The Cat’s Whiskers: Bordeaux 1961
Chairman Miaow is unhappy. The feline king of the house has been looking forward to a quiet evening prowling the dining room, stalking birds, cleaning his paws and seeking out his human underling for tummy tickles. Purr-fect. Then at six o’clock the doorbell rings and in comes a man sporting the grin of an overexcited five-year-old. Chairman Miaow thinks, “Not again.” The guest brandishes a bottle of wine, which is nothing new at this address, but why not proffer a proper beverage such as milk to show your appreciation of hospitality? To his great displeasure, within an hour the dining room throngs with a motley crew of dipsomaniacs jabbering on about – quelle surprise – wine. He surveys the bottles amassing on the sideboard, harbingers of a long and bibulous night, and repairs to the master bedroom to slumber through the soirée and then reclaim his territory after the humans have had their fun.
Personally, I am sure that Chairman Miaow, a feline of impeccable taste, would have approved of the vinous fare. Had he observed carefully, he would have noticed that the aforementioned bottles were full of 1961 Claret (at least until the small hours of the morning). Focusing on one of the most lionized Bordeaux vintages of the century, the roll call of châteaux was impressive and heightened the expectations of the English, Antipodean and East Asian oenophiles eager to see whether 1961 delivers where it matters: in the glass. Before broaching the performances, let us investigate the reasons why 1961 remains such a fêted vintage.
The Growing Season
Whereas 1959 is the high point of postwar recovery, you might aver that 1961 was the starting gun of Bordeaux’s modern era, almost a “year zero.” I will explain why after I summarize the weather that growing season.
Following a wet winter, spring was unseasonably mild; at Latour they noticed the first leaves dappling the landscape green on March 10. Temperatures then began to drop, causing some localized frost on March 25 and 29, too early to inflict serious damage. April remained cold, retarding the vines’ progress, but that warm spell in early March had given them a head start and they flowered on May 20. This late in the season, surely the risk of frost was behind them? But on May 27 and 28 the mercury began to drop, and on May 29 they had their answer. Damage was severe, affecting the more precocious Merlot vines and consequently impacting the Right Bank more than the Left, which is advantaged by partial protection from the regulating effects of the Gironde Estuary. Even so, Latour still lost around 75% of their crop. One must also factor in that many affected vines were fledglings, replanted after the devastating frosts of 1956, particularly on the more exposed, colder clay soils of the Right Bank.
Unlike 1991, a year that also saw a late frost, the ensuing summer was perfect, July balmy with occasional showers nudging the disrupted vine cycle along and August much hotter with barely a spot of rain. September saw no respite from the high temperatures, which hit 30°C (86°F) on over half the days. August and September witnessed just 30mm of rain, the lowest between 1929 and 1985. Consequently, vines finally began to shut down, delaying the harvest from early September until September 19. The surviving grapes reached physiological maturity in healthy condition and were harvested in glorious sunshine, apart from a spot of rain on September 28 and 29. Alas, dry autumn weather meant that little botrytis developed in Sauternes, so it was a mediocre vintage for sweet wines. The continuing high temperatures meant that winemakers had to control the alcoholic fermentation in the vat. Fortunately, they were far more adept in 1961 than they were in 1947 at preventing the volatile acidity that spoiled some wines in the latter Indian summer.
I return to my assertion that 1961 is a kind of “year zero.” This is because it marks the moment where modernity entered Bordeaux winemaking, specifically at Haut-Brion, where régisseurJean-Bernard Delmas oversaw the installation of revolutionary stainless steel vats that enabled far easier temperature control, as well as being more hygienic. They made an immediate impact upon winemaking and, of course, their use is still widespread today, even if some châteaux are returning to concrete vats or experimenting with foudres.
Nineteen sixty-one was a small harvest of just 550,000 hectoliters, tiny if you compare to the 3 million hectoliters produced during the 1980s. I am too young to remember the 1961s in their youth. David Peppercorn MW, writing in his Bordeaux tome, recalls the 1961s being “very supple from the beginning and possessing an extra dimension.” My friend Baz Philips tasted the 1961s soon after bottling, so I asked him for his own recollections. “A beautiful woman is a beautiful woman from the day she is born ‘til the day she dies,” he told me. (Presumably the same applies for men.) “The 1961s were full of character from the very first. They were big and rich, dry but sweet, promising and exciting. They were so full! I felt sorry for my father’s friends as I thought they would never see them fully mature. For the restaurant [Philips owned and ran the renowned White Horse] I used to ask for 24 hours to prepare any ‘61s as they needed air.” Their core of sweetness perhaps disguised the inherent structure of the 1961s and encouraged many to drink them early. Peppercorn also observed that quality shone through down to the lower levels of the hierarchy, and with that in mind, I dug up an older note for a 1961 Château de Villegeorge, a Haut-Médoc served blind, which you can peruse within the tasting notes.
A horizontal of a revered vintage is always something to look forward to. Over the years I have been fortunate to taste nearly all the major 1961s on multiple occasions at various châteaux, whereby numerous examples delivered on their promise. They tend to be aromatically intense with a trait that makes them quite easy to identify blind, even for this bog-standard blind taster: a distinctive marine/estuarine character that I discern in no other growing season. Perhaps, having grown up on the Thames Estuary, I am particularly sensitive to this leitmotif. So often a 1961 Claret has divulged its birth year by scents of seaweed (Japanese nori), brine, mudflats, cockle sheds and salty sea air. The palates tend to be concentrated and well structured, and less fleshy than their 1959 counterparts, with more black than red fruit.
I have participated in plenty of 2005, 1996 and 1982 tastings; however, I recall only one 1961 tasting, in London many years ago. Sadly, it did not live up to its billing. Too many bottles were compromised by poor storage at some indeterminate time in their life. You can do your utmost to source wines this old, but unless they come directly from the château or were purchased on release, the likelihood is that they have been traded and transported more than other vintages. Add in the fact that these wines are now 57 years old, born at a time when viticulture and techniques were still rudimentary, and you might understand my trepidation.
On this particular evening we were extremely fortunate. Nearly all the bottles poured were not only sound, but often equaled those I have encountered ex-château. This was in no small part because our host had acquired many from ex-château auctions. You pay a premium, for sure, but it’s worth the extra when you taste them. Remarkably, there were over 20 examples from the 1961 vintage, which I augment here with additional tasting notes from various other dinners and some at châteaux. As usual, I indicate where bottles were tasted at the end of each tasting note.
We commenced on the Right Bank with an exquisite bottle of 1961 Magdelaine (of course, subsumed into Bélair-Monange since 2008; Jean-Pierre Moueix had acquired the property in 1952). Magdelaine epitomizes what might be called “traditional” Bordeaux, previously shunned during the vogue for high-octane, late-picked, heavily oaked wines, and too fey, too emasculated for some. This bottle was a salient reminder of how a more refined, delicate style of winemaking does not preclude longevity. It was as fresh as a daisy, quite deep and long, meliorating with aeration to the point where I almost wished we had decanted it. The Magdelaine was matched by a regal 1961 Figeac, a wine that I have been privileged to taste several times. It represents the end of the estate’s golden era, which had lasted since the postwar period. The late Thierry Manoncourt presided over Figeac at that time and created a wine with expressive Cabernet Franc and a sumptuous quality that is uncommon with respect to both Figeac and the vintage. Well-preserved bottles will offer at least another decade of pleasure. Both Figeac and Magdelaine surpass the 1961 Ausone, which felt frailer and offered less breeding by comparison; the decade was not a great one for the estate. Still, I appreciated the swarthy finish of the 1961, even if it does lack grace. There were just two representatives from Pomerol. As I wrote in my note, the 1961 Gazin was like a flightless bird. It is the product of a difficult era for the estate, Edouard de Baillencourt tending to focus on quantity rather than quality, and machine-harvesting by rote. Much better is the superb 1961 La Fleur-Pétrus. Purchased by Jean-Pierre Moueix in 1953, the property suffered appalling damage from the 1956 frosts, so much of the vine stock would have been barely out of diapers. But this disproves the idea that ancient vines are a sine qua non to make great wine. This is one of the finest bottles of La Fleur-Pétrus that I have tasted from the era, from its eucalyptus-tinged nose to its compelling earthy finish. Magnificent!
Though the Right Bank boasts incredible wines, the growing season slightly favors the Left Bank. (The Right Bank still had the 1964 to look forward to.) Let’s commence with the wine of the vintage – and no, it is not Latour. It is the 1961 Palmer. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of tasting with the indefatigable John Salvi MW. He worked for owners Maison Sichel when the 1961 Palmer was made, and he recalled rolling barrels of this legendary wine down the quayside, presumably to ship to merchants for non-château bottlings. (As an aside, these can occasionally be as good as the château bottling). I have drunk this spellbinding Margaux several times over the years, each encounter reaffirming that it is the vinous apotheosis of the 20th century. This bottle was as good as any I have encountered, in no small part because of the impeccable provenance: it was bought at an ex-château auction by our host and reconditioned at the property in 2011. Latour might be the most impressive 1961, but Palmer is more ethereal and refined. It boasts off-the-charts purity and finesse, an almost Richebourg-like texture and a breathtaking sense of symmetry. A genuine 100-point wine of utter perfection.
It is far better than the rather mediocre 1961 Château Margaux. The château conjured a much better 1959; their 1961 is a dropped catch, not unlike its fellow First Growth, Lafite-Rothschild. The one Margaux that approaches Palmer is the 1961 Giscours, born in a golden age for the estate that lasted until the early 1970s. This was the “Tari era”: first, Nicolas Tari, who ran the estate when the 1961 was made, and then his son Pierre Tari. Nicolas Tari had bought Giscours piecemeal between 1947 and 1952, when it was in ruinous condition, so the turnaround was evidently rapid given the 1961’s stupendous quality. Another factor is that it predates the period when they inadvisably began replacing the Cabernet Sauvignon with less ideal Merlot – a decision that was, thankfully, reversed under the current management. (For notes on Brane-Cantenac and Rauzan-Ségla, readers should refer to verticals published previously on Vinous.) I also include here a late entry from Moulis courtesy of a splendid magnum of 1961 Chasse-Spleen tasted just before filing this report. Venerable vintages of this estate often punch well above their weight, and this was no exception. It is almost decadent after 58 years, offering vivid red fruit and disarming joie-de-vivre.
Moving to Saint-Julien, the standout has long been the 1961 Ducru-Beaucaillou. I have tasted this monumental wine, made by Bruno’s father, Jean-Eugène Borie, over a dozen times, and it never ceases to impress. This tasting note actually originates from a lineup served blind at La Trompette in June 2018. Always deep in color with black fruit and truffle on the nose, the Ducru-Beaucaillou is a Saint-Julien with immense backbone and arching structure that continues to exert real grip. This is one of the most aristocratic wines ever produced at the estate, and I always perceived it as the pinnacle of the appellation that year. However, I was astonished by the 1961 Léoville Las-Cases, which was by a long distance the finest of several examples I have encountered. Estate director Pierre Graffeuille subsequently told me that the grandfather of Jean-Hubert, Paul Délon, made this wine after taking over the running of the estate in 1959, with the valuable consultancy of Emile Peynaud, who no doubt had a hand in a number of the wines in this article. I have never encountered a bottle so vivacious and vivid, perhaps due to impeccable provenance or just sheer luck. It was better than the slightly turbid 1961 Léoville-Barton with its ash-tinged nose and marine-influenced palate, although Ronald Barton still made a very commendable, solid, stout Saint-Julien that is just a bit rugged compared to its peers. Another outstanding wine is the 1961 Gruaud Larose. Not unlike its 1982 counterpart, it combines complexity and sensory enjoyment in one irresistible package. Funnily enough, I tasted the same wine from both magnum and bottle, but it was the latter that showed the best, culminating in a gorgeous, blood tinged finish and perhaps more savory than its peers.
Now, Pauillac. It has already been mentioned, but the 1961 Latour is probably the most famous and revered wine of the vintage. Since the 1961 Palmer challenges its supremacy, we served them blind as a pair. Wouldn’t you have done the same? This was a pristine bottle, exactly as I have found previous examples from the château, offering graphite and crushed stone on the imperious, pixelated bouquet and astonishing structure on the seaweed-tinged, unerringly symmetrical palate. It is a magnificent wine. I just find Palmer endowed with more charm and comeliness, whereas the Latour demands, and deserves, respect.
Perhaps the laudation afforded the Latour overshadows the 1961 Mouton-Rothschild. Now, this was a rare case of a vintage that had avoided my palate for two decades. Baron Philip de Rothschild oversaw the wine, which provided further ammunition for him to persuade the authorities to promote his Second Growth (though he would have to wait another 12 years). I must admit that I was bowled over by this wine. It was almost a hybrid of Palmer and Latour, picking the virtues of both and putting them together in one fantastic package. The bouquet is to die for, and the palate is endowed with incredible concentration, presenting layers of marine-tinged black fruit and a trace of wild mint toward the finish. Comparing it directly against the 1961 Latour, I could understand the baron’s feeling of injustice at remaining in the second tier.
The 1961 Lynch-Bages was one of the few suspect bottles, although it has never been a top-tier Pauillac. Among the vintage’s dark horses is the brilliant 1961 Batailley. I have encountered this a few times over the years, and it continues to provide superb freshness and typicity on the nose and classic cedar and graphite notes on the palate. It is blessed with finer tannins than subsequent vintages over the following two decades – until recent years, when it has raised its game. The 1961 Pichon-Lalande was born two years after the death of proprietor Edouard Miailhe led to the division of properties between his children, a process that was drawn out over many years. The 1961 Pichon-Lalande is certainly superior to the 1961 Pichon-Baron that was languishing in mediocrity at that time. It has a lovely red- and black-fruit-driven bouquet displaying touches of cedar and brown spice. The palate is medium-bodied with a seductive silky texture, and while not as complex as its First Growth neighbor, the Pichon-Lalande has an admirable self-effacing, unpretentious quality that makes it thoroughly enjoyable.
We had only one representative from Saint-Estèphe. The 1961 Montrose was made during the era of Jean-Louis Charmolüe, who had taken over from his widowed mother as proprietor of the estate only the previous year. It is essentially 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, since all the Merlot was burned by the late spring frosts. I used to drink this regularly in the late 1990s, when you could pick up bottles for a song, though it has since become pricier. I have noticed some variation among bottles, several displaying a malodorous Bovril-like aroma on the nose. This was clean and enticing, the palate vigorous and tertiary in style, although unlike many of its peers, it begins to flag after 30 minutes in the glass. Drink soon. I also include a tasting note for the 1961 Calon-Ségur that I tasted elsewhere, although frankly it comes from a period when the wines were rustic and lags well behind Montrose and, for that matter, Cos d’Estournel, which I reviewed as part of last year’s published vertical.
We traveled down to Pessac-Léognan for the brilliant 1961 Haut-Brion, which I fortuitously tasted three times within a fortnight. As I mentioned in my introduction, this is a crucial wine, the first to be fermented in stainless steel vats. It delivers an enthralling game-scented bouquet of chestnut and truffle and a hint of scorched leather. This bottle was precise and focused. Maybe in this vintage it is just edged out by the heavenly 1961 La Mission Haut-Brion, but that should take nothing away from this awesome Graves. It was accompanied by a 1961 Pape-Clément, though this bottle had clearly seen better days. Last but not least, the 1961 d’Yquem. As mentioned in the summary of the growing season, this was not an outstanding year for Sauternes and many are eclipsed by the 1962s. Yquem produced a very fine sweet wine that is handicapped by a distinct lack of tension on the palate. It may well be in gentle decline.
While I eagerly anticipated this 1961 Bordeaux horizontal, I feared that these near-pensioners might have reached or passed their respective drinking plateaus. This evening proved the opposite: wines from the 1961 vintage were born with extraordinarily long shelf lives. The best deliver again and again, and show little sign of decline. Of course, provenance is paramount and anyone entertaining the idea of purchasing a 1961 should only buy from reputable sources.
At its pinnacle, the 1961 vintage is as good as it gets. Palmer, Latour, La Mission Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild deserve all the superlatives in the dictionary. The Right Bank does not possess quite as many superstars, although Petrus and Latour-à-Pomerol are fabulous, and hitherto my palate had not crossed paths with the renowned Lafleur or Trotanoy. The good news is that, as already mentioned in my opening paragraphs, 1961 is an equitable vintage that distributed quality throughout the entire hierarchy. I would rather spend my money on a lesser name with excellent provenance than a famous name with a little doubt.
In the small hours of the morning, Chairman Miaow returns to the dining room to inspect the damage. He is not amused. He pads imperiously around the lubricated guests and considers lapping remnants of the 1961 Palmer, but decides on a saucer of milk instead. Whatever they have been imbibing tonight, it must have been the cat’s whiskers.