Bordeaux 1966: 50 years on

By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com

9 December 2016

Wine is a drink for civilized discourse, as I found out yet again, close to my 50th birthday, over dinner with friends and family, with a horizontal of mostly 1966 Bordeaux.

Host Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier has a justified reputation as being savvy, gentlemanly, suave, fun loving and truly passionate about wine. Over dinner, he enjoys serving older wines blind that end in the same number of the current year, and asks dinner guests to make educated guesses.

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Olivier Bernard pouring 1966 Bordeaux. But which is which? With – from left to right – Shaun Bishop of JJ Buckley, Konstantina Kakaviatos Zaras (my sister) and Alexandre de Bethmann of Château Olivier

So as we approach the end of 1966 – a year which saw milestones like The Beatles’ Revolver or the first-ever car safety legislation in the U.S. that led to seatbelts, thanks to Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed – friends were treated to a line up of 1966 Bordeaux, because that vintage can be darn good. And because it was close to my birthday. Some readers may recall that I began the year in Washington D.C. with a similar tasting, although it was not blind.

Each person brought wine, with Olivier providing the lion’s share. Although we knew the wines, we did not know the order and thus had to make those “educated” guesses about which wine was which (“single blind,” as opposed to “double blind” when you have no clue about what wines are being served). As my dear wine-loving friend and fellow taster Michael Apstein says of blind tastings, let’s go make fools of ourselves. :-).

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Great table service from Jean-Marc, standing, and seated from left to right: Julie Bishop, Olivier Bernard and celebrated wine author Jane Anson

Seated across from Olivier Bernard was Jean-Claude Berrouet, winemaker and technical director for Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix (Petrus, among other Pomerol and Saint Emilion wines) since 1964. He said that 1966 was an easier harvest than 1964, and followed the disastrous 1965. He produced some 44 vintages and is deservedly known as a Bordeaux winemaking legend, much like a 3-star Michelin chef who devises and prepares great foods, as much on instinct as on intellect. He compared 1966 to the tannic 1975, but many 1966s seem to be smoother overall. His son Olivier Berrouet has taken over in recent years at Petrus, but both are present at barrel tastings in early April: a highlight of the tastings.

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Olivier busy using the Durand corkscrew, which is perfect for older bottles, as Jean-Claude Berrouet tastes wine for any faults.

Of a younger generation, Olivier Bernard was but 23 when he purchased Domaine de Chevalier in 1983. He and his team have worked hard to make the property’s red wines better than ever, while improving on the stellar reputation of its whites. His sons André and Hugo work to promote the estate – and other properties that Bernard has acquired since he began. André wrapped up an intense tour of various key Chinese markets this month, and he is beginning to master Mandarin. Of course no Bordeaux fan can resist the Graves region. Its advantage over other appellations is the strength of both its whites and its reds. Although the reds are majority Cabernet Sauvignon, typical of the “Left Bank”, they often tend to have more “inviting warmth” than Médoc wines to the north.

What an honor to have had the company of both Jean-Claude and Olivier at the same dinner for my birthday! Oliver also invited Alexandre de Bethmann of Château Olivier, also in the Pessac-Leognan appellation of the Graves and a great wine, too.

A disagreement worth 50 years  

Drinking such old wines made us ponder the question “What is Bordeaux?” A few of them seemed to show some green tannin, and Olivier said that we have learned over time to pick later. But how late? This was the focus of an article I had penned for Decanter Magazine nearly ten years ago, Ripe for Change. Related to that question – and still contested today – is how far should one go to extract tannin.

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Sharing a laugh while testing the wines – and in the back is Francis Anson

The answers to such questions prompted a fascinating and civil disagreement between Olivier and Jean-Claude. These fine gentlemen, who know so much about wine, basically disagreed about when grapes should be picked – and how much tannin to extract.

While not part of the so-called Michel Rolland School, Olivier said that grapes should be picked relatively later and that in ripe vintages, winemakers can – and should – extract more. Jean-Claude stressed the importance of maintaining “aromatic precursors” of fresher grapes, picked earlier, and that it is better to “resist the temptation” of extracting too much from a great vintage. Jean-Claude is known to have been among the very first in Pomerol to pick grapes (although having a precocious terroir like Petrus helps).

Indeed, one can factor how Left Bank (Domaine de Chevalier) and Right Bank (Petrus and other Pomerols) can justify each approach. At Domaine de Chevalier, with mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, and which also has a cooler microclimate, surrounded by forest, one can understand Olivier’s perspective. And while Merlots can be made more easily overripe – which makes Jean-Claude’s perspective quite understandable – it is more difficult to make Cabernet seem “overripe” even if one can experience that sensation with certain California Cabs, for example.

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What a line up!

As fellow dinner guest Francis Anson commented, it was like watching two great tennis players: your head turning to look to one side, then to the other.

To the more fundamental question of what is Bordeaux, the answer was encapsulated literally in bottle 50 years later – and from a vintage that is not as universally acclaimed as, say, 1959, 1961, or 1982. Age-worthy wines, including whites from that vintage, sometimes literally mystified our senses. There is a reason why auction houses often sell majority Bordeaux from earlier eras.

To the tasting notes: those in bold, I liked in particular; when red and bold, even more and when italicized, too, wine nirvana!

Before dinner, we gathered in the estate’s gorgeous living room. Anne Bernard was seated near the fireplace, keeping the logs aglow, as we got to know one another better over two 1996 Champagnes.

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The first, provided by Olivier Bernard, was a mature yet lively and finely textured Cuvee William Deutz Brut 1996. From memory, it exuded stone fruit aromatics and flavors with slight notes of hazelnut and toffee, providing a touch of complexity to the vibrant aspect of this wine that went down very smoothly. We all enjoyed it.

Then came one of my favorite Champagnes I know, which I brought to the dinner. The Dom Perignon Oenotheque 1996 spends more years on the lees in bottle than the regular Dom Perignon (for more details, here my article in Harpers). The chiseled precision of the vintage, with gorgeously fine bubbles provided magnificent texture. The color of the wine was younger looking than the Deutz, although both are from the same vintage. Guest Shaun Bishop, CEO of JJ Buckley wine importers in California, remarked that he would have thought that the wine was from 2008, had it been served blind. The flavors were toasty brioche, wet stone and fine citrus, of finesse and subtlety, and the length went on and on. Dinner guest and noted Bordeaux wine author Jane Anson tweeted that it counted among the top three wines of the evening, and I agree.

1966 … whites! 

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That’s me, to the left taking notes, Anne Bernard, wife of Olivier, and Jean-Claude Berrouet.

In a way, this flight was the most remarkable. Even among experienced tasters, how many people think 50-year-old Bordeaux whites (made with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) would be drinkable – and vibrant (even from half bottles) – today? Raise your hands.

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The half bottle of Château Malartic Lagraviere that was at first delicate and focused, to me at least, but lacked some mid-palate density and exuded some pyrazine (it was a bit under-ripe), as Olivier stressed. Shaun reminded us that had we enjoyed this alone, as a 1966 and from a half bottle to boot, it would have been very impressive indeed. Tellingly, Jean-Claude liked it more than Olivier, who focused more on the wine’s greenish aspects. Even still, the color was hardly suggestive of a half-century old white, Olivier stressed – and we all marveled at its freshness at such an old age.

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The best of the dry whites: Domaine de Chevalier 1966

A gorgeous Domaine de Chevalier fully overshadowed it, however, as the second wine. More contoured and complex, with aromatics and flavors that included saffron, ripe grapefruit rind and lime, “very citrus” as Olivier said, but with a full-bodied mid palate giving off notions of stone fruit, which Jean Claude sensed as well.

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Mango in glass, mango in the sauce: great combo :-). The 1966 whites from left to right: Malartic Lagraviere (half bottle), Domaine de Chevalier and De Fieuzal.

Exotic notes like mango rounded out the flavors, nicely matched by the starter of shrimp and foie gras on a bed of … chopped mango. Alexandre de Bethmann of Château Olivier thought it was the Château de Fieuzal. But the third wine turned out to be de Fieuzal, which was less refined, a bit “larger grained,” so to speak, yet thoroughly robust and even heady, with spicy apricot notes. It looked the most evolved of the three, but not quite deep gold in hue, either. It was delicious.

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Two 1966 Graves 

Then came two reds and most of us (not Anne Bernard, however) mistook one for the other. The more elegant and refined for me – and evidently smoky – turned out to be the Château La Mission Haut Brion. Olivier thinks that they may have picked too early in 1966, and he was surprised at a certain lack of density coming from the estate. I focused more on the aromatics as well as an “elegant” delivery. With time in glass, aspects turned more forest floor and leafy.

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The second turned out to be a rather superior Domaine de Chevalier: darker in color and denser in aspect, although perhaps not quite as fine grained. Where it turned more convincing to me was with its more youthful palate, more robust, and with pleasing iodine notes on the long finish: a lovely pairing with the young guinea fowl.

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A touch of vanilla in the sauce somehow matched the denser aspects of the Domaine de Chevalier better.

Three 1966 Médocs 

Of the three, one was among the top of the evening. The first of the trio was savory enough, dense and substantial, displaying some leather, meaty notes. We all guessed correctly that it was the Château Gruaud Larose, which Shaun had brought. It was good enough, although with a somewhat muted expression, which Olivier Bernard said amounted to a slightly faulty bottle. There was no cork issue, but the wine was just not very expressive.

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The second and third wines confused us a bit (though not Anne Bernard, who was spot on that evening). Served second, the Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, which I brought, exuded both floral and cigar box notes so typical of old Cabernet Sauvignon, but a certain delicate aspect (due to the Merlot?) made some of us, including myself, think it was Château Palmer, the third wine served, so generously offered by our host Olivier Bernard. While the Pichon had quite a bit of structure, the Palmer was denser, making some of us think of it almost as a Pauillac. However, over time in glass, the slightly austere structure of the Pichon (again perhaps picked a bit too early, said Olivier) felt more and more “Pauillac-like” in an “old school” manner. Indeed the nose on the Palmer – sheer perfume incense – gave it away as the Margaux early on, and that had been my first instinct. Olivier reminded us that first instincts are usually right in blind tastings. The density of the Palmer was amazing! A gorgeous wine that got better and better in glass. “Iris flower,” remarked Jean Claude. “Very floral, very Margaux,” remarked Francis Anson. Truly worth its reputation.

Three 1966 Right Banks 

On our way to a room near the kitchen, where Olivier had been opening the bottles before dinner with the Durand opener, I noticed the large cheese topped with black truffle. That and other cow milk-based cheeses were paired with this Merlot-dominated flight – and the pairing was wonderful, especially with the first two wines that matched the truffle very well.

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The first of the three, the Château Latour à Pomerol, had a regal nose and displayed opulence, density and length. For Olivier Bernard, it had a distinctly “masculine” aspect. But wine number two mystified us with sheer perfume, which leapt out of the glass and made us think: “This is what Bordeaux excellence should be.”

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Indeed, Château Cheval Blanc was the RWOTN (red wine of the night), albeit with Palmer a close second. And Latour à Pomerol not far behind. The floral elegance so intense, and yet so fresh, and even delicate on the nose. Olivier thought of it in so-called masculine terms. Here was “bold” but also graceful. For lovers of bold California Cabs, Cheval Blanc provides a Bordeaux contrast. The subtleness was stellar. And a wine that Robert Parker misunderstood at least twice, both scores (the latest in 2003) a mere 85 points.

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It was long, long and … long on the suave, floral and lifting finish: “You could literally taste the freshness,” said Francis Anson. “From a vintage like 1966, you would have expected older flavors and aromas,” he added. “The really good wines were so good, that everything else was overshadowed”. The third wine, Château Bonalgue, generously offered by the owners to Jane and Francis to bring to my birthday dinner, proved a case in point. Bonalgue would have been fine on its own; it was overshadowed this evening.

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Porto Kopke Colheita 1966

While I was in Lisbon for a Council of Europe conference, I visited the Garrafeira wine shop and bought this Colheita for the finish. While not as deep as a veritable vintage port, the Kopke Colheita 1966 proved delicious, having been aged in large old oak casks up to 2014, when it was bottled. “Mirabelle and quince jelly,” Jean-Claude Berrouet remarked. “So fresh and smooth and it did not taste its age,” Francis said. And a fine match to the mignardises for the end game.

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An above-the-glass view of the 1966 Port

We were 11 at dinner: Shaun Bishop of JJ Buckley Wines and his wife Julie; wine author Jane Anson and her husband Francis Anson, a Bordeaux negociant; Olivier and Anne Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier; my sister Konstantina Kakaviatos Zaras and her daughter Eleni Zaras; Jean-Claude Berrouet, who is currently an international wine consultant, Alexandre de Bethmann of Chateau Olivier and myself.

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A happy crew! Thanks again to all for coming and to Domaine de Chevalier for hosting!

Many thanks to Olivier and Anne for organizing the dinner and providing so many of the wines. A generous Christmas gift is heading their way. Thanks also to Shaun Bishop for providing transport to and from the estate for us Bordeaux-based guests that evening. And thanks to Jean-Claude Berrouet for providing the Cheval Blanc, which was one of the three wines of the evening, as well as the Latour à Pomerol, a top wine as well.

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With my niece and sister

This was a memorable 50-year birthday dinner.

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2 Comments on “Bordeaux 1966: 50 years on

  1. This was much more of a Grande Fête than my 50th a few years back but any mention of bordeaux from the sixties recalls a most special memory: my first taste of wine – any wine.
    It was in 1969 in a small restaurant in northern New Jersey. The wine was a half bottle of Gruaud Larose; the vintage was probably 1964 though it could have been the 1966. Knowing nothing, I actually asked the waitress if the brand was good but the first taste confirmed the accuracy of her recommendation. Thanks for this reminder and congrats on your first half century.

    • Thanks Larry! Cheers to you and best wishes for health and happiness in 2017.

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