What happened to my budget? you're probably asking. I have been drinking and reporting on a series of high-powered wines from the 1980s and early 1990s, none of which fall into the budget category. That's because we've had a couple of family birthdays plus house guests who love fine wine. The few younger bottles I've had during this period have confirmed to me the value of having a cellar. While a well chosen young wine may go down smoothly enough, it can never match the subtlety, complexity and sheer beauty of the 1981 Cos d'Estournel, the 1985 Clos du Papillon or the 1985 Robert Mondavi Cabernet.
I should point out, though, that none of these wines cost more than $20 when I purchased them. And I followed the same principles in selecting them that I use today: I avoided the highest priced, most highly sought after wines and chose an alternative that I considered a good quality/price ratio.
The Mondavi Cabernet is a good example. At that time, Mondavi produced a Reserve Cabernet that sold for about 50% more than the regular bottling. I was urged to buy the Reserve "unless you're planning to drink the wine right away." I rejected that advice, and I am pretty smug about the result. According to online reviews I have read, the 1985 Reserve is still drinking well, but these reviews are no more positive than the ones for the regular bottling--a beautiful wine that will probably last another decade. I rarely buy Reserve or Show bottlings, partly because I'm cheap but mainly because I know that winemakers are tempted to use a bit more new oak and a bit more pre-aging in their special bottlings in order to make the wine show better young and justify the higher price. This often results in a less ageworthy wine.
Cos d'Estournel and Leoville Barton are now recognized as top second growths, but the hype in the 1980s tended to fall more on wines such as Pichon Lalande and Gruaud Larose. I don't think I missed anything by going for the lower priced offerings. 1981 and 1993 were not highly regarded vintages, but some good wines were made in those years, and they cost less than the same wines from top vintages such as 1982, 1986 and 1990. There are many excellent, ageworthy wines at all price levels, and it's almost as much fun picking a winner as it is drinking the prize.