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WINE

A Useful Vintage

March 30, 1995|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

When wine lovers coo about Bordeaux from great vintages, many people draw the conclusion that the other vintages aren't drinkable.

This may have been true once, but no longer. Three decades ago you bought the 1961 and 1962 red Bordeaux and avoided the 1963s like the plague. The British, masters of euphemism, termed such vintages as '63 "serviceable," a way of saying, "Well, you can drink them. At least they're wet."

In the truly horrid vintages back then, everyone made clunkers, even the First Growth producers.

Today, however, almost no region of the wine world is as all-or-nothing as it once was, and Bordeaux hasn't had a truly horrid vintage since 1969. Good, sound, drinkable wine is made virtually every year in Bordeaux, even in vintages that once would have been considered dreadful.

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Moreover, in some ways wines from the average-quality vintages are more representative of their region than are wines from the greatest vintages. In great vintages, the best of Bordeaux are rich, powerful and full-bodied, but they usually need bottle aging to smooth out and become enjoyable. Until then, they are brutes that show only glimpses of regional character--the fruit, the herbal/earthy aroma, and the dry and firm texture that work so well with dinner.

But early drinkability is the main blessing of wines like the 1992 Bordeaux. There is no need to wait 15 or 20 years to appreciate them.

After a string of excellent vintages over the last decade, the widely reported failure of three Bordeaux crops in a row (1991-1993) means there probably will be little interest in the 1992s, now coming to market. There was almost no demand for the 1991s. Yet the 1992s shouldn't be scorned on the basis of the "failure" label; tasting them tells the real tale.

I have tried a few of the early arrivals, and I agree with Hugh Johnson, the London-based wine author who writes in his Pocket Encyclopedia for 1995: "We may never love the mean-spirited 1991s, but well-made '92s and '93s are what claret is all about: fresh, fragrant, clean-cut drinking." The '92 Bordeaux may gain depth in four to six more years, but that is not their role in life; they are here to accompany food, which is precisely what good Bordeaux can do.

The recent trend in Bordeaux toward bigger, oakier wines wasn't evident in the 1992s I sampled at a Bordeaux tasting in Los Angeles two weeks ago.

Anthony Barton, owner of Chateau Leoville-Barton, admits that "the 1992 vintage has been passed over by our friends from the press," but he says they are aimed not at long-cellaring as much as at near-term enjoyment. And I like a number of these lighter-styled wines.

The best wines of the L.A. tasting include Chateau Carbonnieux ($20), an elegant and attractive Graves. I also like the Ch. Pave Decesse ($22) and Ch. Leoville-Barton ($22).

A week later, in a San Francisco event, I tried the top-growth wines.

The five First-Growth wines were equally good but not great, although Chateau Latour was expectedly dark, rich and intense, with deep, complex fruit flavors. Chateau Margaux, which has been on a roll the last decade with a string of remarkable wines, likewise showed very well with plummy, cherry tones and loads of fruit in the mouth, though it was more backward than many other wines of the vintage.

The least interesting of the wines at present is the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, which is quite lean and lacking much depth. Haut-Brion is not as earthy and "thick" as many vintages of the last decade, and Mouton was harmonious, earthy and rich with oak and black cherry notes.

At about $50 a bottle, these wines are no bargain. But for First-Growth lovers, they represent a glimpse of what First-Growth Bordeaux is all about at a price roughly two-thirds that of a better vintage.

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All of these wines are more affordable than the Bordeaux of 1990, a great vintage in high demand. However, most of those in the $20 to $30 price range are really wines we'd have seen five years ago at $12 to $16. But with the dollar weak against the French franc (hugging the 4-to-the-franc barrier), all French goods are more expensive.

Perhaps the '92 Bordeaux aren't worth buying in case lots, but they shouldn't automatically be dismissed.

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