Ultimate Vintage Guide
An overview of 20 years of wines worth buying.
In the 20 years since FOOD & WINE was founded, the world of wine has undergone a revolution in technology, quality and price. In fact, 1978 heralded a golden age for wine, most notably in Bordeaux, as the following year-by-year review makes clear.
1978 A VERY GOOD YEAR IN ALMOST EVERY MAJOR wine-growing area of the world, from the Nebbiolo-laden slopes of Piedmont (specifically Bruno Giacosa's Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva) to the Cabernet vineyards of the Napa Valley (Diamond Creek's Lake and Volcanic Hill). But 1978 was especially remarkable in the Rhône, where Paul Jaboulet Aîné's Hermitage La Chapelle, Jean-Louis Chave's Hermitage and Guigal's single-vineyard Côte Rôties (La Mouline and La Landonne), to name but a few, were breathtaking. Meanwhile, in Bordeaux the new owners of Château Margaux, André and Laura Mentzelopoulos, restored the long-sagging reputation of this most feminine château to its former glory nearly overnight. Tastings in recent years reveal that some of the other 1978 first growths have not quite lived up to expectations. Burgundy is a different case: the wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Henri Jayer and Domaine Dujac remain truly impressive.
1979 A GOOD BUT DEFINITELY NOT A GREAT VINTAGE in Bordeaux, although Margaux was again superb, as were a few Pomerols. There was not much of real note elsewhere apart from some Châteauneuf-du-Papes (Château Rayas, for one). This was, however, the first vintage for Opus One, the pioneering joint venture of Robert Mondavi and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild.
1980 THE VINTAGE WAS FAIRLY MEDIOCRE AND SOMETIMES worse, but several Sau-ternes (Château d'Yquem, bien sûr), a few red Burgundies (especially Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) and some big-name California Cabernets (B. V. Private Reserve, among them) stand out.
1981 BETTER THAN THE PRECEDING YEAR IN MOST PLACES except some areas of Burgundy. Margaux and Château Lafite Rothschild upheld the honor of the Bordelais, but this is not a vintage on which to squander your dollars today.
1982 A STAR IS BORN.ROBERT M. PARKER, JR., DECLARED this a "monumental'' year for Bordeaux, one that would rank with "such legendary vintages as 1929, 1945, 1947, 1959 and 1961 ... [as] one of the very great years of this century.'' Wine prices--and Parker's influence--took off, and neither has shown signs of returning to earth anytime soon. I remember paying the then-unheard-of price of $59 for a 1982 Mouton Rothschild not long after its release, based largely on Parker's perfect 100 rating. Currently the wine routinely sells for $300 to $400 at auction, and the cost of Château Pétrus makes that price look like a bargain; you (well, maybe not you, certainly not I) will spend $800 or more for a bottle of that particular elixir. In the meantime, all the hoopla surrounding the 1982 Bordeaux largely obscured the fact that first-rate wine was made in several other regions, including Champagne, Spain and Piedmont (among the best: Angelo Gaja's Barbaresco Sorì Tildìn and Giacomo Conterno's Barolo Monfortino).
1983 THIS YEAR, OVERSHADOWED BY THE BLOCKBUSTER 1982 vintage, saw the production of some very good wine in Bordeaux, led again by the revitalized Margaux, now run by Corinne Mentze-lopoulos, the daughter of André and Laura. Château Palmer, another wine from the Margaux commune, was (and remains) an intense and wonderful drinking experience. Rot wrecked much of the red Burgundy vintage, but Alsace (the wines of Trimbach and Hugel especially), Sauternes, Barsac and the Rhône did quite well. There were also excellent Pinot Noirs in Oregon, Riojas in Spain and Rieslings in Germany. Graham, Taylor and Fonseca all released vintage ports that show every sign of lasting well into the next century. This was the first vintage of Dominus, the daring California Cabernet venture of Christian Moueix, who runs Pétrus.
1984 A MOSTLY FORGETTABLE VINTAGE except in California's Cabernet country, where an early harvest and a large crop produced a wealth of exceptional wines from Beringer, Caymus, Chateau Montelena, Diamond Creek, Dunn, Groth and Heitz, among many others.
1985 LIKE 1978, A VERY GOOD AND SOMETIMES GREAT VINTAGE almost everywhere. A first-rate year for Champagne. Another declared vintage for port. Marchesi Incisa's Sassicaia and Piero Antinori's Solaia led an impressive array of new-wave Tuscan wines. Luciano Sandrone and Elio Altare were equally revolutionary in Piedmont, where this vintage marked the beginning of earlier-maturing Barolos. Fine 1985s also came from Bordeaux, Burgundy (red and white), the Rhône, Alsace and Oregon, and the year was one of the best ever for California Cabernets, among them Caymus, Dunn, Heitz, Stag's Leap and the Groth Reserve, which was the first American wine to receive a 100-point Parker score. It sold for $30 on release and now fetches $300 or more at auction.
1986 ANOTHER BANNER YEAR FOR CABERNET SAUVIGNON in both California and Bordeaux, where the vintage produced especially long-lived wines, among them Mouton Rothschild, Margaux and Pétrus. The reds of Australia, the dry whites of Burgundy and California, the sweet whites of Bordeaux and the dry and sweet whites of the Loire also flourished.
1987 THE FOURTH EXCELLENT VINTAGE IN A ROW for California Cabernets (the Mondavi Reserve and Opus One were among the best) and a good one for the state's Pinots and Zinfandels as well. There was not much of note elsewhere.
1988 THIS WAS A SPECTACULAR YEAR FOR SAUTERNES: Yquem, Climens and Lafaurie-Peyraguey, to name only three. There were very good wines in the Rhône, Tuscany and Piedmont and good but not great wines in Bordeaux, Burgundy (the reds are taking a while to come around) and the Loire. The superb 1988 Pinot Noir from the Rochioli Vineyard of Williams Selyem is probably at its peak as you read this.
1989 ANOTHER GREAT YEAR FOR WINE WORLDWIDE, most notably in Pomerol, Pauillac and Piedmont, as well as Alsace, Sauternes, Champagne, the Loire, the Rhône, the Rhine and the Mosel. There were exceptional white Burgundies and good Riojas too. Haut-Brion is widely thought to have been the wine of the vintage. If you bought it as a future, it probably cost $60 to $65 a bottle. (I paid $64, the most I'd ever spent for a wine, but, hey, my son was born that year.) If you bought it at auction now, you would probably pay in the neighborhood of $350 to $450.
1990 EVEN BETTER THAN 1989 IN CALIFORNIA AND TUSCANY and especially in Burgundy, which produced one of its greatest vintages of modern times. (The wines of Leroy and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are awesome--and awesomely expensive--but those of Dujac, Domaine Anne & François Gros, Louis Jadot and others are also worth seeking out at auction.) The 1990 wines were also generally better than the 1989s both in Bordeaux (Margaux, Montrose, Latour, Lafite, Lafleur, Pétrus and Vieux Château Certan) and in Piedmont (the Barbarescos of Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa and the Barolos of Luciano Sandrone, Elio Altare, Clerico, Giacomo Conterno and Aldo Conterno). This was another excellent Champagne vintage; people are buying 1990 Champagnes to drink come the millennium. And it was the first vintage of Marcassin Chardonnay, made by consultant extraordinaire Helen Turley, whose wines sell only to a select few on her mailing list for $40 to $45 a bottle, though they routinely top $150 at auction.
1991 CALIFORNIA PRODUCED GOOD WINES OF ALMOST EVERY VARIETY, as did Australia. However, with the excep-tion of vintage ports, some northern Rhônes and Beaujolais, and a few red Burgundies, the vintage was largely lackluster in Europe.
1992 VERY GOOD WHITE BURGUNDIES AND VINTAGE PORTS and good wines from many Napa and Sonoma Valley growers, but apart from that the same story as 1991. The year was marginally better in some wine-growing regions--and marginally worse in others.
1993 ANOTHER PRETTY DECENT YEAR IN CALIFORNIA and better than the two preceding years in Bordeaux, Tuscany and Piedmont, but still far from memorable. It was much better than 1991 and 1992 for red Burgundies, and you might still be able to pick up a few by such growers as Dominique Laurent and Jean-Jacques Confuron.
1994 BORDEAUX IMPROVED AGAIN BUT NOT ENOUGh to induce paroxysms of ecstasy--or expenditure--given the string of better vintages between 1982 and 1990. Alsace, Germany and Spain did well, and most top port houses declared a vintage. The year was especially good in the New World: California, Oregon and Australia in particular. Marcassin, Peter Michael, Kistler and Beringer made notable Chardonnays, and equally fine Cabernets came from Colgin-Schrader, Dominus, Harlan Estate and Bryant Family Vineyard.
1995 THE BEGINNING OF A "THREE-PEAT'' similar to the 1988-1989-1990 run and in many areas maybe even an im-provement on it. Excellent wines were made almost everywhere from the Rhône to Rioja. Bordeaux had its best vintage since 1990: Pétrus, Latour, Mouton Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Léoville-Las-Cases, Clinet--the usual suspects. So did Burgundy, where Jean-Marie Ponsot, Georges Roumier, Jean Grivot, Dominique Laurent, Leroy and Domaine de la Ro-manée-Conti made superior red wines and where Michel Colin-Déleger, Comtes Lafon and Verget turned out fine whites. In Alsace, the wines of Zind-Humbrecht were remarkable. In Australia, Penfolds, Henschke and Clarendon Hills set new standards for Syrah. Araujo, Bryant Family Vineyard and Dunn produced California Cabernets worth looking for. Oregon was one of the few major wine-growing areas in the world that did not make consistently excellent wines this year.
1996 ARGUABLY EVEN BETTER THAN 1995 in Piedmont and Burgundy (both red and white) and a great year for Chablis: look for bottles from Verget, Domaine Michel Laroche and Jean-Paul Droin. Excellent Loire whites came from Domaine des Baumard and Château Soucherie. The year was not generally considered as good as 1995 in Bordeaux, although Margaux, Latour and Pichon-Lalande did very well. Many excellent wines came from Spain. This was an inconsistent vintage in California, with some well-made Cabernets and Chardonnays, some less than dazzling Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels, and one wine with a more than dazzling price: the 1996 Diamond Creek Lake Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which will cost $300 on its release, making it the most expensive new bottling ever produced in the United States.
1997 IT'S A LITTLE TOO SOON TO PREDICT with any degree of certainty, but early word is that growers in Piedmont think that this may be the best vintage of their lifetime. Enthusiasm is also high in California and Burgundy. Bordeaux wines will probably dip in quality, if not necessarily in price, from their 1995-1996 peak.
1998 AT THIS WRITING,THE CRUCIAL MID- AND LATE-SUMMER WEATHER still lies ahead, and the grapes have not been harvested, so your guess is as good as mine--maybe better.
DAVID SHAW, the Pulitzer prize-winning media critic for The Los Angeles Times, writes frequently about food and wine.