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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 for wines from this property, this 1979 seems one to forget (13). $17

Later we would taste and report on more 1979 Bordeaux. I think our early assessment of the vintage was accurate. Most of the wines aged quite well and some them such as Margaux, Petrus, La Mission, Palmer, and some others are still lovely today with Margaux still being the star of the vintage.


Next we reviewed 16 recently released California Cabernet Sauvignons – 10 1979s, 5 1978s, and 1 1977. There were 9 wines rated Very Good, 6 rated Good, and 1 Below Average. They were priced from $8.25 for a 1979 McDowell Valley Vineyards “Mendocino” to  $25 for a 1977 Sterling Vineyards “Reserve”. One of the best wines was the 1979 Matanzas Creek “Sonoma” which we had previously tasted from barrel. A notch below was the 1978 Jordan “Alexander Valley”. Here is what we had to say about that wine:

1978 JordanAlexander Valley. This is Jordan‘s first Cabemet made exclusively from its own grapes. Is this Jordan‘s best Cabernet? It seemed to be when tasted just prior to its release for sale. But after tasting and retasting different bottles, there is a definite peppery (i.e. green pepper) quality in the nose and taste. Perhaps there is a lot of bottle variation. Some are more peppery than others, but we could find none that didn’t have it It’s still a very good wine, but it would be much better if the pepper quality were more subdued or eliminated. The color is dark with some amber. The nose shows good fruit with some oak and a spicy, peppery quality. In the mouth the wine has good depth and structure with fine fruit balanced by an oaky/vanilla complexity and a slight green pepper flavor (151/2). $16.50

In the bottom of the Good category and disappointing were the 1978 Freemark Abbey “Bosche”, the 1979 Mt. Veeder “Bernstein Vineyard”, and the 1977 Sterling Vineyards “Reserve”. Here are the notes on those wines:

 Promises Unfulfilled

  • 1978 Freemark Abbey “Bosche”. This wine has a medium dark color with an oaky, slightly raisiny nose. Oaky, dry. and lacking fruit, there is a slightly raisiny/oaky flavor with a short finish. Sadly, this is yet another mediocre wine from what years ago seemed destined to be one of Napa‘s better vineyards (13). $12.50
  •  1979 Mt. Veeder “Bernsteln Vineyard”. This Napa Cabernet has a medium dark color with an amber edge and an oaky/weedy/slightly minty nose with fruity/oaky flavor again showing a slightly minty component. All in all quite pleasant in a full style until the finish. Here a strong bitter character spoils the wine. Unfortunately, this seems to be a characteristic of most wines from this property. Only time will tell if bottle age will help (13). $ 13.50

“Reserve” Means Reserve Your Money for Other Uses

  • 1977 Sterling Vineyards ” Reserve”. Alas, yet another mediocre wine in the grossly overpriced “Reserve”, “Special Selection”, etc., etc., etc., derby. This Napa Valley estate bottled ”Reserve” has a dark color with a ripe fruit/ oaky/alcoholic nose and a ripe fruit/oaky/tarry flavor – a harsh, tannic monster devoid of breed or flavor interest. The $25 price is nothing more than a marketing gimmick (13).

 And the one wine rated Below Average was a real dud. Here is that note:

1979 Lambert BridgeSonoma. This estate bottled wine is medium dark in color with an amber edge. OK so far, but from here it goes downhill. There is a foul, spirity, grassy nose and a vegetative flavor underlying the fruit (8). $10.75


Continuing our series on 1979 Red Burgundies, 22 wines were tasted. There was 1 wine rated Outstanding, 13 rated Very Good, and 8 rated Good with none rated Below Average. The wines were priced from $10 to $40.

Here is the note on the 1 Outstanding wine:

Volnay “Champans” (H . de Montille). This wine gets our vote as the best of the 1979 Montille’s. It has more fruit and depth than the others. The color is dark and the nose has a deep, berry-like fruit quality with a lovely, spicy complexity. With deep, rich flavors exhibiting the same berry/spice complexity, the wine finishes long on the palate and has an impressive firmness to the texture. One of the more substantial 1979 Red Burgundies, this is a wine to lay away for 4-5 years (18). $18

There were 2 wines rated at the top of the Very Good category. Here are the notes on those 2 wines:

Clos de Vougeot (M. de Gramont). Like this producer’s 1978 Clos de Vougeot, this is a lovely wine. Very similar, but perhaps with just a touch more fruit, this is one of the real successes of the variable 1979 vintage. The color is dark with some amber. The nose is deeply perfumed — fruity/spicy/candy-like with just a hint of smokiness. Similar flavors follow on the palate and the round, soft texture enhances the wine’s delicacy. Youthfully appealing, this is a delicious young wine (17). $40

Gevrey-Chambertin “Les Cazetiers” (H . Magnien). “Les Cazetiers” deserves to be better known. It is an exceptional vineyard with many fine wines made by a number of diffeent producers. Magnien’s wine is an excellent representative of the 1979 vintage – lacking just a bit in intensity to be outstanding, but still lovely and flavorful. The wine has a medium dark color with an amber edge and a lovely deeply perfumed, fruity/cherry/smoky/bacon-like nose with good body and a fruity/cherry/spicy/smoky flavor. It finishes long on the palate and is balanced with some tannin and acid to lose. A few years age will yield a lovely bottle (17). $29.50


 A few delicious wines for summer enjoyment and a few to lay away

This Distinctive New Wines article featured 17 wines including Rhone wines (red and white), Burgundies (red and white), California white wines, and a white wine from the Loire Valley. There were 3 wines rated Outstanding and the other 14 were rated Very Good.

The Outstanding wines were 1979 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Vieux Telegraphe), 1978 Côte Rotie “La Mouline” (E. Guigal) and 1979 Hermitage Blanc (J.Chave). Here are the notes on these wines:

1979 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Vieux Telegraphe). Is this as good as the fabulous I 978? Of course. it depends on your perspective, but both are outstanding. The 1979 is certainly not as intense, but intensity is not everything. The color is dark and the nose has a deeply perfumed spicy/cherry/vanilla/earthy quality. The wine is concentrated in the mouth with fine balance and tremendous complexity-fruit (berries and cherries with a slight tropical fruit nuance), earth, spice, vanilla, and chocolate. Long on the palate and with a youthful, soft tannin, 3-5 years age should yield a real winner (18) $11 Chicago

 1978 Côte Rotie “La Mouline” (E. Guigal). Lovers of intense wines can’t help but love this. In fact intense may be an understatement. The color is extremely dark, nearly black. The nose is deeply perfumed and complex. Ripe fruit, pepper, earth, green olives, and spices are all in evidence, and, as the wine airs, the complexities become more pronounced. In the mouth the wine is very full and very rich, almost thick, yet with excellent fruit/acid/ tannin balance. The flavors are intense: ripe fruit, earth, and spice. Behind lies a massive tannin over-lay. This is definitely not a wine for current or intermediate term consumption. In fact, although dry table wine, it should be viewed in much the same way as a 1977 vintage port. Buy it. Put it away and forget lt. It should live for decades and probably won’t be approaching maturity for at least 15-20 years. $30 Boston

1979 Hermitage Blanc (J. Chave). If you haven’t tasted this wine, you’ve missed a unique experience. Whereas Chave’s red is full and rich, the white is more delicate. Reportedly, the wines are long-lived and develop even more amazing complexities with age. Yet, at this time, the wine already has appeal. The color is pale yellow. The nose is complex: fruit (peaches, apricots, and pineapple), earth, spice, and an underlying butteriness. In the mouth the wine is firm, elegant, crisp, and light, yet viscous and flavorful. There is a marriage of intriguing fruit, earth, and spice flavors and a long, lingering finish. If you’re serious about wine, this Hermitage Blanc is a must experience (18). $15

At the top of the Very Good category was an eclectic selection, 2 Beaujolais and a Savenniéres from Coulée de Serrant. Here are the notes on those wines:

1981 Beaujolais-Villages (Trenel Fils). This may be the finest red wine of all for summer consumption. Served with a slight chill you’ll surely need more than one bottle. This wine has a medium dark red color with a lovely, intense, perfumed, grapy/raspberry nose with a light, lovely, grapy/berry flavor. With excellent balance, the wine is soft, fruity, and lip smacking good. In fact, absolutely delicious and with just a touch more flavor if would be outstanding. Still it is irresistible and not to be missed. (17). S5. 75

1981 Moulin-A-Vent (Domalne Des Verillats). Expectedly, not as light as the Trenel Beaujolais·Villages, this Beaujolais has more body and is equally appealing. The color is red/purple with a beautiful perfumed cherry-like nose offering a hint of spice. Loaded with fruit, it is essence of a cherry/berry juice with good acidity, depth, and just a hint of spice–delicious (17). $9 Chicago

1979 Clos de la Coulée de Serrant (A. Joly). From the town of Savennieres in the Loire Valley, this is considered to be one of the finest dry, while wines of the region and a lovely wine it is. Production is small, reportedly less than 1500 cases. But it is unique and worth a search. Light straw in color, the nose is clean and fruity with hints of pineapple and spice. Elegant and silky on the palate, it is, at the same time, crisp and delightfully refreshing, offering hints of cinnamon and fruit and a nice, lingering finish (17). $13 New York

The balance of the wines were also eclectic selections and not well known. Here are notes on 2 Red Burgundies that were available in the market place at that time:

1978 Volnay-Santenots-du-Milieu “Tete de Cuvée” (Comptes Lafon). As we taste hundreds of 1979 Burgundies after tasting nearly 400 different 1978 Burgundies, the lightness of the 1979 vintage is readily apparent When a late arrival 1978 like this comes along, the richness of the 1978 vintage is obvious This wine has a dark color with an amber edge and a deeply perfumed, earthy/ vanilla/ plummy/ spicy nose. In the mouth, it has good body and flavor with fruity/earthy/spicy complexity and a long, tannic finish. A wine to keep lor 7-8 years, this is one to cellar (161/2). $22

1980 Bourgogne “La Digoine” (de Villaine). From the property of one of the co-owners of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, here is a wine with an honest Pinot Noir quality at a bargain price. It has a medium color with an amber edge and a perfumed berry/plummy nose with a hint of vanilla and spice. There is a lovely, delicate plummy/berry flavor again with a kiss of vanilla and spice. A delightful wine which tastes just like you’d expect from the bouquet. Light to be sure, but balanced with just a slight trace of tannin and acid. Drink now and for 1-2 years (15). $6.95

Certainly this group of wines which we chose as being very special are still notable today. The wines from Chave and Guigal were not well known at that time. As can be told from the note on the 1978 Côte Rotie “La Mouline” it was a monster wine that evolved over many years. But, I found that over time the ripeness manifest with a certain dryness that was detracting. On the other hand, the 1979 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Vieux Telégraphe was more refined and aged beautifully. I do not have any of that wine today and drank my last bottle probably 10 years ago. But, the 1977 and 1978 Châteauneuf-du-Papes from Vieux Telégraphe are still gorgeous wines today. I have both in my cellar and have had them side by side in the last few years. The 1978 is superb and the surprising 1977 is very close behind. Both are at a peak and showing no sign of decline. I have found that these wines from Vieux Telégraphe not only age superbly over time, but have been very consistent over the last 35 years. That is not true for most Rhone wines which have become heavier, fatter, richer, and more alcoholic over this period of time. You will note in my description of the 1979 Vieux Telégraphe that I said “…intensity is not everything.” For me it was always a question of balance. It was then and it is now.

The 1979 Chave Hermitage Blanc is remarkable. At the time in the early 80s I had no experience in tasting old white wines from the Rhone valley. I had heard that they were capable of aging for a very long time and this is certainly true. The 1979 Hermitage Blanc from my cellar that I drank a few years ago was superb and I have never had a vintage that was past its prime. Our venture into drinking and recommending Beaujolais was also certainly ahead of its time. They were mostly ignored in those days, but the great fruit, balance, and charm of the best ones was irresistible and still is today. The “discovery” of the 1979 Coulée de Serrant is something that I wish I had followed more closely going forward. Over time, I have come to love this style of wine with its complexity and bright acidity and they too age for a very long time. So, without question, this selection of wines which we recommended to readers of the Underground way back then is something that offered information that would prove invaluable over the years.


Our next article was a continuation of our reviews of recently released California Chardonnays. There were 25 wines reviewed with 1 rated Outstanding, 11 rated Very Good, 11 rated Good, and 2 rated Below Average. The prices ranged from $6 to $18. Here is the note on the 1 Outstanding wine:

1980 William Hill “Napa Valley“. This is a really impressive wine. Only the second Chardonnay produced by William Hill, but this winery is rapidly establishing itself as one of the state’s premier Chardonnay producers. This wine has a medium yellow gold color and an intensely perfumed, spicy/fruity nose. Full, rich, round, very Burgundian flavors coat the mouth. The finish goes on and on, yet is backed by a good. crisp acidity which gives the wine structure and the potential to develop in the bottle for a few years (18). $16.50

The next few wines that were rated at the top of the Very Good category are particularly interesting. Here are those notes:

1980 Flora Springs“Special Select”. This wine was barrel fermented and shows the buttery richness that this can produce. It has a light medium yellow/gold color and a lovely, fruity/buttery/pineapple/tropical fruit/vanilla nose. There is good structure and balance with full, round, rich, buttery, complex flavors (17). $16

1979 Mayacamas “California. Just now this wine is rather restrained. Given 3-4 years bottle age this will likely prove to be outstanding. It has a light yellow gold color with a lovely, perfumed, apple-like/vanilla nose. There is a closed-in, very nice flavor showing fruit and vanilla. With good acid, this is a clean, fresh wine of fine structure and style (17). $15.75

1980 Stag’s Leap “Napa Valley. This is one of Stag’s Leap’s nicest Chardonnays to date. It is elegant, yet crisp and delicate, yet flavorful. This combination of qualities is generally difficult to find in California Chardonnay. The color is light yellow gold and the wine has a lovely, fruity/apple-like nose tinged with vanilla and just a touch of lemon. The flavors are similarly complex and the wine is elegant, yet finishes crisp. It should age well for a few years, but presently has a youthful freshness which renders it most attractive (17). $13.50

1980 Chalone Vineyard. The Chalone Chardonnays are made in a big style. Maybe a function of youth, but there is a hotness in the finish that is somewhat disturbing. Nonetheless, the wine is attractive with a light yellow gold color and a lovely, deeply perfumed, fruity/vanilla/oaky nose with good fruit and round, deep, rich, vanilla and fruit flavors (16½). $17

1980 Chateau St. Jean “Robert Young Vineyard”. This is one of the more delicate Chardonnays from this vineyard and it needs a bit more time to come together. It has a pale yellow gold color and a nice, fruity/floral/apple-like/vanilla nose. In the mouth, there is a clean. fresh, fruity/apple-like/ vanilla flavor that is quite appealing. Like other “Robert Young” bottlings, it has style and finesse (16½). $18

1979 Mount Eden Vineyards “Santa Cruz Mountain. This winery usually produces one of California‘s best Chardonnays. This wine is a bit more toasty than some,. but is still very appealing. It has a yellow gold color and a nicely perfumed, fruity/toasty/spicy nose with a nice, spicy/fruity flavor. The wine has a good  finish and good acid and needs some time to round out. With a year or two in the bottle this should be even better (16½). $16

There were 5 wines rated at the top of the Good category and 1 at the bottom. The latter wine is particularly interesting. Here is that note:

Four Strikes and You’re Outl

1979 Roudon·Smith “Edna Valley, Fourth Bottling”. This wine has a light yellow gold color and a slight sulphur (SO2), fruity/oaky nose with a hint of butterscotch. There is an oaky/fruity/butterscotch flavor with a straightforward character. The other bottlings have seemed better, although the wine is apparently supposed to be the same with bottlings designated to indicate release dates (12). $10.50

Rated Below Average were 2 wines. One was Caymus’s second label, the other was one of the most expensive wines tasted. Here are notes on those wines:

1979 Liberty SchoolCalifornia“. This wine has a light yellow gold color and a grassy/slightly oxidized nose with a full, oaky/fruity flavor. It is slightly flat and not too attractive. Not one of the better efforts from Caymus’s second label (11). $7

1979 Mark West Vineyards “Russian River Valley. This estate bottled wine has a light yellow gold color and an H2S nose. Slightly petulant there is an oaky/fruity flavor. Well, at least there’s something for the (can you believe it?) $13.95 price (11).

These wines represent a cross section of what was evolving with the production of California Chardonnay. “Special Select” wines were often barrel fermented or not. The point being that it was difficult to know what made a wine “Special Select”. Wineries like William Hill were debuting with impressive wines, but for whatever reason did not continue for too long. Mayacamas was producing what was to be a consistent run of balanced age worthy Chardonnays that sadly has now ended with the sale of the winery this year. Stag’s Leap and Chateau St. Jean were producing consistently lovely balanced Chardonnays not marred by excessive oak. Chalone was a pioneer Chardonnay producer making some really fine wines, but with variable results from year to year. Mount Eden had produced wonderful Chardonnays from 1972 on. And, although the 1979 in this review was a bit off the mark, they would go on to become the most consistent producer of California Chardonnay over the next 30 plus years. Beginning with the next vintage (1980), the string of great Mount Eden Chardonnays was amazing. I soon began calling Mount Eden the most consistent producer of great California Chardonnay and repeated it in the Underground year after year. Today I have an extensive range of Mount Eden Chardonnays dating back to the 70s and have enjoyed hundreds of bottles of different vintages over the years. Never once have I had a bottle that was over the hill! This is simply amazing. The Roudon-Smith “Fourth Bottling” is an example of some of the experiments that were being conducted in almost every phase of marketing wine. And, as for the Below Average wines, there was not always a lot of quality control. Interesting times for California Chardonnay to be sure!  And once again the Underground was providing information that would prove to be very accurate in navigating an increasingly crowded field.



 Chianti Classico

Our first review of Italian wines began with Chianti Classico. The introduction to the article is most interesting in that it explains not only the wine and its history, but also the market and the future outlook. That introduction is reproduced below:

“This marks our inaugural article on Italian wines. Wines were purchased from retailers all across the U.S. In most instances, these retailers “specialize” in Italian wines. Indeed, the range of wines both by type, vintage, and producer is astounding. In particular, there is a lot of Italian red wine for sale and the vintages span a range of 20 years or more. Of the vast array of Italian red wine available in the marketplace, Chianti seems not only to be one of the most price worthy wines. but one of the best wines period, i.e. in terms of absolute quality with no regard for price. The sad fact is that many of the very pricy. i.e. $20-60 Barbarescos. Brunellos. Barolos,etc .. simply are not worth the money when compared with fine California or French wine (this will be reviewed in de toil in on upcoming issue) .  Chianti is an example of how Italian red wines have improved in the past 20 years. In Burton Anderson’s book Vino The Wines and Winemakers of Italy he quotes the following passage from Professors M. A. Amerine and V.D. Singleton in their book Wine: An Introduction for Americans, first published in 1965:

Thus, in summary, the wines of Italy are made from small vineyard holdings in mountainous areas of promiscuous culture, and the many untrained winemakers use rather primitive techniques. The wines do not enjoy sufficient distribution among critical consumers either inside or outside Italy to force an improuement in the quality. The average Italian consumer is not critical of the quality of his wines.

No doubt many winedrinkers recall tasting Italian wines that might be a part of the above description (inexpensive, poor quality Chianti in attractive wicker covered bottles is a prime example of early efforts to penetrate the large U.S. market). However, in 1963 laws were passed to control name and origin . Now more than 200 zones have met ‘denominazione de origine controlla” standards for their wines of “particular reputation and worth”. These regulations, generally abbreviated as DOC, are similar to the appellation controlee laws of France. Chianti is the largest DOC district in Italy. Its more than one million acres contain some 150.000 acres of vineyards and nearly 7,000 registered growers producing grapes for more than 100 million liters of DOC Chianti annually. The Chianti most familiar in the U.S. market is Classico. The Classico zone covers 200,000 acres with six other DOC Chianti zones surrounding it. Classico is one of two consortiums, the other being Putto, organized in the 1920’s to prevent wine fraud resulting from wines outside Chianti being labeled and sold as Chianti. Classico wines have a lower maximum yield of grapes and a 12% minimum alcohol content vs. 11.5% for other Chianti. Riserva wines must be aged for more than 3 years and have at least 12.5% alcohol. The Putto consortium has set standards equal to Chianti Classico’s.

Thus, even though Chianti has a long history, today the district is considered to be in a state of flux. New vineyards, new producers, and fresh ideas abound. Hence, the wines are improving. And, because of the historical perception of Chianti as inexpensive wine to be drunk young, the marketplace has tended to keep the price of Chianti down. Consequently, Chianti, as it evolves and improves, can represent a very good value to the consumer….”

There were 24 Chianti Classicos tasted with 15 rated Very Good, 7 rated Good, and 2 rated Below Average. The prices (bottle equivalent prices as 2 magnums were included) ranged from $3.69 to $18.50 and covered vintages from 1958 to 1979.

At the top of the Very Good category representing the wines we liked the best were 3 wines. Here are the notes on those wines:

1971 Riserva (Castello di Cacchiano). This Chianti has a medium dark color with orange tones and an orange/amber edge. There is a lovely, ripe, fruity nose with a hint of cedar. With lovely flavor and balance, this wine is quite delicious with a very nice finish (17). $7.95

1967 (Antinori). With a medium color and a slightamber edge, this wine has a lovely. fruity/cedary nose with a hint of earth and mushrooms-very attractive. Soft. round. elegant, with very nice balance and a good finish . There is a lovely, cherry-like flavor with hints of cedar and earth (16½). $31.80 (Magnum)

1978 (Castello di Cacchiano). This wine has a dark color with an amber edge and a deep, raspberry/truffle/hint of raisin nose. Very complex, there is good, deepflavor – fruity/cedar/woodsy – and nice balance with some tannin to lose. Very fine, this wine needs 3-5 years (16½). $4.95

In the Below Average category there were 2 wines priced under $4. Here are those notes:

1978 (A. Fattorie-I. Olena). With a medium color and an orange amber edge, this wine has a pungent,petroleum shellac nose. Thin and tart, there is a dry flavor which is lacking in fruit and is acidic (11). $3.69

1978 (Casavecchla de Nittardi). This wine has a medium color with an orange/ amber edge. There is a slightly toasty, H2S nose and a mature, toasty flavor. With some fruit, the wine is acidic and not very interesting (11). $3.99

As these notes attest there were certainly some very nice wines at attractive prices. But, there were also some not very nice wines available at the same prices. Selectivity was the key. Over the years, Chianti Classicos have steadily improved and we have witnessed an explosion of Super Tuscans and Brunellos that extend the Sangiovese grape into other areas and blends. These other wines have kept Chianti Classico still firmly entrenched in the value zone on a relative basis.



Some Notes on Burgundy

Following up on our article on 1979 Bordeaux tasted there in November 1981, this article focused on the wines we tasted in Burgundy on the same trip. We visited 6 producers and 1 negociant and tasted 16 White Burgundies from the 1980 and 1981 vintages at Jobard, Michelot, and Coche-Dury as well as the 1979 Montrachet from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti. We tasted 23 Red Burgundies from the 1979 and 1980 vintages at Chevillon, Henri Jayer, and Domaine de la Romanée Conti and 28 Red Burgundies at Leroy from the 1978 to 1955 vintages. And, as we did with the 1979 Bordeaux, we offered only descriptive notes with no scores in accordance with our policy of using scores only in connection with blind tastings.

The introduction to the article outlines it quite well. Here is that introduction:

While in Burgundy last November, we had an opportunity to taste a fair number of the 1980 and 1981 White Burgundies and some 1979 and 1980 Red Burgundies. Generally, we were favorably impressed. There will be some fine 1980 White Burgundies, while the 1981’s may be somewhat similar to the 1978’s, lighter perhaps, but harmonious and well-balanced. The 1979 Red Burgundies hove been previously discussed (see Volume III, Page 61, Page 87 and Page 114 in this issue). Suffice to say that the 1979 wines of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti should rank at the top with the best wines of the vintage, but prices are high, roughly equivalent to the 1978’s. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the 1980 Red Burgundies from the top producers such as Chevillon, Jayer, Romanée-Conti, etc. They should be quite nice. Overall, 1980 is probably not much of a vintage for Red Burgundy, but careful selection will likely result in some very nice wines. Finally, we were impressed by the wines of Leroy. Owned solely by Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy, co-owner of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Leroy may have the largest collection of Red Burgundy in the world. Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy closely supervises every aspect of the company’s operations. The wines are carefully selected and generally are long-lived, Classical Burgundies. The range of older vintages is remarkable. In recent years, the wines have begun to trickle into the U.S. and promise to become better known as they become more widely available here. As the estimated retail prices (imported by Wilson· Daniels, St. Helena, Calif.) attest, they are not inexpensive. Indeed, the price of some is downright extravagant. However, the best of them are nothing short of remarkable. Perfection and near perfection in Red Burgundy is never cheap.

Probably the most impressive wines were the 1979 DRC Montrachet as well as selected 1979 and 1980 Red Burgundies from DRC and some of the older Red Burgundies from Leroy. But, all the wines we had were really nice which showed us the value of the producer in the lesser vintages such as 1979 and 1980. We also had been drinking a lot of the older wines from Leroy at home and were astounded at the variety of the wines that we were offered to taste. Of course, what we tasted was literally a drop in the bucket compared to the vast inventory of Leroy wines in the cellar. Amongst a number of gorgeous wines were 10 different vintages of Gevrey-Chambertin “Les Cazetiers” from 1972 to 1957. This really opened our eyes to how good a Premier Cru wine, and especially “Les Cazetiers” can be particularly the 1971, 1969, 1966, 1962, 1961, and 1959. Other wines of note were the 1964 Pommard “Grands Epenots”  and 1964 Chambolle-Musigny “Les Amoureuses”. The 2 Grand Crus tasted, 1955 and 1959 Chambertin were also very fine, but not quite up to our earlier tastings of these wines. Later, we would find more bottle variation in Chambertin from these vintages and a few others. The prices that we thought were “not inexpensive” to “downright extravagant” ranged from $23 to $90 for wines from the Côte de Beaune to $70 to $195 for wines from the Côtes de Nuits. Today those prices seem “downright cheap” to “really inexpensive”. But, the statement that “Perfection and near perfection in Red Burgundy is never cheap” is just as true today as it was then. The only thing that has changed is the numbers!


 The Great 1961 Vintage

When I first started drinking wines 1961 and 1959 were the 2 youngest great vintages for Bordeaux and the debate was how they compared with previous great vintages such as 1949, 1947, 1945, 1929, and 1928. It was fascinating to obtain wines from all of these vintages and taste and drink them regularly all the time debating the merits of each. So we decided that we would take the youngest great vintage at about 20 years of age and put it to the test. The idea was to collect all of the classified growths and do a series of tastings to determine how the vintage was doing and which wines would stand out. This all came together in January of 1982. This article explained the tasting and how it was done and featured notes on the wines of Graves. We had 13 different wines from Graves. There were a number of really nice bottles including some that we had never tasted before – De Fieuzal, Haut-Bailly, La Tour Haut-Brion, and Smith-Haut-Lafitte. Unfortunately, the bottles of Haut-Brion, La Mission-Haut-Brion, and Domaine de Chevalier that we had tasted on numerous occasions previously were not as good as the earlier bottles. This we would experience all through the tasting proving once again the value of provenance and the fact that there is no such thing as a great wine only great bottles. Notes on the rest of the 1961s tasted would follow in later issues of the Underground. But, for now, take a look at the introduction to what we called “…the greatest tasting of these wines ever done anywhere in the world.”

Generally 1961 is compared with 1929 and 1945 as the greatest Bordeaux vintages of this century. As with all very great vintages, nature effected a reduction of the crop when rains during flowering washed away the pollen. Then come an August drought and a very warm September which brought the very small grapes to full maturity. The vintage began on September 27 and a very small harvest resulted.

Now just over 20 years old, the 1961 vintage gives promise that it may be the very best vintage of this century. To test this thesis,  Bipin Desai arranged a 1961 tasting of unsurpassed magnitude. Very simply, it was the greatest tasting of these wines ever done anywhere in the world! Moreover, in all respects,  wines, setting, organization, food. etc.it was the greatest tasting any of us have ever attended (a feeling echoed by English wine authority, Harry Waugh, who was the honored guest). Bipin’s  comments on the background and organization of the euent follow. Thereafter, the tasting notes and scores on the wines of Graves are listed along with comments on how these particular bottles compared with others tasted previously. Wines from the Haut-Medoc,  Margaux,l Pauillac, Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, St. Estephe, Saint Julien and Sauternes will appear in subsequent issues.

There is no better way to answer these questions than to gather together people who are knowledgeable and devoted to serious wines and taste the largest meaningful collection of the 1961 Chateaux. There has never been a tasting of this magnitude before.

By October, 1981, I was still 30 wines shortof my goal of 130 Chateaux for the projected tasting. A good many of the missing wines were Pomerols. I was on the phone or sending telexes to wine trade people and collectors all over the world, Chicago. Boston, New York, England and France as well as California.

By January 15, 1982, there were 131 Chateaux collected. Except for 7, I had 2 bottles of each or in a few cases, a magnum. This meant about 255 bottles or close to 22 cases. The physical task was enormous. I had to assemble the bottles after retrieving most of them from my cellar. I had to pick them for the tasting according to regions, tasting sessions and flights

The goal of the tasting: To explore the question: Is the vintage ’61 truly as great as it is reputed to be?  For a truly great vintage 20 years is the time when the wine begins to reach maturity – though the great first growths may not yet be ready to drink. The year 1982 marks that 20 year period. Another question: Which Chateaux looks promising in terms of current drinking and in terms of laying down, and which Chateaux are passe?



In January, 1981, as if all the stars were in the right place, the event ran like clockwork.

The tasting was held in Beverly Hills at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in the Champagne Room, a fairly large hall with plenty of space for the tasters. The tasters were seated facing each other in a large rectangle created by joining 4 long tables. There was ample room for the wines and the buffet. The lighting was excellent.

The Beverly Wilshire provided the necessary vast number of glasses, approximately 1200, and the decanters. The wines were served blind. They were first decanted and then poured in equal amounts into 32 glasses. The bottles were uncorked and decanted immediately prior to each flight. A typical flight consisted of about 7 wines. The glasses were all marked numerically in the order in which they were served. The wines in a flight were delivered to each taster at intervals of 2 to 3 minutes.

There were two bottles of most of the wines. To take account of the possible bottle variation, wine from the same bottle was served to alternate tasters (differentiated for the convenience of the waiters by red and green colors}. In case of big variation, the tasters getting wine from the bad bottle could share the better wine with their neighbors. (This happened very seldom.)

No glasses were removed until the end of each session. Everyone had an opportunity to re-taste the previous wines. Each session had 5 flights and lasted approximately 3 hours. After each flight was tasted and scored, the identity of the wine was disclosed and discussion followed.

The food was superb and varied. The menu changed at each session. Meats, poultry, stews, warm dishes, cold dishes, the food blended beautifully with the wines served.

So there you have it – A Retrospective of Volume III, Number 6 of The Underground Wineletter. We certainly covered a lot of ground. Not only about a wide variety of wines, but offering notes that stressed the importance of balance in wine and offered transparency as to how wines were tasted. And, after all these years, many of these things seem to have been overlooked in the world of over hype and big numbers. But, not at the Underground where you follow the continuation of the publication of each print version and the accompanying Retrospective Reviews. It is these same things that exist today in the new electronic version of the Underground. Please take this opportunity and pass the Underground along to your friends.

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson







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2 comments for “Retrospective Review Volume III, Number 6”

  • uSonRryzswHh says:
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  • J. Lothian says:

    It appears that the pdf download for Volume 3, Number 6 is incomplete. Most of the tasting notes for the 1961 Vintage are not here. The pdf copy was cut off at page 128. Could we get the rest of this issue please? Thanks!

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks for you inquiry. The issue is not cut off. Only part of the notes were in that issue. The remainder are in Volume 4, Number 1 which is on the website. This was quite a historic wine event and one of many conducted back then by the Underground. I hope you enjoy reading about it and have had a chance to taste some of the great 1961s.
      In Vino Veritas,

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