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Retrospective Review

Retrospective Review Volume III, Number 6

John Tilson • 6/23/13        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


In the summer of 1982, Volume III, Number 6 offered the following articles: One Winedrinker’s Opinion – A Case For Old Burgundies, Coming Attractions, 1979 Bordeaux, California Cabernet Sauvignons, More 1979 Red Burgundies, Distinctive New Wines, California Chardonnays, Selected Tasting Notes, Barrels and Bottles, and Cellar Notes. We are currently reproducing a copy of Volume III, Number 6 of The Underground Wineletter. Also there is a Retrospective Review which has an updated review of each article with commentary on what we got right and what we got wrong. This format will be followed with each successive issue.  So Volume IV, Number 1 will be coming next. The issues present a very interesting view of the evolution of many different wines as the “wine boom” took hold. At the beginning and the end of this Retrospective Review you can click to read the entire issue. We welcome your comments.



Volume III, Number 6 was one of the most diverse of all Underground issues in terms of the types of wines reviewed, range of prices, areas of production, and age of the wines. It also featured a new 6 star rating system added that corresponded to the 15-20 range of the 20-point scale. There was a One Winedrinker’s Opinion commentary on old Burgundies where Edward Lazarus talked about the aging ability and quality of old Burgundies dating back to 1929. Coming Attractions listed the wines to be reviewed in future issues. The feature article was 1979 Bordeaux which was a follow up to our tasting of the wines earlier in Bordeaux which was reported in Volume III, Number 4 as a Barrels and Bottles article. (In that article we offered the following commentary: “We tasted the wines in Bordeaux and offered notes with no rankings noting that we would offer ratings after doing our regular blind tastings.”) This article was based on eight separate blind tastings of the wines as they arrived here and we rated Margaux and Petrus at the top. And there were three follow up articles on California Cabernet Sauvignons, 1979 Red Burgundies, and California Chardonnays. Distinctive New Wines offered notes on mostly Rhone wines as well as Beaujolais and also a note on the 1979 Clos de la Coulée de Serrant. Selected Tasting Notes featured our inaugural article on Italian wines and covered currently available Chianti Classicos over a 20 year period from 1959 to1979. Barrels and Bottles featured notes on Burgundies tasted in Burgundy the previous November and focused on the wines of Jobard, Michelot, Coche-Dury, Chevillon, Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Henri Jayer, and Leroy. Cellar Notes featured notes on a tasting of 13 different Graves from the 1961 vintage. This was the first report on a tasting of 131 different Bordeaux from the 1961 vintage and we detailed how the tasting was conducted. Subsequent issues featured the notes on the 1961s from the other areas of Bordeaux. We also noted that this 1961 Bordeaux tasting done in early 1982 was the greatest tasting of these wines ever done anywhere in the world. It is still today a fascinating read.


A Case For Old Burgundies?

In One Winedrinker’s Opinion, Edward Lazarus, West Coast Associate Editor, makes the case for old Burgundies. He notes that Bordeaux receives all the attention for older wines from great vintages, while Burgundies are relatively ignored. He goes on to say that this is not justified given that “…Burgundies from fine properties age just as well as, if not better than their Bordelaise counterparts. Excellent bottles from such great Burgundy vintages as 1911, 1915, 1919, and 1923 still exist whereas fully sound bottles of somewhat comparable Bordeaux vintages, such as 1906 and 1920, are unusual indeed.” He goes on to compare Burgundies and Bordeaux from the great 1929 vintage and makes reference to a recent Underground tasting of 16 1929 Burgundies with the statement “…Whereas all but a very few 1929 Bordeaux are now well past their prime, the Burgundies tasted on this occasion, with only two exceptions, were not seriously marred by age. Most could not yet even be considered in decline. We are not stating that this comparison of the 1929 vintage provides a definitive answer to the general question of relative longevity of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but it certainly does seem to legitimatize the premise that older Burgundies have been unreasonably ignored.” The conclusion makes reference to continued exploration of the great 1929, 1945, 1947, and 1949 vintages in Burgundy and Bordeaux. And, indeed we continued to taste and drink a lot of Burgundy and Bordeaux from these vintages in upcoming years. Many of the notes from these tastings were published in later issues of the Underground. From these experiences, there is no question that Ed’s premise about the aging potential of old Burgundies was right on the money. Readers of the Underground benefited greatly from this advice and many began to buy, cellar, and drink the wines at a time when the wines were very affordable.



 “…a miracle vintage both as to quality and price.”

The lead article featured 1979 Bordeaux where we concluded “…a ‘miracle’ vintage both as to quality and price.” We had tasted these wines in November 1981 and were quite impressed. The wines were then reviewed in Volume III, Number 4 (To read that article click here).  

We did not score the wines at that time, but waited until the wines arrived in the country to do our blind tastings. We called the vintage a “miracle” because no one expected much. A long wet winter was followed by a damp spring with good flowering in June and a dry July. Then the weather turned cold in August and September, and the crop turned out to be enormous, the largest since 1934!  But, after extensive tastings of the wines here we confirmed out earlier assessment by saying “…we deem the 1979 to be a “miracle” vintage both as to quality and price. In fact, some of the wines are downright cheap. And, most are really lovely to drink. True, some are on the thin, even scrawny side. And, like every vintage, there are some disappointments. But overall, the vintage is very good. The best wines drink deliciously now, but most will improve. And, while in an absolute sense, we think the vintage produced very few “Outstanding” wines, the range of really top range very good wines (i.e. 16-17) seems remarkable given the enormous size of the crop. For most Chateaux, it may be that the 1979’s lack the structure and stamina for the long run. But, on the other hand, a few 1979’s will, in fact, prove better than their 1978 counterparts….”

And, in the Underground spirit of full disclosure here is the conclusion:

The tasting notes and scores which follow reflect no less than eight separate blind tastings. Some wines were tasted as many as six times. In one tasting, we matched eight of the best 1978’s (see Volume II, Page 88) against their 1979 counterparts. Because of the youthful fruit and the immense charm the 1979’s were generally preferred. (As a matter of interest, 1979 Margaux placed first in that tasting closely followed by 1978 Margaux). However, it should be noted that many of the 1978’s have lost their initial youthful appeal and have withdrawn to begin a long period of maturation. Except for occasional tastings, this is absolutely no time to be drinking most of the 1978’s. On the other hand, some 1979’s are nearly irresistible. If you haven’t already done so, hopefully these tasting notes will stimulate you to gather up a few bottles and do your own tastings. Not only is it enjoyable and fun, but no wine lover should miss buying some of the best 1979 Bordeaux. While the prices shown are generally quite attractive, it should be noted that in most major U.S. markets many of the wines can be purchased for even less. Adjusted for inflation, prices ore not much higher than those of the 1970 vintage after the price collapse caused many of these wines to be ”dumped” in the U.S. market at prices of $5-8 per bottle for many classified growths. Interestingly, this occurred during a period of world-wide recession, a condition that also prevails today. So, for a wide variety of reasons, the 1979 Bordeaux vintage is attractively priced; and, thanks to Mother Nature, a bountiful crop has turned out to be very good. And, fortunately, after hundreds of years of production, none of the classified growths have started up a program such as “Reserve”, “Limited Bottling”, etc. Of course, California has used this gimmick widely. Compared with many California Cabernets (see Page 112 in this issue), Bordeaux has a price advantage. Who says there’s no such thing as a miracle?

Based on our earlier tastings in Bordeaux in November, 1981, we had concluded that the first growths were the real stars of the vintage with Margaux at the top. This was confirmed by our blind tastings where Margaux was at the top followed by Petrus as the only 2 wines in the Outstanding category. These were priced at $30 and $70, respectively. Here is the note on Chateau Margaux:

Margaux. Margaux seems to have produced particularly successful wines in 1979 and Chateau Margaux again has assumed the top position. Make no mistake, this is an impressive wine. Time will tell whether the 1978 or 1979 is better, but one thing is for sure: every Bordeaux lover should have BOTH in the cellar. No question, both are great wines and, perhaps, more importantly, they are tangible evidence that Margaux is back! There is no better vineyard in Bordeaux than Margaux and when the wine us up to potential, it is absolutely superb. The top Margaux vintages of this century (1900, 1953, and 1961) exemplify the power, opulence, balance, flavor, and finesse of Margaux at its best. Unfortunately, in the 1960’s the wine lapsed into mediocrity and didn’t regain its first growth status until, under new ownership, the superb 1978 was produced. And now the 1979. Compared side by side, the 1979 is more forward. Both are very dark in color. The 1978 has lost some of the opulent perfume of a year ago. It appears a bit leaner. This wine has the same incredible perfume of the 1978 at a similar age – cassis/berry qualities backed by hints of vanilla/sandlewood, and a very slight hint of mint. In the mouth, the wine is simply delicious-rich, fu ll, round, and packed with fruit. The intense flavors are extremely well-balanced and the aftertaste goes on and on and on. At the Chateau the 1979 is thought to be the better wine. Time will tell. The 1978 may take longer to develop. 10·15years vs. maybe 7-10 years for this wine. Even so both should be long-lived and provide countless fantastic tasting experiences (19). $30”

There were 37 wines rated Very Good lead by Domaine de Chevalier, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Leoville-Las-Cases and Pichon-Lalande all of which were rated just a shade under Outstanding. This group of wines were priced from $13 for the Pichon-Lalande to $38 for the Latour with Pichon-Lalande rated as a Best Buy. Here is the note on Pichon-Lalande:

Pichon-Lalande. Like the Leoville-Las-Cases, the quality of this wine should come as no surprise. In recent vintages, it too has been producing outstanding wine. The 1978 and the 1979 are virtually in a dead heat In fact, aside from being just a little lighter, this 1979 seems VERY similar to the outstand1ng 1978 at a similar period in its development And, like the 1978, the price is a bargain. The color is dark and the nose is immediately impressive. A deeply perfumed fruity/cherry/plummy quality is backed by hints of cedar and vanilla. Full flavored in the mouth, the balance and aftertaste are likewise impressive. Like so many 1979’s this wine is youthfully appealing, but likely will continue to develop for at least 5-6 years (171/2) $13

The next group of wines in the Very Good category were Cos d’Estournel, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, l’Evangile, La-Mission-Haut-Brion, Palmer, and Trotanoy. They were priced from $12 for the Grand-Puy-Lacoste which was rated Best Buy to $26 for the La-Mission-Haut-Brion and Trotanoy.  The first growths Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, and Cheval-Blanc were rated lower in the Very Good category, but all were disappointing relative to their pedigree, especially the Cheval. This group of wines was priced from $10 for Prieuré-Lichine to $36 for Cheval-Blanc. Here is the note on Cheval:

What’s Going on at Cheval?

Cheval-Blanc. While this is a very good wine, it is, nonetheless, disappointing for Cheval. The wine simply lacks the depth and richness this property often exhibits. In fact, both the 1978 and 1979 have this same characteristic which certainly gives rise to a few questions. The color is medium dark and the nose exhibits a nice, fruity/ earthy/ vanilla quality. Medium in body, the berry/vanilla flavors are rather straightforward. Just now the wine has a little bitterness on the finish. Certainly this is a nice, pleasant wine that will benefit from a few years bottle age, but given the outstanding potential of this vineyard and the price it commands, it is disappointing. We can only guess that a large production may be the culprit that denies this wine the depth and stuffing that makes for great wine (151/2). $36”

Finally, there were 6 wines rated good and none rated Below Average. The prices ranged from $10 for Clos Rene to $21 for Talbot. Here are notes on 3 of the wines rated Good:

Back to the Drawing Board

  • Brane-Cantenac. Oops, back to the drawing board. The 1978 looked like it might mark the beginning of a new trend for this consistently disappointing second growth Margaux. Wrong. With the 1979 the property lapses right back into mediocrity. It lacks the structure and depth of the 1978 and. again, seems to have picked up a strong herbaceousness. The color is medium dark with a fruity/cedary/ spicy/ slightly nutty nose In the mouth it is tannic and lean with a fruity, cherry/cedary flavor backed by a pronounced herbaceousness (14). $17
  • Vieux-Chateau-Certan. This Pomerol has been consistently disappointing in the last few decades. Hopefully it will one day return to the form it showed in the 1940’s, but this vintage isn’t it. The wine has a medium dark color with an amber edge and a nice, fruity/cherry/cedary nose. In the mouth it is pleasant and supple, rather straightforward,, and a little on the thin side (14). $15

What’s all the Fuss About?

  • Figeac. There have been some glowing reviews of this wine, but after tasting three bottles we gave up trying to find what it was that some retailers and critics like so much. In short, it suffers from a stemmy/vegetative quality in the nose and taste – not awful, but certainly not very attractive either. The color is medium dark with an amber edge; the nose has a fruity/cedary quality with a touch of stemminess. There is good fruit in the mouth, but it too is marred by a stemmy/vegetative character and a slightly bitter finish. While there apparently is a strong following f