and fruit generally found in years of generous sunshine. The vines also suffered from a growing fault called coulure by French vintners. This is similar to the failure of fertilization of flowers through the loss of pollen. Fortunately, the first growths employing more Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were not as affected, while other chateaux relying more on Merlot and Cabernet Franc made wines of lesser distinction.

Wait for Better Buys

By stint of quality and credential the first growths Lafite, Mouton, Latour, Margaux and Haut Brion are always expensive, in the $40-to-$60 range. "It may be a better idea for consumers," Wallace said, "to wait for a potential 30% drop in prices considering there are still ample '83s and some '82s in the market place at similar tabs. Importers, agents and distributors, because of lack of market response, may have to reduce their prices." If Wallace is correct, then indeed the first growths may become better buys.

The wines are not without redeeming taste characteristics. Haut Brion, which surfaced as a winner with a big spicy, earthy nose and a Graves-like smoky taste, showed considerable breeding and was perhaps the class of the group. Sporting a spicy eucalyptus nose, a bigger structure of substance and flesh, there is considerably more fruit and tannin here to support the decade of aging it seems to require.

Latour exhibited a cedary taste blended with customary intense Cabernet flavor, yet without massive fruit and tannin and minus anticipated complexity. There is a measure of opulence here, however, plus Merlot for softening to make this a most creditable wine within the next several years. Margaux, which has been on a magnificent roll of extremely fine wines like the '79, '81, '82 and '83, suffers from the comparison. A fine spicy, cinnamon-like nose, more supple softness and perhaps the most forward flavor of all, coupled with tannin and wood should allow Margaux to out-age even Latour, generally considered the most robust of all. There is the potential here for considerable complexity.

Lafite suggested an overripe smell in a simple, forward but subdued taste that conceivably will improve after a few years. There seems to be more wood than usual, as well as tannin and indeed that is a problem with all: tannin, but without requisite fruit.

Mouton, with the bigger structure and the greatest substance of the growths, provided flesh, a spicy cinnamon-like nose and the most early flavor. Adequate fruit and tannin will permit at least a decade of aging, and the wine qualifies as a cellar asset.

Best of the lesser-ranked chateaux was Lynch-Bages which, while lacking its usual style and breeding, showed sufficient concentration of full-bodied flavor for pleasant enjoyment in two years, no more than five. Talbot challenged with decent flavor, some finesse, even a bit of complexity and should be consumed within a year or two. Mouton Baronne Philippe presented a fine aromatic nose but a still-closed, ponderous taste that may develop decently in a couple of years. Les Orme de Pez, a sister chateau of Lynch-Bages, is thin of body and flavor but shows some graceful suppleness as a wine to drink even earlier than the others if under $10.

A Delicate Blend

The dinner was not without excitement, appropriately beginning with Piper-Heidsieck's Rare 1979 Champagne. Not as fat as the heralded 1976, the wine is a delicately austere blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir and qualifies eminently as a superb top-of-the-line cuvee. Following closely was de Lur Saluces' tiny, splendid Sauternes, Chateau de Fargues, which perennially stands in the shadow of his fabled d'Yquem. The 1981 is showing a big, attractive botrytis nose, and while a bit thin, has an appealing semi-syrupy style that will do well for the next several years.

Generally, a wine that needs more age than claret, De Lur Saluces does not debut d'Yquem. This 1976 made an eloquent statement of sheer luscious depth and full rich, long-lasting, nuanced, magnificent flavors.

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