Bordeaux 1966, fifty years on (and other surprises)
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
13 January 2016
I have to thank my lucky stars for the great wine loving friends I have in Washington D.C. Since I am turning … 50 in December this year, I wanted to organize a 1966 dinner. And so six of us gathered at the famous wine friendly restaurant Ripple in Washington DC to pop some corks from many half-century old bottles. One participant, Laurent Lee, had just celebrated his 50th birthday. The result? A great time.
1966 was an Indian Summer vintage, it is said. While the summer was not optimal, sunny September weather helped ripen grapes enough to make some excellent wines – especially in the Medoc.
Of course winemaking was different back then, with less selection in the vineyard, and earlier picking times, so alcohol levels sometimes did not even reach 12%. You want to talk about old school? This is it.
Several factors had to be taken into account. First and foremost, such old wine means that you have to rely on the quality of the cork over time. Second, the producer. Even a great terroir cannot result in a great wine if the producer is negligent. Kevin Shin, Ken Brown, Laurent Lee, Chris Bublitz, David Zimmerman and I had brought top notch classified growths, including Latour, Margaux, Ducru Beaucaillou, Montrose, Pichon Baron and Haut Bailly. The wines were well matched with the excellent cuisine at Ripple. The duck breast I ordered for example was perfectly seared, with really tasty spaghetti shaped squash. Others enjoyed roasted venison loin, or the restaurant’s perfect roseda farms new york strip and a yummy potato-parsnip gratin, which I have ordered in the past. Read on for the notes : when in bold, I liked particularly; in red and bold even more. If underlined, too, wine nirvana.
Please be sure to read the excellent notes from this 1966 dinner by my friend Kevin Shin, who is a world class wine taster:
- 2008 Larmandier-Bernier Champagne Terre de Vertus Premier Cru – France, Champagne, Côte des Blancs, Champagne
This was a lip smacking delicious Champagne, with a creamy aspect perhaps more than expected given the vintage and the fact that it is zero dosage. Ken Brown, who brought it, suggested that the estate must have picked very ripe grapes, as 2008 is a vintage known for its acidity. Perhaps. I found it balanced and smooth, with a fine bead and a long finish marked by a toasty brioche aspect as well as citrus. I recall visiting the estate a few years ago and very much enjoying their wines.
More info about the wine: Made from only Chardonnays, coming from vineyard plots Les Barillers and Les Faucherets situated mid-slope in Vertus, facing south-east.
Natural alcoholic fermentation (natural yeast) and malolactic fermentation in casks, wooden vats and stainless-steel tanks. The wines are left on their natural lees for nearly a year and undergo gentle bâtonnages, but no filtering or fining, according to the website.
Then the bottles are then taken down into their cool cellars, where second fermentation and maturation ‘on laths’ quietly take place over a period of some 4 years. (92 pts.)
- 2002 Pol Roger Champagne Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill – France, Champagne
An excellent special cuvee Champagne from one of my favorite producers. Indeed, I love their NV Brut as a “go to” Champagne. Dominated by Pinot Noir, but the house never reveals percentages. When opened prior to the dinner with staff at Ripple restaurant, store manager Caroline Blundell was impressed by its creamy smoothness. Indeed, the bubbles were very fine, and it came across as almost buttered brioche, yet the excellent acidity of the 2002 vintage lent this wine energy to match the vigor, as it was full bodied. While not as impressive in density (and charm) as a Salon 1996 that I had one week ago, this is a gorgeous bottle of bubbly – with a long vinous finish. (94 pts.)
- 1990 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne Brut La Grande Dame – France, Champagne
This bottle left me perplexed as the initial nose was disagreeably musky. The palate was better and some of the initial nose blew off, but there was an impression of oxidation, rusty aspects to the palate as well. The body was there, there was substance and vinosity on the palate, but the flavors were somewhat past due or even a bit faulty, if not corked. NR (flawed)
Two white Burgs
- 2012 Anne Boisson Meursault Sous La Velle – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Meursault
I enjoyed the reductive aromas that greeted me upon trying the wine, along with wet stone like aspects. I have never had Anne Boisson but have bought Pierre Boisson Meursault, so thanks to Kevin Shin for bringing this wine. I enjoyed the palate, too, with stone fruit expressions along with tropical. But 2012 often lacks verve and so did this wine in the end. It was delicious and flavorful. (90 pts.)
- 2009 Bouchard Père et Fils Chevalier-Montrachet – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru
When I opened this for Caroline Blundell and Ripple restaurant owner Roger Marmet we all loved it. Of course, 2009 is a warmer vintage but the terroir of Chevalier Montrachet is cool – and the winemaking at Bouchard has been hitting on all cylinders in recent years.
Thus an excellent wine. Full bodied, with a sense of high dry extract lending density, yet supple and subtle, white stone fruit notes, such as very ripe pear, combined with wet stone led to a long and satisfying finish. Yes, this wine lacks the freshness of, say, 2008 or 2010, but I suspect that over time, it will age gracefully provided that there is no premature oxidation. Not a hint of that, at this 5+ year mark in bottle… (95 pts.)
1966 Bordeaux part 1
- 1966 Château Haut-Bailly – France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
When it comes to such old wines, we can only talk of great bottles – to some extent. Certainly 1966, my birth year, will be visited loads in 2016 . I love Haut Bailly as a producer of refined Graves yet this comes from another era, albeit related to the current one. In 1955, after a string of apparently poorly managed vintages, Belgian wine merchant Daniel Sanders bought the property and improved quality and restored the estate’s reputation. Sanders’ granddaughter Veronique Sanders has been general manager and since 1998 American banker Robert G. Wilmers owns Haut Bailly. How was this bottle? Well, the initial nose was somewhat marred by bandaid and less than fresh aspects, but that blew off. Remember that opening such an old wine is like opening the doors to an old house you have not been to for an entire year. Chris Bublitz had decanted it and it was served from a carafe. Overall, it was tasty. Even if some underripe grapes may have been used to create this, the September sunshine of the 1966 Indian Summer vintage no doubt brought some ripe fruit that was shining from bottle 50 years later. I could sense an inner core of sweetness, like baked fruit. There was some stone, some earthiness, underbrush that was not too tired either. Still, both Kevin Shin and I used the words “wet sock” to describe part of its flavor profile. I give it a 90 because, heck, it was not only solid but tasty. And this is a 50 year old… Thanks Chris for bringing this! (90 pts.)
- 1966 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou – France, Bordeaux, Médoc, St. Julien
Chris Bublitz pulled a rabbit out of his wine collection hat with this half bottle of Ducru Beaucaillou 1966: the aromas were vividly dark fruit, cassis for example, and hardly reflecting 50 years of age. The entire table – we were six – claimed that had this wine been served blind, we would have guessed a wine from the late 70s if not 80s. The palate had far more density and substance as compared to the Haut Bailly 66 tasted along with it. If I were to be a bit critical, I would say that as dense as it was, it was a bit monotone – there was not that layered floral elegance you would expect from a top notch St Julien, but this is splitting hairs for a 50 year old wine, especially coming from a half bottle. There was still fruit with pleasing graphite notes leading to a medium plus/long finish. It was consumed quite quickly… (94 pts.)
1966 Bordeaux, part 2 with a Napa Valley surprise
- 1966 Château Margaux – France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Margaux
Here we go back in time with a first growth. At the time, Chateau Margaux was not exactly hitting on all cylinders. It was managed by Bernard Ginestet, who was by all accounts a great writer. He had published many books on Bordeaux appellations, summing up and rating each estate with a star system. I have some of his books. But many old timers in Bordeaux say that he was a more gifted writer than chateau manager. Whatever the case may be, Margaux does not enjoy a high reputation in 1966, and it was proved by this tasting – but only my so much. Laurent and I enjoyed the aromatics most among our group, I think. There was a beguiling fine milk chocolate aroma for example that kept me sniffing. It was not quite floral, but some dry floral notes emerged. Alas the palate was not up to the aromatic promise, as the wine had a metallic and somewhat rusty tannin aspect – and a somewhat short finish, which especially for a first growth is not very rewarding. And yet, there was enough gas left in this half century wine to enjoy with ricotta cavatelli and venison bolognese… (90 pts.)
- 1968 Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – USA, California, Sonoma County
Was this the first bottle of 1960s era Napa Valley wine I have ever had? I do not recall having such an old wine, so my experience here is extremely limited. David brought this bottle since he did not have any Bordeaux 1966 handy… And it was just delicious. I mean, it had a very ripe fruit aspect, blackberry and plum jam going on. Some of our group suggested Petit Syrah in the blend and I have not a clue. It was definitely more youthful than the Margaux 1966 tasted along with it, and for many drinkers a better wine. I give it a rather high score because of this youthful aspect, but there was something a bit monolithic about it, too. It did not have the complexity or nuance of either the Ducru Beaucaillou or the Pichon Baron. But the density and fruit was there. Nice job! (92 pts.)
1966 Bordeaux, part 3
- 1966 Château Pichon-Longueville Baron – France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Pauillac
Well, well, well… Pichon Baron, it is said, did not have its most glorious moments in history in the 60s and 70s (the 50s were apparently superb), and yet this 1966, which Ken Brown had purchased on sale 10 years ago, he said, for … $19.99 was the best of the 1966 Bordeaux we enjoyed. The aromas were similar to Ducru Beaucaillou but perhaps more tertiary, certainly typical of words used to describe Pauillac with cedar and cigar box galore. Perhaps not as youthfully fruit driven as the Ducru, but the pleasing Pauillac perfume here was unmistakable. The palate followed through marvelously with density and power, and a sense of tannin that was still present with vigor on the full bodied palate, that was round and smooth, as well. The long finish however betrayed the age, as it was just somewhat drying and slightly rough on the edges but let’s not bicker. This was a great bottle of wine. Bravo! (95 pts.)
- 1966 Château Latour Grand Vin – France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Pauillac
Well, Latour is known to be one of the very top of the 1966s. Alas the fill level was not the best, and indeed it showed too much volatile acidity to be really appreciated. Having said this, getting past that aspect, the density in this wine was unmistakable – and very impressive. I did not drink it really but appreciated the potential greatness of this wine! NR (flawed)
- 1966 Château Montrose – France, Bordeaux, Médoc, St. Estèphe
This turned out to be quite good indeed. I had earlier used the Coravin to try it out along with the Montrose 1986. While the Montrose 1986 was somewhat closed and marked by tannin, with a slightly monotone graphite aspect, the 1966 was far more open by comparison – with some baked red fruit on the nose and touches of cedar. The palate was open knit, with somewhat high acidity, and echoing fruit that must have been picked just ripe enough. Indeed, it was likely to be about 12% alcohol even if the importer label read “11%” … I really enjoyed the wine but it lacked the power and density of the Pichon Baron and the youthful punch of the Ducru Beaucaillou. Medium bodied, medium finish, taste and lovely for 50 years of age. (92 pts.)
1966 Port: heaven
- 1966 Fonseca Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto*
Here we arrive at a situation where points are kind of meaningless. I almost felt like saying 100. The aromas made me think: Dang, this is going to be delicious. And it was. Christmas still in mind, I was thinking frankincense incense and myrrh. The palate exuded such complexity, too, a wide variety of flavors including certainly dry flowers, fruitcake spice, red and black berry fruits, dark chocolate among others. Fire like youth on the palate, as the brandy exuded quite a bit of power-punching heat but not so much as to whack it out of balance. The overall impression? A meal unto itself of the utmost elegance and poise. Long finish. Wine of the evening… Thank you Chris Bublitz! (98 pts.)
There is something magical about enjoying older wines. You think of the vintage and what was going on back then. So 1966 was a year of great music, such as two superb Beatles albums in Rubber Soul and Revolver. It was also the height of the Cold War. US involvement in Vietnam was growing much to the dismay of the public, although it was not yet a year of mass protests, as we saw in 1968 – which at least yielded that excellent Napa Valley wine, thanks to David for bringing that bottle. The 1966 port however stole the show!