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Cheaper Expensive Wine

 

While we know how expensive wine can get, we are often missing out on the cheaper alternatives. What is it that makes some vintages great, and others less so?

 

With very mediocre vintages there is usually one or even several easily identifiable reasons for the poor quality of the wines – often harvest rain plays a part – and it quickly becomes apparent that the wines are likely to have problems. But when the weather is favourable it becomes much more difficult to determine whether the vintage will be merely very good, or a great one, and even when all appears to be going well it only takes one thunderstorm to ruin an entire crop. Thus it is only when the fruit has been harvested, preferably in a rain-free environment, that the régisseurs begin to get really excited. As might be expected, an examination of the weather for the 1961 vintage reveals the promise that the vintage must have held at the time. A spring frost reduced the efficacy of flowering, thereby reducing the potential size of the harvest. This was followed by the prerequisite warm, dry, sunny summer which gently carried the fruit along to a perfect ripeness. This pattern was seen throughout most of the Bordeaux communes, and the resulting quality throughout was exceptional, with perhaps only Sauternes and Barsac letting the side down. This is not that unusual nor should it be surprising; the conditions required for making great sweet wine are very specific and quite distinct from those required for red. There are many vintages renowned for their sweet wines, more recent examples than 1961 being 1997 and 2001, where the reds were less prodigious. In the case of 1961, the warm and dry weather did little to engender the development of botrytis.

Over the years that ensued 1961 came to be regarded as not just a very good vintage, but a great one, indeed it is one of the greatest vintages of the 20th Century. A number of the wines have come to command extraordinary prices with some, such as Latour and Trotanoy, now exchanging hands for figures that would comfortably secure a case (or several cases) of a less prestigious or more recent vintage. And let’s not forget Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 2005, one of the most expensive wines. At the time of this tasting, the wines were all approaching 46 years of age. With this fact in mind, it was very pleasing to find a small handful of wines that were astonishingly good, belying the greatness of this vintage. A greater number of wines, however, were showing their age, although they were still drinking well in an elegant, refined, venerable fashion. That isn’t to say that they wouldn’t have been better drank five or ten years ago, though. Sadly, a number of bottles were also showing signs of poor storage over the years, a very real risk when sourcing wines at auction as was the case with many of these bottles. The maxim that there are no great old wines, only great old bottles, was certainly true here. All the wines were decanted an hour or two prior to the tasting, and they were not served blind.

 

Bordeaux 1961

Médoc & Haut-Médoc

Château Loudenne (Médoc) 1961: This is a good start to the evening. This Cru Bourgeois estate has provided us with a deeply coloured, mature-looking wine which has a clean and appealing nose with little truffle oil complexities at first, later (I kept some back for an hour or so) opening up to give very profound aromas of roasted coffee grounds. Nicely filled out on the palate, sweetly rounded off, and it holds up well (as it has done in the bottle for over four decades). It falls away on the end though, where it is a little disjointed, a little warm, and certainly short. Not precise, delineated or well structured, rather it is soft and giving. But I’m not complaining.

Château Cantemerle (Haut-Médoc) 1961: From a magnum. This has a brown, murky appearance. The nose brings to mind treacle toffee and heavily stewed meat at first, with a nutty, vegetal character. It is clearly not in good shape. Surprisingly not dried out on the palate, well textured through the midpalate, but quite hot thereafter. A bit of sweetness. This has not collapsed altogether but is plainly over the hill, although I suspect this is not typical and that other bottles may be fine.

St Estèphe

Château Cos d’Estournel (St Estèphe) 1961: English bottled. A good density here, a mature claretty hue out to the rim, and an interesting nose, of wet stones, cool minerals, mushrooms and just a little vegetal note in the background. It takes a little while to open up, but as it does so it becomes apparent that this is very classically styled. Full, a nice weight, good fruit and firm acidity. This has a good presence, with a light, elegant, rather detached texture. Slightly hot on the finish, starting to show its failings here. Will be going downhill soon I think. Drink up now.

Pauillac

Château Batailley (Pauillac) 1961: A fairly well coloured wine. The nose is unfortunately peppered with unpleasant seaweed and iodine aromas, with a rotten, musty element to it. A very tertiary stage of development I think! On the palate it has a nice texture but rather lacks flavour, and is in fact quite dead. No doubt other bottles may well have fared batter over the years, and this may not be typical.

Château Lynch-Bages (Pauillac) 1961: A lovely depth of colour here, quite a youthful appearance for a wine now in its fifth decade. The nose has an attractive, smoky, minerally, iron and blood character, with complex nuances of roast lamb, eucalyptus and coffee. The palate is full, slightly chalky, but with a good texture nevertheless. Rather firm, with some good grip, a really nice presence on the palate overall. A lovely, complete wine.

Château Pichon-Baron (Pauillac) 1961: This has some lovely fruit on the nose, which is elegant, with a minerally red berry character. This is stylish and expressive, with a great depth. The palate is big, structured and impressive, still showing quite a bit of grip. This is another wine in this tasting which has a complete, rounded, style, although there is a bit of meatiness to it too. A fine, slowly fading finish. Great length. Really nice wine here.

Château Latour (Pauillac) 1961: This is a wine with a very deep, dense hue at the core, but with a very bright and clean appearance nevertheless. It is slightly soapy at first, a perfumed and chalky quality, but this then yields to a more coconutty, minerally character, Sweet, dense, textured on the palate, with a core of grippy tannins still showing despite this wine’s venerable age. Full, structured and creamy, dense and showing its grip right through to the finish. Full of substance. Very impressive indeed, and it is remarkable to think that this wine seems to yet have more to give. The wine of the tasting for me I would say.

St Julien

Château Léoville-Poyferré (St Julien) 1961: A moderately deep colour here, a little murky perhaps, but an attractive appearance all the same. A sweet, meaty, roasted nose, with a glorious perfumed character. It has a mineral freshness, edged with a little toffee and cloves. Finely textured on the palate, sweet and rounded, quite complete, a touch fleshy and grippy, this is really admirable. A little freshness too. Very good indeed.

Château Léoville-Barton (St Julien) 1961: Château-bottled. A lovely, mature, claretty appearance. The nose has a vibrancy, a meaty-minerally character, deep and stylish, clearly very good quality. Rounded, complete, stylish, with plenty of substance and texture. A slowly fading finish. This is very good indeed and is certainly a challenger for top wine of this flight which focuses on St Julien.

Château Léoville-Barton (St Julien) 1961: A second bottle, also château-bottled. Shipped by Avery’s. An opportunity to test the maxim that at this age there are only great bottles, not great wines. Unfortunately, this one was corked.

Château Léoville-Las-Cases (St Julien) 1961: A reasonably deep colour here, a mature rim, with a sweet, raspberry-tinged nose. A smoky-sweetness. A roasted, sweet, complete, textured wine, nicely balanced, but showing an attractive bit of grip at the finish. Not the richest of palates, but it has a lovely presence, with a tannic backbone. This full, structured wine still has some hidden potential it seems. Very good indeed.

Château Gruaud-Larose (St Julien) 1961: There is perfume in abundance on the nose here, this being a lovely fresh, stylish, mineral wine in character. The palate has an elegance, a rounded and complete texture. It has a little plumpness, and a little creamy grip to it as well. It has a style which I admire, and I think I have rated this wine a little higher than a good number of other tasters on the night. Very good indeed.

Margaux

Château Giscours (Margaux) 1961: A crystal clear wine, fairly pale, but vibrant. An attractive red core with a mature rim. Initially some slightly smoky sweet fruit, meaty but clean raspberry character, then later some intense, cough-candy liquorice style aromas. Rather light on the palate, with bright acidity which has no doubt kept this wine alive. It is attractive, but after a while it does seem to fall apart a little. It has lasted well though.

Château Lascombes (Margaux) 1961: A more obviously mature wine than the preceding one, some good depth here. Slightly seaweedy on the nose, lifted and floral too, with some sweet molasses character. The nose cleans up in the glass and becomes more attractive. Not a great impact on the palate, but still showing a seam of tannin. Firm, not particularly well defined or vigorous, and a firm finish lightly laced with tannin. This wine still has a bit of life in it!

Château Brane-Cantenac (Margaux) 1961: This wine has a remarkably pale appearance, and is starting to brown. A sweet, meaty, slightly mushroomy nose with later notes of coriander leaf (unusual!). A nice weight, balanced, a little richness, it has a good presence but isn’t really that light on its feet. Interesting notes of rhubarb later on. A bit of vigour on the finish, which has a sweet, slightly grippy style. Good, and a pleasant surprise from this second growth which has had a reputation for under-performing in the past.

Château Margaux (Margaux) 1961: This undoubtedly has more depth than the other wines so far, it has maturity, and just a slight lack of clarity which may be related to decanting. On the nose there are notes of roasted meats, with rather bright fruit despite its maturity. There is also undeniably a mustiness to it, although later this disappeared leaving some cinder toffee and honeycomb notes. A full, sweet and rounded palate, with much more texture and grip than some preceding wines. This wine has a little more to give than any other from this commune, but this musty note makes it difficult to believe this wine is in tip-top condition and other bottles may be much better.

Graves

Château Haut-Brion (Graves) 1961: Another wine with a very deep colour. Another oxidised nose here, rather like the Cheval Blanc that preceded it, but nowhere near as obvious. This has a toffee, nutty, vegetal character which is certainly not typical of Graves. Another wine that has gone over hill with storage again the suspect.

St Emilion

Château La Tour du Pin Figeac (St Emilion) 1961: Rather mushroomy on the nose, opening out over a little while to give some profound notes of roasted coffee. Quite a well delineated, roasted, mature, creamy and mouth-filling style here, not too precise though, sweet and perhaps lacking vigour on the finish, which is a little hot and short. Lots more mushroom character here too. This is very evolved, and showing signs of fading at the end.

Château Cheval Blanc (St Emilion) 1961: A very dense colour here. The nose tells me this wine is plainly oxidised and suffering from heat damage, and resembles a glass-matured Banyuls more than claret. A crying shame.

Pomerol

Château Trotanoy (Pomerol) 1961: A deep, dense, very impressive colour. The nose is gorgeous, aromatic, pure, with dark fruits, clean and well defined. There is a little seam of coffee and spice too. The palate follows in the same vein, a pure and well delineated style, clean, firm, structured but with an elegant sweetness. The tannins give a good backbone to the sweet berry fruit, as matches the lifting acidity very well indeed. Rich yet nicely delineated. A delicious, lingering finish too. This must have been an absolute blockbuster in its day.

Sauternes & Barsac

Château Coutet (Barsac) 1961: A rich, golden-orange hue. Roasted oranges and marmalade on the nose, rather bright, rather leafy and herby, but certainly a rich style. This has a nice, creamy character on the palate, fresh with decent acidity, but with those rich characteristics that were found on the nose. A good broad presence, fairly lively, attractive, a little grip to it even. Nice length. Very well put together, but more vigour and complexity would be appreciated.

 

 

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