Are Latours from lousy vintages the wine bargains of Bordeaux?

My friend Jeff cleaned out his wine cellar not long ago and discovered a few bottles he didn't plan on drinking. So he did what he's always done with wines he doesn't want: he drove them to our house.

But the wines Jeff delivered weren't his usual clearance Châteauneufs or foundling late-harvest Seyvals. This time they were all first-growth Bordeaux--specifically, Château Latours. The catch? Every one of them was from a bad year. Actually, the proffered vintages ranged from merely bad to exceptionally, exponentially bad. In fact, one of the years was so bad that its label had been pasted on upside down.

Don't get me wrong: Jeff doesn't make a habit of collecting off vintages and oddball bottles. His taste--like his cellar--generally runs from great to very great. The only reason he had bothered to buy the '73, '74 and '77 Latours at all, he said, was to complete his collection, on the assumption that he'd stage a vertical tasting one day. "But," he admitted with a nonchalance that only a man with a cellar full of Dalla Valle, La Landonne and La Tâche could carry off, "I just never got around to it."

I spent the next several days reading wine critics' commentaries on the various vintages: "A year to forget." "A dreadful vintage." "The worst in a decade." It was nearly enough to make me wish Jeff had given my husband and me a few bottles of late-harvest Seyval instead. Yet even in the face of the critics' unanimous condemnation, I wondered, could they possibly be wrong? Could I have accidentally acquired a cache of underrated, almost-great wines? For, as every Bordeaux lover knows, Latour is famous for making good wine in bad years.

Furthermore, I theorized, if the wines were indeed good, then could it be that a bad vintage of a great Bordeaux is one of the world's few remaining unknown wine bargains? After all, in most shops a bottle of the great '95 or '96 Latour costs between $250 and $300, while at my local wine shop a bottle of the maligned 1991 vintage was going for a mere $110.

I knew that only one person could answer these questions: Robert M. Parker, Jr., the world's most famous wine critic. So I phoned the great man. Was it possible, I asked, that my three wines might actually be good?

I was encouraged by Parker's response. "Often with lousy vintages, time can only help the wine," he said. "High acidity softens, and unappealing vegetal flavors mellow into more attractive, cedary notes."

But if that was the case, I persisted, why didn't Americans buy more wines from these off years?

"Americans are used to having the best of everything," he replied. "If the year is bad in Bordeaux, we skip the vintage and buy from California or Italy. The 1984 Bordeaux were so hard to sell in this country that the importers finally shipped them back to France. In 1990, you could get a 1984 Château Léoville-Las-Cases for $10 a bottle at a French supermarket--though you might question how much château character the wine really had." This was something else to consider. It wasn't enough for my wines to be technically good; they would have to resemble Latour.

So I decided to stage a tasting. I planned a dinner party at one of my favorite restaurants, Jo Jo, in Manhattan; that way I could at least offer my friends the assurance of a great meal along with the potentially bad wines. In the meantime, for a more contemporary perspective on bad vintages, I returned to my local wine shop and bought that 1991 Latour.

I called Lois Freedman, the maître d' of Jo Jo, to make the arrangements. "You want to bring bad wines to the restaurant?" She sounded dubious. What would Chef say? Lois relaxed a little when I told her that the wines were Latours; even a bad Latour, it seemed, commanded respect. Then I called a few friends, including, of course, Jeff. I have to admit I was surprised at the alacrity with which everyone accepted the invitation--though part of Jeff's readiness, I suspected, came from his wanting to make sure he hadn't inadvertently given us something good.

On the night of the dinner I was surprised to discover Kurt Eckert, the sommelier of Jean Georges, Jo Jo's sibling restaurant, at our table. Lois, it seemed, had tipped him off. Was he too hoping to discover that the critics were wrong? No, it was only that he'd never had the experience of Latour from lean times--just from its glory years.

We began with a glass of white Bordeaux (from the overlooked 1993 vintage, naturellement) before launching into the 1973 Latour. This was a wine Parker had described as having "some charm"--faint praise with the power to damn. But in fact this Latour had some appeal. Maybe it lacked the style and structure of a classic Latour, but it was definitely a wine with a pleasant personality and a surprising vibrancy. The worst thing anyone could say about it was that it was too delicate and too light to possess true Latour character.

This was far from the case with the wines that followed. The appraisals of the 1974 Latour ran from the blunt ("empty," "tired," "lousy") to the geeky ("The only good thing about this wine is its color, and that's probably be-cause it's maderized"). The next vintage, 1977, elicited fresh invective. "I'm only trying to figure out which I hate more, the 1974 or the 1977," one ungrateful taster said, while my husband observed that the wine was a perfect partner to our asparagus side dish. "Asparagus actually improves it," he said. "Which just goes to show: if you're going to drink bad wine, you should drink it with food that kills wine."

Our last hope lay with the 1991 Latour. Because American wine buyers resisted this vintage even more fiercely than they did the subsequent bad Bordeaux years 1992 and 1993, I particularly wanted it to show well. The 1991 vintage had not been truly horrible, but it had suffered the misfortune of following on the heels of the fabulously successful 1990 vintage, much like the plain younger sibling of a teen beauty queen.

But the 1991 Latour was no Cinderella. While it might not have been shipped back to France like the ignominious 1984s, it wouldn't rate even a Miss Congeniality award. Awkward, unbalanced, with little fruit and an overwhelming amount of tannin, it was a wine that, as one taster noted, "you'd only think would get better if you knew it was Latour." And if you didn't know it was Latour? "I'd think it was a mediocre California Cabernet," came the reply. I asked Kurt, who was still miraculously with us, if he would buy it. "Based on what's in the glass, no."

With four failed bottles before me, I wondered what I had been thinking. What unbridled optimism had had me even momentarily convinced I'd find a bargain in Bordeaux--which, bad vintage or otherwise, produces some of the priciest wines in the world? Yet, as any wine lover will attest, hope often wins out over reason, especially when first-growth Bordeaux is concerned.

But just as it seemed there would be no happy ending, no triumphant day-after tale to tell, Jeff produced one--of a sort. Alas, it wasn't the discovery of a great Bordeaux in a bad vintage. It was a 1982 Latour he "just happened to have." A great year. A superlative year. One of the most famous years in Bordeaux. A remarkable wine! A bottle that had no business at our table.

"What's the idea?" I protested, as Kurt poured the wine.

"Oh, I have a lot of it lying around," Jeff replied with that same maddening nonchalance.