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Retrospective Review

Retrospective Review: Volume I, Number 1 (August-September 1979)

John Tilson • 12/10/09        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


We are reproducing here a copy of the first issue of The Underground Wineletter. Below you’ll find an updated review of each article, where I will go over what we got right and what we got wrong. We will follow this format with each successive issue. So Volume I, Number 2 will be coming next. We think you will find the chronology will present a very interesting view of the evolution of many different wines as the “Wine Boom” took hold. At the end of this review you can click to read the entire issue. We welcome your comments.

In this, our first issue, we focused on why we felt there was a need for our publication.

Despite the quality of California Cabernet, we chose Pinot Noir as our first topic.  Why?  Because we felt that there was great potential for this virtually unknown wine.  At this time, hardly anyone was paying attention to this varietal.  Very little was planted in California and what was planted was in Napa and Sonoma and a little in the Santa Cruz Mountain area.  Today, plantings of Pinot Noir have proliferated in the Carneros area of Napa Valley, the Sonoma coast, Monterey, Carmel Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley.  We will write about many of these new wines in upcoming commentary.  But for now, suffice it to say that California Pinot Noir continues to be a wine in progress.  Certainly, the Ugly Duckling transformation that we predicted is well underway but it is still very much a work in progress.

In support of the potential for Pinot Noir we published tasting notes on old Pinot Noir vs. Old Burgundies.  No question these wines were very different, but the quality of some old Pinot Noirs supported our thesis that they deserved more recognition.  The 1946 Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir rated outstanding as did a 1952 Grands Echezeaux (Domaine de la Romanee-Conti).  We also liked two other old California Pinot Noirs – 1942 BV and 1951 Martin Ray – as well as the 1943 Romanee-Conti and 1947 Grands Echezeaux.  The 1943 Romanee-Conti was not the best bottle of this wine.  Since then there have been much better bottles.  Whereas for the 1947 Grands Echezeaux we noted that “…at the top of its form, the wine can be outstanding.”  A 1949 Inglenook and a 1943 Wente “Pinot Grape” fared less well.  And, I must confess that I have not tasted either of these wines since.  In fact, they may very well no longer exist!

In our selected tasting notes on California Pinot Noir for recent vintages entitled “The Ugly Duckling Transformation Begins,” we reviewed the beginnings of the quest for great California Pinot Noir.  Of particular interest, is the fact that many wineries were just beginning to try to produce Pinot Noir with decidedly mixed results.  We talked first of dull, insipid wines.  And, we noted that with others the emphasis was on a big, rich style Pinot Noir made in relatively small quantities.

We reviewed wines from the 1975, 1976 and 1977 vintages.  One 1975 Pinot Noir was from Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards.  It was the first release from this new winery and weighed in at 14½% alcohol.  In its youth it was a robust, heady wine.  Today it has softened and shows lovely complex flavors. The wine shows absolutely no sign of decline and has developed beautifully.

In 1976, we favored a Carneros Creek Pinot Noir from grapes coming from the Carneros District of Napa Valley.  Alas, we have not tasted the wine since.

The 1977s were led by a stunning Pinot Noir from Chalone Vineyards.  The grapes for this wine came from the estate vineyards in what is now the Chalone District in Monterey County.    The first Pinot Noir from Chalone was the 1969 which was a legendary California Pinot Noir, but we felt it was surpassed by the 1977.  And, indeed, today the 1977 is still remarkable with great balance, flavor, complexity and with no sign of decline!  Interestingly, the 1978 which followed from Chalone was also stunning and could hold its own against the top 1978 Burgundies in blind tastings.  It remains a stunning wine today – very Burgundian with  its complexity and velvety texture.  The pair of 1977 and 1978 Chalone Pinot Noirs today rank as two of the very best old Pinot Noirs one could hope to drink.  I don’t think they have been matched since although the 1998 is also terrific.

We also liked the 1977 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir commenting that it showed more elegance than the 1975 without a sacrifice in flavor.  This is true today.  The wine is still lovely with complex flavors and showing no sign of decline.  Some of the others we liked we mentioned as “not particularly Burgundian in style”  (Kenwood’s Jack London Vineyard from the Glen Ellen area of Sonoma).  Others we described as intense, rich, and high in extract – not unlike Petite Sirah, except softer, with a luscious texture and good balance (Sanford & Benedict from what is now the Santa Rita Hills appellation).  Interestingly, Santa Barbara County is now known for this big, intense style of Pinot Noirs and also for big, intense Syrahs!

We also described others as hard, tannic, stemmy and woody.  This was in reference to the early efforts of Mt. Eden.  But, soon after this was written, there was a change at Mt. Eden.  Jeffrey Patterson came aboard and the wines steadily improved.  Today, Mt. Eden makes very refined, elegantly styled Pinot Noir.  In fact, they are some of the most Burgundian-styled Pinot Noirs made in California.  The 1984, 1988, 1990, 1991 and 1994 vintages have been particularly successful.

We also chose to review the 1975 Bordeaux vintage which, because of the serious recession in the U.S.,  had been largely sold outside the U.S.  It was widely hyped as “the best since 1961…,”  “vintage of the century,” etc.  We concluded that it was “a very good vintage,” that should rank  at least as good as 1966 and 1970, but not up to the exalted level of the superlative 1961 vintage.  But we did find a number of wines we felt would be extraordinary.  These were led by La Mission Haut Brion, Palmer, Calon-Segur, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Leoville-las-Cases, Petrus and Pichon Lalande.  Quite a few others were rated very good, led by Latour Haut Brion (the “second wine” of La Mission Haut Brion), Trotanoy, Cheval Blanc, Gruaud Larose, Haut Brion (where we said “Alas, poor Haut Brion.  The Chateau has produced a really good 1975, only to be outclassed by the upstart across the road.”  Interestingly, it was not much longer until Haut Brion purchased La Mission Haut Brion!), Montrose, Mouton Rothschild, Ducru Beaucaillou, Duhart Milon Rothschild, Pichon Baron, Beychevelle, Cantemerle, Latour Pomerol and Le Gay.

For 1975, there have been several really nice wines evolve.  La Mission Haut Brion continuously has proven to be a great wine as has Petrus.  Also, Lafleur, which we initially found disappointing, has proven to be a fabulous wine.  Lafite and Pichon Lalande are also very nice.  Somewhat disappointing, relative to most expectations, are Leoville-las-Cases and Latour.  On the other hand, Trotanoy has proven to be really nice.  Some others that we initially rated highly have remained hard and tannic, with Palmer and Calon Segur being prime examples.  So while there were far fewer truly great wines from this vintage than we  initially expected, there were indeed a handful of superstars..

All in all, the 1975 vintage may have proven to be better than 1966.  The 1966 vintage, with a few exceptions, produced wines that have remained hard and quite dry. However, 1975  may be a touch behind 1970, given the number of really terrific 1970s, Petrus, Latour, Palmer, Trotanoy, l’Evangile and Ducru-Beaucaillou.  But, remember in the context of the 1963 – 1975 period there were only a few vintages that produced wines of much interest.  In 1964, Latour made a great wine and there were a few other really nice wines such as Petrus and Cheval Blanc.  In 1967, there are a few very nice wines such as La Mission Haut Brion and only one great wine which is Petrus.  In fact, 1967 Petrus is really great.  Then there is 1971 which produced some very nice wines in Pomerol and St. Emilion, once again led by Petrus and Cheval Blanc.  The other vintages of the 1963-75 period, 1963, 1965, 1968, 1969, 1972, 1973 and 1974 were all pretty dreadful.  In fact, in these years many California Cabernets from Napa Valley were superior to any of the wines from Bordeaux.

So, in retrospect, I believe our 1975 Bordeaux review was a bit exuberant and several wines were over-rated.  But, the race may not yet be over.  For instance, the 1928 Palmer took decades to come around, but today it is absolutely delicious and has been that way for the past 25 years or so.  Maybe it’s a long shot, but there still could be hope for the 1975 Palmer and maybe even a few others.

But, from 1975 forward, things were about to get a lot better in Bordeaux.  First came 1976, 1978, 1979 and 1981, all of which produced some very nice wines, especially in the context of the very difficult years of the 1960s and early 1970s.  Then came 1982, acclaimed as the vintage of the century, it was certainly the best since the 1959 and 1961 vintages, but vintage of the century?  Not! However, for the period of the 1980s into the 1990s, there were many very good to excellent vintages.  The millennium started off with a bang as the great 2000s were born.  Strangely, it was a repeat of the last millennium when the great 1900 vintage kicked things off.

As the years have rolled by since 2000, we seem to be in a new era for Bordeaux.  There have been two other great vintages, 2003 and 2005, but they are very different.  We now seem to have many great wines nearly every year.  Gone are the thin, out of balance wines of yesteryear.  But today there are heavy wines that people love, although their balance and potential to age gracefully is suspect.  But that is a story for another day.  Stay tuned.  There is much more to come as we move forward to take another stab at the future, not only for Bordeaux, but other areas for both Europe and the New World of California, Washington, Oregon, Australia, New Zealand and South America.


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