Joy of collecting wine is surpassed by the joy of opening a bottle at its peak


October 13, 1991|By Michael Dresser

Collecting is insidious.

Whether the object of lust is bottle caps or baseball cards, the sheer joy of amassing treasured stuff can become an obsession. Frenzied collectors have been known to neglect their families, plunder their businesses and even fail to walk the dog as they pursue their goals of accumulation.

Sad to say, wine enthusiasts are among the worst offenders. There is an entire subspecies of homo oeno- philius known as "bottle-fondlers" who can spend hours in their cellars cooing over ancient treasures while upstairs the spouse is packing up the furniture and running off to Vancouver with the family accountant.

Worst of all, some of these collectors seldom actually drink a bottle of wine. More adept with a credit card than a corkscrew, they let magnificent examples of the winemaker's art slide into decrepitude.

Such a waste. Wine is meant to be drunk, not worshiped. Because even the sturdiest wine has a limited life span, it is singularly unfit for obsessive collecting.

When a vintage's time has come, the true wine lover will set to it with a will -- sharing it at every reasonable opportunity and not waiting for "worthy" company. (Give it up, folks. Prince Charles and Princess Di are not coming for dinner.)

These are some vintages that are ready to drink:

*Bordeaux -- The vintage that inspired this choice of topics was 1983 red Bordeaux.

It wasn't a great vintage, and the magnificent 1982s still overshadow it, but the top wines of 1983 are really coming into their own. The vintage was also the last good one before the price explosion of the mid-1980s. (I refer here to the top level of Bordeaux wines, not "petit chateaux" that should be drunk within a year or two of release.)

At the time of the vintage's release, some commentators promoted 1983 as a classic, long-lived alternative to the supposedly overblown 1982s. They were wrong. With time the 1982s have lost their baby fat and revealed exceptional structure for long aging. Most 1983s, low in acid and tannin, have matured relatively quickly.

There's nothing wrong with that. To drink 1983 Chateau Pichon-Lalande, Gruaud-Larose or Cos d'Estournel now is to enjoy excellent Bordeaux that is just coming into a glorious prime. There's no rush, as the wines will stay on the plateau for another decade, but neither is there reason to wait. These are perfect wines to savor through the early 1990s while waiting for the best 1982s to come around in the mid- to late 1990s.

There are some exceptions to the drink-it-now rule. A few chateaux, particularly in the commune of Margaux, made better 1983s than 1982s. The 1983 Chateau Palmer, a classic wine that could still use another three to five years' aging, is an excellent example.

Other good vintages to drink up now include the light but charming 1987s and the more weighty 1979s. The 1978 vintage is already fading and should be dispatched quickly.

*California Cabernet Sauvignon: With a few mountain-grown exceptions, the plump 1984 vintage is showing very well right now.

The tough, tannic 1983s still need time, but any earlier vintage is ready to drink. Most of the better Napa Valley cabernets from the 1974-1979 period are at or near their peak.

*Red Rhones: The top 1986s, 1988s and 1989s of Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Cornas, Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape will require some patience, but most earlier vintages are quite drinkable.

The best vintages of the preceding decade were 1985, 1983, 1979 and 1978 for all regions; 1981 for Chateauneuf-du-Pape; and 1982 for selected Hermitages and Cote Roties. Virtually all of these wines are ready to drink, with the notable exception of the broodingly tannic 1983 Paul Jaboulet "La Chapelle" Hermitage.

The 1978s from Chateauneuf-du-Pape are a delight to drink right now, especially the monumental Chateau Beaucastel and transcendent Chateau Rayas.

*Piedmont: At long last, the tough-as-nails 1978 Barolos and Barbarescos are starting to open up. If the 1978 Bruno Giacosa "Pugnane di Castiglione Falletto" Barolo is any indication, this ballyhooed vintage may finally be on the verge of living up to its reputation. In five to 10 years it will be sublime.

Two other fine vintages for drinking now are 1979 and 1982. If you have any of the classic 1971s, the best are at their best.

*Tuscany: The glorious 1985 vintage is showing beautifully now and will continue to give pleasure for a decade.

*Burgundy: For the best "grand cru" and "premier cru" red-wine vineyards, 1985 was a classic vintage for long aging. But it was also excellent for some less celebrated wines -- Mercurey, Santenay and Givry -- and these are just crying out to be consumed.

With the exception of some rock-hard wines that escaped the prevalent rot of 1983 and some especially stubborn 1976s, all earlier Burgundies are fair game. Especially lovely now are the top wines of 1980, notably La Tache.

More recently, the 1987 vintage is delightful for early consumption. Only the best of the inconsistent 1986 vintage will repay further aging.

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