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1961 - the greatest Bordeaux vintage ever?

I’m writing this during the en primeur campaign and notice that the Bordelais château-owners and négociants have been unusually quiet this year. I have followed this part of the market from a distance for close to 30 years now and have been told about a large number of “vintages of the century”. After the wines have been bottled and sold or the other way round, as the case is in Bordeaux, these claims tend to be modified.

Who are the serious contenders for the title “The Greatest Vintage Ever”?

During the 19th century there were a number of vintages with a great reputation made from pre-phylloxera vines. These include the legendary “Comet vintage” 1811, 1864, 1865, 1870, 1893, 1895 and 1899. Most are too old for anyone now alive to have tasted them at their peak.

During the 20th century claims have been raised for the vintages 1900, 1921, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949 (by me), 1959, 1961, 1982, 1989 and 1990.In the present century already three out the eight vintages produced – 2000, 2003 and 2005 – have been mentioned by an overly excited wine press as candidates for the title, as well as the superb duo - 2009 and 2010.

In the book “The 1,000 Finest Wines Ever Made” 1961 is the Bordeaux vintage mentioned most often, with 22 châteaux. 1945 is mentioned 19 times, 1947 16 times, 1982 14 times and 1959 13 times.

What is the definition of a great wine?

It is a wine that has an extra dimension giving you an unforgettable drinking experience – in other words, a “Wow!” effect. It is a wine that has a long drinking span. It has to be good to drink young, but it must also be able to age for a long time without losing its attractiveness.A good vintage produces wines fulfilling these requirements.

A great vintage, however, is equally good in all major regions of Bordeaux, both on the left and right bank. It is also a vintage where something special was produced in all the different appellations, from the lowest Cru Bourgeois to the mightiest Premier Cru.

1961 fulfils these requirements better than any other vintage.

It was the vintage where the most incompetent winemaker just couldn’t make a poor wine and the wines drank very well at an early stage; in most cases they still do so to this very day.

Some extremely impressive wines were produced in 1945, but these were mainly from the left bank and a large number of the wines had excessively high tannin levels, which made them increasingly dry as they aged.

1947 produced the most stunning wines on the right bank but many wines on the left bank had problems with volatile acidity.

1959 produced a number of wines that are at the same level and sometimes even a bit higher than the corresponding '61s, and some experienced wine critics like Michel Bettane prefer 1959 to 1961. But 1959 doesn't have the same consistent quality at all levels.

1982 undoubtedly produced many very impressive wines but I feel that the wines from the right bank lack structure and have not aged very well and only very few wines from Margaux and Médoc were a great success.The twin vintages of 1989 and 1990, or 2009 and 2010 may come closest in overall quality, but it is too early to judge their ageing abilities yet.

 

What made 1961 so special?

It was a very small crop, the smallest since the Second World War. This was partly due to coulure (cold weather at the time of flowering) and in some parts because of frost on the night between 30th and 31st of May, together reducing the yield per vine to about a third of the usual size at that time (which, compared to today’s harvests, seems miniscule). This concentrated the minerals and potency of the vine amongst the few remaining grapes and was the reason for the success of minor châteaux, which would normally produce much higher yields than would be good for their wines.

August and September were both hot and extremely dry. This drought caused the ripening to take longer than the usually mandated 100 days. The harvest was delayed until 22 September, but enjoyed perfect conditions. Because of better cellaring techniques the wine-makers avoided the hard tannins of 1945 and the volatility of the 1947s. The wines have a very deep colour, a seductive nose and full-bodied, concentrated mature fruitiness, with enough tannins and acidity to give the wines structure and freshness.

I arranged a major tasting of more than sixty 1961s in 1989 and all the wines were very good, even from minor châteaux or from more famous properties that had not produced anything worthwhile for a very long time and some that have not done it to this day.

I also arranged a tasting, together with Dr. Peter Baumann, of fifty wines in November 2001. I had expected a large number of these to now be over their zenith but was amazed to see that many had not seemed to age at all during these intervening 12 years. With very few exceptions they were still very much alive.

 

The wines:

Margaux and Médoc

This is usually the most variable and disappointing group at any horizontal tasting with a large number of underperforming châteaux.

The star of this group and a serious candidate for the wine of the vintage is Château Palmer.

It first reached fame in 1978 as it won the famous Dr. Taam tasting in Holland. It is a precocious wine that was drinkable before most premier crus had softened and many tasters have underestimated its longevity. I remember arranging a tasting for Château Palmer in 1995 where I decanted the wine just before the tasting, believing it to be past its best. It did not show very well so Peter Sichel, the co-owner of Château Palmer, suggested that we decant the bottles planned for dinner five hours before serving them. It had then fully opened up showing all its softness and warmth coupled with power and strength for a long life. One of the best wines after Palmer and Château Margaux, which will be covered in the group of the premier crus, is Malescot St. Exupéry. Brane Cantenac, Giscours, Cantemerle and La Lagune are all still good but need to be drank soon.

 

Graves

La Mission Haut Brion is a fantastic wine, more powerful and concentrated than the soft and charming Haut Brion. Other very good ones include La Tour Haut Brion, Domaine de Chevalier, Haut Bailly and Pape Clément.

 

St. Estéphe

Cos d'Estournel is very good, Montrose is now shedding its tannins, whereas Calon Ségur needs drinking, having given much joy over the years.

 

St. Emilion

1961 is one vintage where I prefer Figeac to Cheval Blanc; both are very good but Figeac shows more complexity and elegance. I prefer Cheval Blanc's '64 to its '61. Ausone and Canon are both lovely elegant wines but they do not have the concentration of a top '61. Two very underrated wines are L'Arrosée and La Gaffelière – both are very impressive and still bargains if you are lucky enough to find them.

 

Pomerol

The two rarest and most expensive wines from '61 both come from Pomerol. Pétrus and Latour-á-Pomerol. Both are tremendously impressive – Latour-á-Pomerol with great sweetness, richness and concentration. Pétrus with similar richness but with even more power and structure. I have never had the pleasure of drinking these two giants next to one another but expect Pétrus to have the longer life expectancy. Vieux Château Certan is a wonderful mature wine, as is Lafleur. A wine I have also found very good over the years is Château Gazin. It did then include grapes from a parcel of the best part of Pomerol, now belonging to Château Pétrus. I don't have any tasting notes on Trotanoy or L'Evangile, but both have a great reputation.

 

St. Julien

My personal favourite here is Ducru Beaucaillou, possibly the most elegant of all wines. I have drunk it twice this year, and it was not showing any signs of ageing at all. It is closely followed by Gruaud Larose and Léoville Las Cases, both very impressive. Léoville and Langoa Barton did not have a very good period then and are, like Léoville Poyferré, disappointing for the vintage. Talbot and Branair Ducru are good but need drinking soon.

 

Pauillac

Both Pichons are good but I prefer Pichon Baron as it has more structure and concentration than the slightly overripe Pichon Lalande. Lynch Bages is still very good just like Pontet Canet. Pontet Canet was bottled by several négociants, and the one to drink is the Cruse-bottling which was the unofficial château bottling at the time.

 

The Premier Crus

The star here is Château Latour. It is the most majestic of wines and the wine that will become the new collectors’ item for millionaires as Mouton '45 and Cheval Blanc '47 start to fade away.

It has great concentration of cabernet fruit with a firm tannic structure. Truly an iron fist in a silk glove, only now opening up to reveal its true greatness. It is also the wine that was ranked in first place in “The 1,000 Finest Wines Ever Made”.

Château Margaux made its finest wine since the legendary 1900 and it is still wonderful to drink. Mouton is a luscious wine on a par with its wonderful '59.

Haut Brion is soft and lovely but not as great as its '59. Lafite shows big bottle variation as it was still bottled from cask to cask at the time and over a long period. At its best it is very fine and delicate with little power but great elegance, at its worst it is a tired wine with no body or fruit left.

Unfortunately great quality coupled with small quantity always leads to high prices, and this is particularly the case with the 1961 Bordeaux. However, all true winelovers should have at least once in their lifetime have drunk a good '61 to know what a perfect claret can taste like. 

 

Jan-Erik Paulson

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Vintage Report

At Château Latour winter was very rainy with a very warm February, and growth starting in the first few days - that is to say a month early. The first half of March was very warm and the first leaves were noted on 10 March. Growth accelerated, but there were frosts at the end of March and severe cold on the 25th and the 29th. April was unstable and predominantly cold : growth slowed. Very heavy fruiting was noted. The first flowers appeared on 12 May but the fine weather during the day was followed by cold nights. 27 and 28 May were cold and on 29 May, in full flower, disaster struck. The flowers were frozen, the sterile grapes dried immediately after. Three-quarters of the crop was given up for lost. The failure of the flowering was confirmed. There had never been frosts in May. 

July was not good on the whole ; overcast with no rain and no sun. The first three weeks of August were overcast too with temperatures below average and clearly insufficient. There was not enough sunshine either. The vineyard lacked both water and sun. It was a kind of chilly dryness. The temperature rose at the end of August. The sun shone brilliantly with gusts of warm wind on vineyards that didn't need any further drying. The fine weather settled in on 24 August and continued without a break until 28 September, almost as dry as in 1949. It rained on 29 and 30 September. Harvest from 19-28 September. It was very hot, which caused problems with vinification. Yields were very poor, as had been expected, so the harvest was short. 

Vintage quality and tasting comments 

Notes made at the running-off stage predicted a great wine. It had frank, colored, very rich, very ripe, very rôti, very fat. The colors were enormous, such as had not been seen for a long time. Today the wine has a very deep colour, still intense. The nose displays very complex perfumes of noble cedar, tar, mint, though still a little closed (let it breathe in the glass). The mouth is phenomenal, still full of fruit, long back-bone, incredibly concentrated and very well balanced. The tannins have a real " grip " in the mouth, without any aggressivity. Endless finish. A wine for "connoisseurs" probably more difficult to understand today (2000) than the 1959.

Quality: Exceptional year

The moment for optimal drinking and best way of serving

Even though we are speaking of a wine of more than 35 years of age, it is still barely at its optimum, and will still improve. It is quite safe to say that this wine can be kept at its optimum for another 20 years. We promise to update these tasting notes by 2020... 

Keep the bottle vertical at least half a day to settle the sediments at the bottom of the bottle. Then slowly pour the wine into a decanter in order to get rid of these sediments, keep in the decanter for at least 2 hours for aeration and serve.

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Vintage Report

In Italy, 1961 wine is considered to be one of the greatest vintages of the 20th century. The wines from Piedmont (Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbara) and Tuscany (Chianti, Brunello) are outstanding. The wines are now fully mature and, with careful cellaring, will still keep for many years to come.

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1961 vintage by Château Margaux / It has sometimes been said that 1961 was the greatest vintage since 1900. Our memory does not always serve us well, but there is no doubt that this vintage displays quite extraordinary qualities, which we were not to find again, in any case, until the 1982 vintage. 1961 not only benefited from remarkable weather conditions, but also from the first achievements of what was called \modern oenology\" under the inspiration of Professor Ribereau Gayon and Doctor Emile Peynaud. Château Margaux 1961 is a sumptuous wine, at the same time tender, harmonious, rich, very dense and full of freshness. Its bouquet is unique : over the smell of undergrowth, so characteristic of the great wines of that era, comes a layer of indescribable fruity and floral fragrance... Smelling this wine is a moment of unforgettable excitement, of pure emotion! The sensations that come through on the palate are a harmonious match to the aromatic festival on the nose : its tannic density asserts itself smoothly and delicately, the finish is a strong and yet tender caress. A really wonderful wine. Today, the 1961 has lost none of its freshness, even though the magnums are starting to show more consistency than the bottles. Of course, it can be opened now, but it was built for eternity... (May 2010)

Weather
A sharp spring frost and exceptional "coulure" due to an intensely cold spell at the end of May drastically reduced the crop size. Then, the wonderful weather conditions during the summer, which was particularly dry and hot, enabled this small crop to reach really extraordinary ripeness and concentration. (The picking began 19th September)

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1961 The cold war continued to worsen with the USSR exploding some very large bombs during testing and then masterminding the building of the Berlin Wall separating East from West Berlin, America sent a battle group to Germany and Americans and Russians Glared at each other across the border, due to this uncertainty many Americans built backyard fallout shelters in case of nuclear war. To make matters worse the Americans financed anti-Castro Cubans for an invasion at the bay of pigs which was an unmitigated disaster. The Soviets put the first man in space on April 12th Yuri Gagarin followed by the US in May with Alan Shepard. Popular music included Chubby Checker's “Pony Time” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles, and top movies included "West Side Story" and "The Parent Trap.”

 

Popular Culture

  • The farthing coin, used since the 13th century, ceases to be legal tender in the United Kingdom.
  • British satirical magazine Private Eye is published for first time
  • The Pony become a popular dance
  • Black and white 5 pound notes cease to be legal tender in the UK

 

Popular Films

  • The Guns of Navarone
  • The Parent Trap
  • The Absent-Minded Professor
  • 101 Dalmatians
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's
  • El Cid
  • The Misfits
  • The Hustler
  • West Side Story

 

Popular TV

  • Wagon Train
  • Bonanza
  • Gunsmoke
  • Perry Mason
  • The Red Skelton Show
  • Andy Griffith
  • Candid Camera
  • My Three Sons
  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents
  • The Twilight Zone
  • Mister Ed (first broadcast in October, 1961)
  • The Avengers debut in the UK. But it was not seen in the U.S. until 1965.
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The best wines of the 1961 vintage

Name Tb Producer Location
1 Hermitage La Chapelle 99.0 Paul Jaboulet & Âiné Rhône, France
2 Pétrus 97.7 Château Pétrus Pomerol, France
3 Château Latour 97.7 Château Latour Bordeaux, France
4 Château Palmer 97.3 Château Palmer Bordeaux, France
5 La Mission Haut Brion 97.1 Château La Mission Haut-Brion Bordeaux, France
6 Grands Echezeaux 97.0 Domaine Denis Mortet Burgundy, France
7 Krug Collection 97.0 Krug Champagne, France
8 Gevrey Chambertin Combottes 97.0 Pierre Ponnelle Burgundy, France
9 Château L´Evangile 97.0 Château L´Evangile Pomerol, France
10 Latour-à-Pomerol 96.9 Château Latour-à-Pomerol Bordeaux, France
11 Salon 96.8 Salon Champagne, France
12 Trotanoy 96.7 Château Trotanoy Pomerol, France
13 Château Mouton-Rothschild 96.7 Château Mouton-Rothschild Bordeaux, France
14 Château Haut-Brion 96.5 Château Haut-Brion Bordeaux, France
15 Lafleur 96.1 Château Lafleur Bordeaux, France
16 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 96.0 Charles Krug Winery Napa valley, United States
17 Châteauneuf-du-Pape 96.0 Château de Beaucastel Rhône, France
18 Château Suduiraut 96.0 Château Suduiraut Bordeaux, France
19 Vintage Champagne 96.0 Bollinger Champagne, France
20 Grands Echézeaux 96.0 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Burgundy, France
21 Cuvée Florens-Louis 96.0 Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, France
22 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 95.9 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Bordeaux, France
23 Château Margaux 95.7 Château Margaux Bordeaux, France
24 Krug Vintage 95.5 Krug Champagne, France
25 Dom Pérignon 95.5 Moët & Chandon Champagne, France
26 Château Lagrange 95.5 Château Lagrange Bordeaux, France
27 Château Laville Haut-Brion 95.5 Château Laville Haut-Brion Pessac Leognan, France
28 Chateau La Tour Haut Brion 95.5 Château La Tour Haut-Brion Bordeaux, France
29 Niepoort Garrafeira 95.5 Niepoort Douro, Portugal
30 Vieux Chateau Certan 95.4 Vieux Château Certan Bordeaux, France
31 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou 95.4 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou Bordeaux, France
32 Barolo Monfortino Riserva 95.3 Giacomo Conterno Piedmont, Italy
33 Pierre Ponnelle Gevrey Chambertin 95.3 Pierre Ponnelle Burgundy, France
34 Vintage 95.2 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne, France
35 Château Léoville Poyferré 95.0 Château Léoville Poyferré Bordeaux, France
36 Chevalier-Montrachet 95.0 Domaine Leflaive Burgundy, France
37 Brut Royal 95.0 Pommery Champagne, France
38 Batard-Montrachet 95.0 Domaine Ramonet Burgundy, France
39 Grand Cru 95.0 Pommery Champagne, France
40 Château Lagrange 95.0 Château Lagrange Pomerol Bordeaux, France
41 Vintage 95.0 Gosset Champagne, France
42 Cristal 94.8 Louis Roederer Champagne, France
43 Cheval Blanc 94.7 Château Cheval Blanc Bordeaux, France
44 Château Gruaud-Larose 94.7 Château Gruaud-Larose Bordeaux, France
45 Cuvée William Deutz 94.7 Deutz Champagne, France
46 Brut Impérial 94.5 Moët & Chandon Champagne, France
47 Vintage Rosé 94.5 Louis Roederer Champagne, France
48 Vintage Rosé 94.4 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne, France
49 Comtes de Champagne 94.4 Taittinger Champagne, France
50 Clos St-Denis Grand Cru 94.3 Domaine Cortochot Burgundy, France
51 Château Ausone 94.3 Château Ausone Bordeaux, France
52 Château La Conseillante 94.0 Château La Conseillante Bordeaux, France
53 Bonnes Mares Grand Cru 94.0 Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Burgundy, France
54 Châteauneuf-du-Pape 94.0 Château Rayas Rhône, France
55 Château Canon-La-Gaffelière 94.0 Château Canon-La-Gaffelière St.Emilion, France
56 Naudes 94.0 Château Canon-La-Gaffelière St.Emilion, France
57 Mumm Rosé 94.0 G.H. Mumm Champagne, France
58 Château Marquis De Terme 94.0 Château Marquis De Terme Bordeaux, France
59 Cuvée M 33 94.0 Mercier Champagne, France
60 Brut Millésimé 94.0 G.H. Mumm Champagne, France
61 Château Angelus 94.0 Château Angelus Bordeaux, France
62 R.D. Bollinger 93.9 Bollinger Champagne, France
63 Domaine de Chevalier 93.9 Domaine de Chevalier Pessac Leognan, France
64 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste 93.8 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste Bordeaux, France
65 Vintage 93.7 Moët & Chandon Champagne, France
66 Montrose 93.7 Château Montrose Bordeaux, France
67 Château Grand Pontet 93.7 Château Grand Pontet St. Emilion, France
68 Richebourg 93.7 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Burgundy, France
69 Pol Roger vintage 93.7 Pol Roger Champagne, France
70 Chateau Certan de May 93.5 Château Certan de May Bordeaux, France
71 Château Pape Clément 93.5 Château Pape Clément Bordeaux, France
72 Grands Echezeaux 93.5 Domaine Leroy Burgundy, France
73 Léoville-Las Cases 93.5 Château Léoville-Las Cases Saint-Julien, France
74 Romanée Conti 93.5 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Burgundy, France
75 Lafite-Rothschild 93.4 Château Lafite-Rothschild Bordeaux, France
76 Vintage Port 93.3 Fonseca Portugal, Portugal
77 La Tâche 93.3 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Burgundy, France
78 La Gaffelière 93.0 Château La Gaffelière Bordeaux, France
79 Bonnes Mares 93.0 Jaboulet Vercherre Rhône, France
80 Chassagne-Montrachet "Les Ruchottes" 93.0 Domaine Ramonet Burgundy, France
81 Unico Reserva Especial 93.0 Bodegas Vega Sicilia Ribera el Duero, Spain
82 Comtes de Champagne Vinothèque 93.0 Taittinger Champagne, France
83 La Tâche 93.0 Chevillot Burgundy, France
84 Château Nenin 93.0 Château Nenin Bordeaux, France
85 Musigny Vieilles Vignes 93.0 Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Burgundy, France
86 Echezeaux 93.0 Rene Engel Burgundy, France
87 Château Musar 93.0 Château Musar Ghazir, Lebanon
88 Château Doisy-Daene 93.0 Château Doisy-Daëne Bordeaux, France
89 L' Empereur Blanc de Blancs 93.0 Unknown producer Champagne, France
90 Brut Millésime 93.0 Deutz Champagne, France
91 Barolo 93.0 Giacomo Conterno Piedmont, Italy
92 Côte-Rôtie Les Jumelles 93.0 Paul Jaboulet & Âiné Rhône, France
93 Vintage 93.0 Charles Heidsieck Champagne, France
94 Clos de Vougeot 93.0 Charles Noellat Burgundy, France
95 Chateau Lynch-Bages 93.0 Château Lynch-Bages Pauillac, France
96 Vintage Brut 92.8 Trouillard Champagne, France
97 Château Cos d'Estournel 92.7 Château Cos d'Estournel Bordeaux, France
98 Unico 92.6 Bodegas Vega Sicilia Ribera el Duero, Spain
99 L'Eglise-Clinet 92.5 Château L'Eglise-Clinet Bordeaux, France
100 Dom Ruinart 92.4 Ruinart Champagne, France

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