In early 1981 we published Volume II, Number 3. I think it is one of the more interesting of the early issues of THE UNDERGROUND WINELETTER. It gives a glimpse of what was happening in the world of fine wine from a review of a great Red Burgundy Vintage (featuring the first ever reviews of the great 1978 Henri Jayers) to a comprehensive review of the emerging market for California Cabernets and a view of Champagne that is radically transformed today. Below is my review of this issue and at the end of the article there is a link to the entire issue just as it was published over 30 years ago!
One Winedrinker’s Opinion – 1980 is NOT “The Vintage of the Century”
This editorial was written by Geoffrey Troy, West Coast Associate Editor. In it he comments on the “vintage of the century” hype that was so prevalent with new Bordeaux vintages. He called it the “greatest wine advertising jingle of all times.” And, he goes on to describe some of the great proclamations that proved to be nothing more than hot air. It was so crazy that one would think that it had run its course. But, what none of us knew then, was that this already over-used phrase would continue to be used over and over for the next 30 years. In fact, today the cry seems to be getting louder and louder. I now wonder if there is, in fact, such a thing as a “vintage of the century”. After all, that is, by definition, only one every 100 years! So go ahead get ahead of the hoopla and pick your own “vintage of the century”!
1978 Red Burgundies
Our lead article was on 1978 Red Burgundies. A short crop and ripe grapes with good acidity made this one of the most highly anticipated vintages of the previous two decades. After the first tastings, I described the 1978s as “At their best, the wines are deep colored and complete, possessing the depth, concentration, and body of classic Burgundies from decades long past.” And, at the very top were the wines of a then unknown grower and producer named Henri Jayer. My friends and I had only just discovered the newly imported Henri Jayer Red Burgundies. For some strange reason, there were at least three importers of the wines and all were on the West Coast. Kermit Lynch and Martine’s Wines were the two from which we purchased most of our wines. I will never forget the evening that my friends and I sat at my dining room table and tasted a range of 1978 Red Burgundies blind. Included were the 1978 Jayer’s. They were some of the greatest young Burgundies any of us had ever tasted. And they had an incredible purity unlike any other Burgundy that any of us had ever encountered. Jayer’s Richebourg placed at the very top and a picture of that wine was to grace the cover of this issue. I called it “One of the finest Burgundies produced in the last two decades.” The Echezeaux, Vosne-Romanee “Cros Parantoux”, Vosne-Romanee “Les Brulees”, and Vosne-Romanee “Beaumonts” all were rated Outstanding as well. Information was not so widely available then as it is now (and that’s an understatement – think the postal service and maybe telephone, if you could get over the language barrier, vs. the internet!). So we decided that we would head to Burgundy that year to get a first hand look. (More on this later. Stay tuned!) Also Outstanding were the Volnay “Champans” from de Montille and the Chambertin and Romanee St. Vivant from Louis Latour. In total 73 wines were reviewed – 8 of which were Outstanding (including the 5 from Henri Jayer), 34 were Very Good, 29 Good, and 2 Below Average. Prices ranged from $17 (which included Morey-Saint-Denis “Clos de Bussiere” from J.M. Roumier) to $96 for Musigny from Louis Latour (the Musigny from J.M. Roumier was $42.50 and a better wine). I said this about the Latour Musigny “It may lack a bit in depth and intensity, but not in price.” And, speaking of price, the Jayer Richebourg was $87.50 (very expensive at the time) and the Jayer Cros Parantoux was $38.00. (A great wine, but at that time no one had heard of this vineyard. That was all about to change.) Sadly, Henri is with us no more, but his legacy will forever be etched in the minds and palates of all those who were fortunate enough to drink his wines over the next 25 years or so.
There is no question that there were great 1978 Red Burgundies and we were to taste many more over the coming months and years. But, there was a lot of variability. I certainly loved the best wines, especially the Jayer’s, but the conclusion was inescapable. I said “…many of the wines despite their lofty price tags, are not terribly big, interesting, or extraordinary….Selection cannot be overly stressed with regard to the 1978 Red Burgundies. The best are very expensive, but very few are cheap – good or bad. Those who buy indiscriminately are likely to be disappointed and a lot poorer.” This proved to be sage advice, but those who bought the best wines (like the Jayer’s) were destined to be repaid in pleasure and monetary value far beyond any ones wildest dreams. (The Jayer wines that remain – including, sadly, some that are no doubt counterfeit, now sell in the thousands and tens of thousands dollars a bottle! And, this is despite the fact that most have now passed their peak.)
1977 California Cabernet Sauvignons
Next was a report on the 1977 California Cabernet Sauvignons. The 1977 vintage was the second year of a drought. But production was up from the severely reduced 1976 crop as a result of higher production and a 30% increase in bearing acreage. The 1978 vintage resulted in a further increase in production. And, while it had been for a very long time that California Cabernets were quite limited, that was changing. California was rapidly growing from Cabernets that were produced in limited quantities to a much larger production both in terms of total quantity and number of wineries. These facts resulted in my observation that these factors “…virtually assures that wine drinkers everywhere will be able to experience some of California’s finest.” And, little did I imagine what a dramatic proliferation of wineries and wines would result in the upcoming years!
In all, 114 1977 California Cabernet Sauvignons were reviewed. Only one was rated Outstanding, Trefethen Estate. Some 33 wines were rated Very Good, with 66 rated Good, and 14 Below Average. The prices ranged from a low of $5 (including a Louis M. Martini “California” bottling that was rated Best Buy) to $25 for Mount Eden Estate which was one of the top 6 wines. The top rated Trefethen was $8.50. Caymus Estate was $10 as was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Diamond Creek. Interestingly, a wine rated Below Average and very near the bottom was Chateau Chevalier “Napa Valley, Second Crop” at $15. The wine had a back label that gushed “A very unique wine for your enjoyment.” And …”may be the first of its kind ever made.” I read the label, tasted the wine, and had this to say “The back label speaks for itself, except that the grapes might as well have stayed on the vine.” Also, rated Below Average and near the bottom was Sanford and Benedict Vineyards (a pioneer winery in Santa Barbara County) at $9.50. Here’s what I had to say “This Santa Ynez Valley Cabernet is a huge wine with a very dark color and a predominant weedy/grassy/herbaceous quality. It is alcoholic and grapy with a sweet/sour taste in the mouth. The chocolate-like richness doesn’t fit with the other grassy flavors – chocolate covered grass?”
The conclusion that I reached at this time regarding the 1977s was “A very good vintage that is likely to be overshadowed by the 1978s.” I think that is still probably true. But, the one thing I now know, as a result of drinking the wines over the last 30 years, is that I under-rated many of the 1977s, including such wines as the Mount Eden Estate, all the Diamond Creeks (including the phenomenal “Gravelly Meadow” which was initially austere, but has now developed into a really stunning wine), and several others. I know this vintage very well as our only child, Jeff, was born in 1977. I bought a lot of 1977 Cabernets and have been drinking them for many years. I will publish a review of these wines tasted over the last few years in a future article. The results are amazing! Stay tuned.
I believe this article is especially interesting because it shows a wide spectrum of the California Cabernet Sauvignons that were being made at that time. The wines varied tremendously in quality and price. There were some great wines, but there were also many poor wines with descriptions like vinegar, turnips, rotten, skunky, weedy, vegetative, and musty. And, things were so whacky that some of the worst wines were priced higher than some of the best wines! In many respects, California wine had come a long way, but it was clearly amateur night for a lot of the players. Over the next decade, things improved dramatically as everyone pushed the envelope to improve. (Sadly, I believe, since then, in many instances, we have pushed too far. The underachievers who made very poor wines have now been replaced by those who make extracted, monolithic, and very expensive wines. Time will tell where this is headed, but, as I have been saying for some time, I think the pendulum is about to swing back toward the center.)
Currently Available Brut Champagnes
Almost from the very beginning (To read the Retrospecive Review of Volume I, Number 3 click here )
I was writing about Champagne. I loved it from the time I first tasted it and that remains true today. Along the way I have made many converts. My wife likes a glass or two each evening. It remains probably the most versatile and best beverage in the world. In the first article referenced above, I said this about Champagne “It has no peer and nothing else deserves the name.” And with this issue, only a year later, the prices of Champagne were rising as a result of a short crop and increasing demand. This rise in prices lead to this comment “…our advice is simple. Stock up now before prices escalate further.”
In this article a total of 79 Champagnes were reviewed – 28 Brut Limited Vintage, 18 Brut Vintage, 22 Non Vintage Brut, and 11 Brut Roses. The conclusions on each category and notes on some of the wines are as follows:
Brut Limited Vintage – “…price and quality are often not synonymous.” Out of 28 wines tasted in this group, the 1973 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs was the only one rated Outstanding. 1973 Charbaut Certificate Blanc de Blancs, 1973 Piper-Heidsieck Florens-Louis Blanc de Blancs and 1973 Pol Roger Blancs de Chardonnay were close behind. Next were several others including 1973 Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon. This Champagne was under-rated. With additional age it blossomed into a great Champagne. I had magnums (only one left) and they were magnificent. The worst was a 1961 Gosset RD which was badly oxidized despite a recent disgorgement. This was probably due to poor storage. But, we did not have another bottle to try. Prices ranged from $53 for the Dom Perignon and $50 for the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and the Gosset RD to $16 for a Jospeh Perrier Cuvee Royal Blanc de Blancs.
Brut Vintage – “If you are looking for top quality Champagne at prices only about one-half those of the Limited Champagnes, then this is your wine.” Of 18 Champagnes tasted 1975 Billecart-Salmon Cuvee N.F. Billecart was the only one rate Outstanding with this comment “…this has got to be the best Champagne value available. It was priced at $18. The next 15 wines rated Very Good and were priced from $36 for 1971 Krug to $16 for 1975 Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royale. Following was one wine rated Good and one wine rated Below Average,
Brut Non Vintage – “Although a few of the best bargains are available in non-vintage Champagnes, for a few dollars more some Vintage Brut Champagnes have a lot more to offer. In addition, with non-vintage wines, consumers have no way of knowing which cuvee they are buying. Old, poorly stored cuvees can be oxidized and over-the-hill.” That is a refrain that I have echoed repeatedly over the years. And, even though storage today is much better and there are less problems with oxidized wines now I still strongly believe several things. First, non vintage Champagne should be re-named. Almost anything beginning with “non” is not good and a negative. Second, all Champagnes that are a blend of different grapes from different harvest should disclose that information on the back label along with the disgorgement date. Stay tuned. I will have a lot more on this in later commentaries. In this category Krug, Perrier-Jouet, Pol Roger, Taittinger, and Veuve Cliquot were at the top with Very Good ratings. Prices ranged from $32 for Krug to $12 for de Venoge and around $11 for Lanson which were also were rated Very Good just below the others.
Brut Rose – Rose Champagnes were just starting to transcend the stigma of being “pink” at the time that this article was written. Many people associated “pink” with cheap or inferior. My friends and I had developed an early passion for Rose Champagne and drank it often. Others were more skeptical so I said “Be the first on your block to have a Rose Champagne tasting.” Of the 11 Rose Champagnes reviewed (there were a lot less Rose Champagnes being made then as compared to today) 1975 Roederer rated at the very top. It was followed by NV Billecart-Salmon, 1973 Bollinger, NV Laurent-Perrier, 1974 Roederer Cristal, and 1973 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne. Prices ranged from $90 for the Roederer Cristal to $17 for the NV Joseph Perrier which was rated a bit lower, but still Very Good. The 1975 Roederer was $36 and the NV Billecart-Salmon (which was the next highest rated) was $18.
To read the entire edition of The Underground Wineletter, Volume ll, Number 3 click here . The Retrospective Review of Volume ll, Number 4 and the posting of the issue in its entirety will follow soon. It features my One Winedrinker’s Opinion article entitled “Is There Such a Thing as Great Wine?” This is followed by articles on Vintage Port, More 1978 Red Burgundies, More 1978 White Burgundies, California Cabernet Sauvignons, California Chardonnays, Cellar Notes, and Coming Attractions. Stay Tuned!
In Vino Veritas,