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Retrospective Review

Retrospective Review Volume I, Number 3 (December-January 1979-1980)

John Tilson • 4/9/10        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


We are reproducing here a copy of the third 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 4 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 third issue, Edward Lazarus kicked off with “Woes of a Burgundy Drinker” speaking to the fact that back then a lot of wine was spoiled by excessive heat either in transit or after arrival.  In Southern California, there are many weeks each year when temperatures range between 80-100 degrees.  Northern California is generally cooler, but even so, temperatures can reach the same highs.  This is a disaster for wine storage – particularly Burgundy.  Burgundies, both red and white, are among the wines most sensitive to excessive heat.

So true to our mission we were straightforward with our call “must consumers deal with spoiled wines as well?”  Today things have changed as now wines are transported in a temperature-controlled environment to their destination, which is temperature-controlled as well.  We’ve made progress and today, thankfully, spoiled wines are a rarity.

In our first article on Champagne (the first of many that would follow), we stated that “It has no peer and nothing else deserves the name.”  Next came a general introduction to Champagne the region and Champagne the wine and the history and background of both.  In the last paragraph of the introduction, I addressed the question as to the best age for Champagne to be consumed.  I stated that between seven and 12 years was the point at which Champagne was at its peak.  Alas, that proved to be wrong.  But, at that point, we had not had too much experience with very old Champagne, and there was very little old Champagne available for sale in the U.S.  It was rare to find Champagne that was cellared here for an extended period as was common in France, England and other European countries.  And, if we did find old bottles, they often had been poorly stored.  Later, as we purchased old bottles at European auctions, we discovered the magic of old Champagne.  And, over the years, as Champagne gained in popularity, more and more old vintages became available in the U.S.  So now I would say the seven to 12 years is a minimum period for aging vintage Champagnes.  In fact, certain Champagnes (such as Salon) can require 15-20 years or more in such years as 1988 and 1996 which are both very great years, but years which require prolonged aging for the wines to demonstrate their full potential.

We arranged the tasting notes into “Brut Vintage Limited Champagnes,” Brut Vintage Champagnes” and “Non-Vintage Brut Champagnes.”  The category of “Limited” Champagnes included what are now known as “Prestige” Cuvees, such as Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs.   The 1971 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs was our runaway favorite of the Champagnes tasted.  Next was the 1971 Pol Roger “Blanc de Blancs.”  These were the only two Champagnes rated “outstanding.”  Our favorite of the Brut Vintage Champagnes was the 1973 Pol Roger which was at the top of “Very Good.”  Champagnes in this category were designated as some of the best values in the market, with prices from $18-22.  The top-rated 1973 Pol Roger was $18 and the lowest rated 1973 Piper Heidsieck was $22.  For the Non-Vintage Brut Champagnes, Krug was ranked the best with a “Very Good” rating, making it the fourth best Champagne tasted.  We liked it better than the 1969 Krug, which we found a bit oxidized, and went on to say “In the case of non-vintage Champagne, the most expensive is also the best.”  For the non-vintage category, we rated three Champagnes very good, thirteen good and one below average.  The wines were priced from $9-32.  But with only one priced at $9, we concluded by saying, “What happened to all the bargains?”  Also, the rest of the concluding paragraph summed it up succinctly:  “Overall, the old cliché about NV Champagne being as good as vintage Champagne, better value, etc., seems no longer true.  Many of the NV bottlings are too old or have been poorly stored.  The consumer has no way to differentiate between a newer cuvee and one that has been around for many years, often under poor storage conditions.  Until Champagne producers designate the bottling dates on the label, caveat emptor will prevail.  Also, the overall quality of many of the wines seems less than might be expected.”  Alas, despite all our subsequent articles on better labeling for NV Champagnes, it is still true today that only a very few NV Champagnes have any indication on the label to show the age (we’ll continue to write a lot more on this subject later).

Out of the 60 Champagnes evaluated, two were outstanding, 20 were rated very good, 33 good and seven below average.  The two most expensive Champagnes were priced at $40-45.  And, there were many oxidized Champagnes, including the most expensive, the 1971 Salon “Le Mesnil” at $45.  In fact, oxidation plagued nearly one-third of all the Champagnes tasted.

Next was an article on the Domaine de la Romanee Conti.  We began with the history and then a description of the wines and vintages.  We reviewed 12 red wines from the 1971 and 1976 vintages and six vintages of Montrachet.  Three of the wines reviewed – the 1971 Romanee Conti and 1968 and 1971 Montrachets – received scores of 19½ which were three of the highest scores we ever rated any wine during the entire history of the publication.

We loved the 1971s, led by the fabulous Romanee Conti, which is still probably the best wine from this great vintage.  We also gave very high scores to the 1971 Grands Echezeaux, La Tache and Richebourg with the Echezeaux and Romanee St Vivant behind.  The 1976s we found not nearly as good with only the Grands Echezeaux rated outstanding.  Over the years, the 1971s have generally been superb with some bottles showing an occasional touch of mustiness.  The 1976s have evolved and still can be lovely, albeit with a touch of dryness.

We also reviewed the 1965, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, and 1976 Montrachets.  The 1968 and 1971 received near perfect scores.  Later, we drank more bottles of the 1968 which remained very rich and concentrated with an intense tropical perfume.   But, it seemed to be in decline when last tasted about 15 years ago.  The 1971 evolved beautifully for many years, but I have not had the wine in a very long time.  The 1969 did not age well as compared with the 1970.  In this article we underrated the 1970 as it opened up and showed more richness over the next 10-20 years.  During this period I had several great bottles making it one of my all time favorite DRC Montrachets.  And, more recently from magnum (as described in the article “A Selection from California and France” posted on the web site on February 15, 2010),  it was perfection!   The 1965 was the first vintage for DRC Montrachet and, although it was still lovely when tasted in the mid-80s, it never developed the richness and balance of other DRC Montrachets.  The 1976 we reviewed was a bit oxidized.   Other than this review, I don’t remember much about the 1976.

In our article on 1976 Red Burgundies we reviewed 19 wines and found two wines from Domaine Dujac outstanding, the Clos de la Roche and Echezeaux.  We concluded that “most are uninspiring.”  As time passed by I found most 1976s to lose fruit rather quickly with a tendency to dryness.  The best 1976s from Domaine Dujac have aged quite well, although they do not show the lushness of a great vintage such as 1978.

We also reviewed 1977 White Burgundies where we concluded “Not a highly acclaimed vintage, but some really good bottles can be found.”  In fact,  the vintage received very  little praise and one critic called it “damp and dismal.”  But the fact is that some of the wines were really good as we reported  and a few of them have aged extremely well.  I had a case of the 1977 Bienvenues Batard Montrachet from Domaine Leflaive.  Since 1977 was our son Jeff’s birth year, we waited until he was older before we started drinking it.  The wine was consistently outstanding including the very last bottle which we drank three years ago.  Also, although they were not reviewed in this article, the 1977 Montrachet “Marquis de Laguiche” from Drouhin is superb and still great today.  And, the 1977 Corton Charlemagne from Bonneau du Martray, although not in the league of the Montrachet, is still lovely today and shows no sign of decline.  Undoubtedly, there are probably other 1977 White Burgundies, if well stored, that are gorgeous wines today at nearly 35  years of age!  A “damp and dismal” vintage indeed!!

Our article on 1970 Pomerols concluded “one of the greatest vintages ever” and while they have not approached the great post war year vintages of 1945, 1947 and 1961, the best are still really lovely.  Our favorites then were Latour Pomerol, Trotanoy, La Pointe and Petrus, followed by L’Evangile, La Fleur Petrus, La Conseillante, Feytit Clinet and Le Gay.  Today, with the exception of the La Pointe, all of these are gorgeous.  We underrated the 1970 Petrus.  Today, for current drinking, it and the 1967 are my two favorites of the 1962-1982 era.  Both are simply delicious.  As for the other 1970s today, the Trotanoy and Feytit Clinet are outstanding.  The latter is a real sleeper as Feytit Clinet has been a consistent underachiever except for the fabulous 1970.  Latour Pomerol, L’Evangile, and La Fleur Petrus are also lovely.  The usually great Lafleur was not that good in the review and I have never had a really good bottle.

We concluded with a review of the great 1975 Chateau d’Yquem which we proclaimed “maybe as good as 1921!”  Well, maybe not, but it is still a really gorgeous Yquem as are the 1971 and 1967.  And, to balance out the price scale, we recommended a $4 quaffer, Moreau Blanc, a French table wine blended with grapes from the South of France and the Loire Valley.  We found it not a serious wine but a delightfully refreshing one for then current consumption.  The current version of the wine is still sold today and priced now around $7 a bottle.


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6 comments for “Retrospective Review Volume I, Number 3 (December-January 1979-1980)”

  • joel levine says:

    I was especially interested in your comments regarding the 1977 Corton Charlemagne from Bonneau du Martray. We’ve had several cases of the 1998, purchased directly from the distributor and stored in a perfect cellar. Over the years we’ve found most bottles to be superb, but recently we’ve had some showing oxidation with “off tastes”. I have always thought a good Corton Charlemagne needed at least 10 years to mature, but some of ours seem to be aging prematurely. Any thoughts on this?

    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Joel,
      I don’t know the 1998 Corton Charlemagne from Bonneau du Martray. Some White Burgundies beginning around 1996 are aging prematurely. But is is not all vintages and seems confined to only certain producers. This had been termed premox. The wines age quickly and need to be consumed as soon as the condition show up. It sounds like that your may have already gone into decline. All you can do is keep opening bottles. It doesn’t sound like the bottles you have are worth keeping. Interestingly, I have drunk both the 1979 and 1995 recently (the 1995 over this past week end) and both were superb with many, many years of life ahead.
      In Vino Veritas,

  • joel levine says:

    Hi John.
    It’s been lots of water (and wine) under the bridge since the good old days with Haskell Norman and HIS IWFS. We actually published a dining guide from 1983-2001, contributed to the Gayot Guide to San Francisco restaurants, and wrote our own blog till recently at: aswelikeit.vox.com. We even occasionally run into Ron and Sheila Light at the French Laundry. Keep up the good work.

  • Wow it’s been a long time. How are you guys??

    • John Tilson says:

      Nice to hear from you Steve.
      We are well. How are you doing?
      How do you like our website? Please pass it along. People can sign up by entering and email address. It’s FREE!
      Please let me know if you are down this way.
      My best,

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