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1961 - the greatest Bordeaux vintage of all time?
I am writing this during the primeur campaign and I notice that Bordeaux château owners and merchants have been exceptionally quiet this year. I've been following this part of the market remotely for almost 30 years now and have been told about a lot of the "vintages of the century". Once wines are bottled and sold or vice versa, as is the case in Bordeaux, these claims tend to be changed.
Who are the serious contenders for the title of “The Greatest Vintage Ever”?
During the 19th century there were a number of vintages with great reputations made from pre-phylloxera vines. These include the legendary "Vintage Comet" 1811, 1864, 1865, 1870, 1893, 1895 and 1899. Most are too old for anyone now alive to have tasted them in their prime.
During the 20th century, claims were raised for the vintages 1900, 1921, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949 (by me), 1959, 1961, 1982, 1989 and 1990.In the current century already three of the eight vintages produced – 2000, 2003 and 2005 – were mentioned by an overly excited press as candidates for the title, as well as the superb duo - 2009 and 2010.
In the book “The 1,000 Best Wines Ever Made” 1961 is the Bordeaux vintage most often mentioned, 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’s 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 life. It should be good to drink young, but it should also be able to age for a long time without losing its appeal. A good vintage produces wines that meet these requirements.
A great vintage, however, is equally good in all major regions of Bordeaux, both on the left bank and the right bank. It’s also a vintage where something special was produced in every appellation, from the lowest Cru Bourgeois to the most powerful Premier Cru.
1961 meets these requirements better than any other vintage.
This was the vintage where the most incompetent winemaker simply couldn't make a bad wine and the wines drank very well at an early stage; In most cases, they still do this today.
Some extremely impressive wines were produced in 1945, but these came primarily from the Left Bank and many of the wines had excessively high tannin levels, making them increasingly dry as they aged.
1947 produced the most amazing Right Bank wines, but many Left Bank wines had problems with volatile acidity.
1959 has produced a number of wines that are on the same level and sometimes even a bit higher than the corresponding '61, and some experienced wine critics like Michel Bettane prefer 1959 to 1961. But 1959 does not have the same consistent quality at all levels.
1982 undoubtedly produced a lot of very impressive wines but I have the impression that the Right Bank wines lack structure and have not aged very well and that very few Margaux and Médoc wines have had a great success. The twin vintages of 1989 and 1990, or 2009 and 2010 may come closest in overall quality, but it is still too early to judge their aging capabilities.
What made 1961 so special?
It was a very small harvest, the smallest since World War II. This was partly due to coulure (cold weather at flowering) and in some parts due to frost on the night of May 30-31, together reducing the yield per plant to about a third of the usual size at that time. period (which, compared to today's harvests, seems tiny). This concentrated the minerals and power of the vine among 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 hot and extremely dry. This drought meant that maturation took longer than the 100 days usually prescribed. The harvest was delayed until September 22, but benefited from perfect conditions. Thanks to better aging techniques, winemakers avoid the harsh tannins of 1945 and the volatility of 1947. The wines have a very deep color, an attractive nose and a ripe, concentrated and full-bodied fruitiness, with sufficient tannins and acidity to give the wines structure and freshness.
I organized a large tasting of over sixty years from 1961 to 1989 and all the wines were very good, even from small châteaux