“Thus ends this year of publick wonder and mischief to this nation, and, therefore, generally wished by all people to have an end”, wrote Samuel Pepys in his diary on 31st December 1666.
He was reflecting on a year in which the Great Plague had subsided but was followed by the Great Fire of London. Pepys noted in his diary entry on 4th September that he had buried his wines and Parmesan cheeses in a garden pit for safekeeping during the fire.
If Pepys had composed a diary entry for 31st December 2020, he might again have written that it was a year “generally wished by all people to have an end”.
Do Androids Dream of Chablis?
As 2021 begins, planet Earth is a troubled place (except perhaps for Jeff Bezos and other Amazon shareholders).
Early editions of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (upon which the 1982 film Blade Runner was based) were set in 1992 but later editions were set in 2021.
There is a reference to Chablis in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which depicts a terrifying world in which French wine is an extreme rarity. It could be a vision of post-Brexit Britain.
Nonetheless, let’s try and look to 2021 with optimism. Life becomes more bearable when you break bread with friends and family to enjoy anniversary wines and celebrations – even if it must be online or socially-distanced.
For those celebrating a 10th anniversary (not birthday!), 2011 was good for Sauternes and even better for Bordeaux dry white wines. I had Chateau Musar 2011 in December and it was a lovely, rich, and supple wine, with the characteristic “funk” of Musar.
2011 Chateau Musar (1 x 75cl bottle)£55.00
2011 Chateau Musar (1 x 37.5 cl half-bottle)£27.50
The champion wines of 2011 are the superb Vintage Ports made that year. They were irresistible when young and will be superb for many years.
August 2003 saw temperatures reach over 40°C across France’s wine regions, causing grapes to ripen extremely quickly and harvests to start prematurely. At Cheval Blanc, the Merlot was picked from 1st September. In 2004, picking began on 22nd September.
Broad-minded 18-year olds might brave Château Pavie 2003, which I once tasted from a large format bottle – from memory, a 15-litre Nebuchadnezzar – and which left me traumatised. Reeking of nauseous flavours and with tannins like barbed wire, it was one of the most disagreeable wines that I’ve ever met.
There is an apocryphal story about Pavie’s owner Gérard Perse, who made his fortune with a supermarket chain, burning all the old paperwork at Pavie in front of the previous owners when he took over in 1998. Bonfire of the vanities or one of Bordeaux’s greatest wines? Buy a bottle and decide for yourself.
Still, there are a couple of 2003s that were very pleasing when last encountered. Pichon-Lalande was good. And Petrus – harvested from 3rd September – was outstanding for the year, with the extreme heat mitigated by the clay soil in its Merlot vineyards.
Twenty-year-olds with a sweet tooth are in for a birthday treat this year. Sensational Sauternes was made in 2001, especially (of course) Château d’Yquem, which I had in Basel a while ago. With a whopping 150 grams per litre of sugar, the sugar-fuelled intensity of Yquem 2001 is astonishing. Its extraordinarily thick and viscous texture, its focus and fervour, and its pulsating acidity making it an irresistible, ecstatic wine.
Red Bordeaux of this vintage is perhaps undervalued. Some good wines emerged and are much less costly than those of the previous year.
When last tasted with the château’s owner Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, Angélus 2001 was soft and fruity. “A flashy vintage”, reckoned M de Boüard.
The low yields of Château Cheval Blanc in 2001 helped to create a wine of impressive finesse and balance. Tasted in London with Pierre Lurton a few years ago, he concluded that the 2001 is “good for ageing, but ready to drink…a lot of people lose this vintage after the great 2000”.
Château Margaux 2001 was a lovely wine too, though the late Paul Pontallier called it “a wine to drink rather than taste”. So we drank it.
On the whole, it was a good year across Europe’s classic regions, with only Champagne a disappointment. Good in California, too.
Blessed are those who are 21 this year.
The 2000 Bordeaux harvest was touted as “vintage of the century” (20th or 21st century?). The Times’former Chief Sports Writer Simon Barnes defined greatness as “the ability to seize a moment.” With few exceptions the Bordelais did that in 2000. Presented with the warmest and driest autumn since 1990, there was no excuse not to make something special.
A decade ago I was fortunate to attend a “ten years on” tasting of top Bordeaux of the 2000 vintage that proved what an outstanding year it was. The wines were expensive then – the 48 wines tasted totalled over £16,000, or £333.33 per bottle, and would be even more expensive now. The tasting panel’s consensus put Latour as the First Growth among equals, followed by Haut-Brion, Lafite, Cheval Blanc and Pétrus.
Top-quality 1996 Champagne, Barolo, and Barbaresco can all be enjoyed by 25-year olds.
It was a good Bordeaux vintage in 1996. For example, Château Margaux 1996 when tasted in the company of Paul Pontallier was gorgeous then and might be even better now. “A real reference for Margaux,” in Pontallier’s opinion.
Outstanding, intense white Burgundy was made in 1996 but beware premature oxidation.
A few Aussie wines were tasted at a Langton’s IV Classification event some years ago. Henschke’s 1996 Hill of Grace was very good and might still be going strong. Cullen’s Cabernet Merlot ’96 was Vanya Cullen’s 14th vintage but I think that she’s benefited from much better vintages (and even more winemaking expertise) since then. Penfolds Bin 707 was named after the Boeing aircraft, apparently, and the 1996 vintage was about as subtle as a jet plane.
In the year that saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, much of Europe was rained on during harvest and the resulting wines were generally poor.
A frost wiped out a lot of Bordeaux vines on 21-22 April 1991, destroying new shoots. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, September rains caused rot. In Sauternes, the pickers had to separate the pourriture noble grapes from those affected by grey rot. Yuk.
The resulting red and white wines are entirely forgettable. No Pétrus was made in 1991, so run a mile if you see a bottle.
The exception to the mediocrity is the Douro, which had a widely-declared Port vintage – the first for six years – though not by Taylor or Fonseca.
I had a few ’91 Burgundies in my early days in the wine trade and recall them as very hard and tannic, though that was mainly with Faiveley bottlings, made in their then very robust style. I’m not sure that the wines had enough to support those brittle tannins for 30+ years.
Thirty-year olds will do much better if they look towards California (Napa) Cabernet, which had an excellent year in 1991. I can recall tasting Opus One ’91, which had a reasonably civilised alcohol level of 13.5%. The 2015 had 15%…
Some clarets of the 1981 vintage have aged into pleasant wines. Château Margaux was deliciously cedary and mature when last encountered but it’s probably now past the point of no return.
Some good vintage Champagnes were made, despite the April frost. Although not of the 1981 vintage, bottles of Pol Roger Cuvée de Réserve 1947 were disgorged on 29th July 1981 to commemorate the wedding of H.R.H. The Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer (which I can remember watching on TV, having been given the day off school).
The 1947 wasn’t served at the wedding, though Pol Roger was served generously at the reception at Claridge’s.
I haven’t had Pol ’47 but François Audouze had the Churchill version and the Princess Diana version à deux in May 2017. He noted that the late-disgorged 1981 version was “drier because it has not been doséat the time of the disgorgement. Its vivacity is extreme. It’s quite sunny and pleasant but I prefer by far the first, which enchants me.”
I would love a bottle of this – disgorged a day before the start of the Fourth Test at my home ground Edgbaston in Birmingham – with which to toast the very happy memory of the England vs. Australia “Ashes” cricket matches of 1981.
The 40th anniversary of the 1981 Royal wedding will be – well, noted rather than celebrated in 2021.
Cheval Blanc did well in an otherwise undistinguished 1971 Bordeaux vintage. This supposedly indifferent vintage (for some critics, anyway) of Cheval Blanc had very low yields of just 18hl/ha. Tasted from a magnum, it had good depth and length of flavour. Although made in a very different manner to more recent vintages of Cheval Blanc (and bottled in Libourne rather than at the château, to boot), the family resemblance was clear. The elegance, freshness, and concentration of Cheval Blanc were all more or less intact. Cheval Blanc’s Managing Director Pierre Lurton described it as “a super wine, very fat and spicy”.
Sauternes and some Right Bank red wines –notably Trotanoy – also shone in 1971. Penfolds Grange and Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle ’71 are also well-regarded. It was a great vintage for Germany’s wine regions. There was good Champagne, too.
Antinori’s Tignanello is apparently the favourite wine of the Duchess of Sussex (aka Meghan Markle). Tignanello was originally a Chianti Classico Riserva called Vigneto Tignanello. With the 1971 vintage, the wine became a Vino da Tavola della Toscana and was named simply “Tignanello.” Never had the ’71, though perhaps the Duchess of Sussex has.
The star performer of 1971 was Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. DRC’s wines of this vintage remain highly-priced and sought-after. But beware counterfeits.
It was a superlative year for Bordeaux in 1961.
Château Palmer spiked the graph and made a wine that it’s never matched before or since. I had Palmer 1961 in Finland in 2005. Shamefully, I have no recollection at all of this wine – because I was preoccupied with the Cheval Blanc 1947. (And struggling with a lack of sleep because of the midnight sun.)
Good bottles of the top 1961 clarets – Palmer, Latour, Mouton – should still be exceptional.
1951: Area 51
No such joy for 70-year olds. The 1951 Bordeaux vintage was horrendous. Yquem was not made this year.
But it’s not a complete write-off for a 70-year celebration. It was a great vintage in California, if you can find a bottle.
Some good wine was made under very challenging conditions in Europe in 1941.
Life (and the weather) was a bit easier in the USA at that time so California enjoyed a fine vintage.
Falling between the Great Depression and Prohibition, a toxic combination of bad weather and a bad market defined 1931.
However, Quinta do Noval made its name with the declaration of its 1931 Vintage Port and Nacional Vintage Port. Because of the global depression and unsold stock of the 1927 Vintage, most shippers did not declare 1931. Indeed, some of the great 1927 Vintage Ports ended up in bog-standard Ruby Port blends.
But Noval did declare and produced a pair of legendary wines.
1921: Six wines in search of a drinker
Pirandello’s Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore was written and first performed in 1921, a year that offers plenty of wine choices for centenarians.
Exceptional Sauternes (notably Yquem, as always) was made but also some fine red wines in Bordeaux. It was a star-making vintage for Cheval Blanc. Pol Roger produced a legendary Champagne.
Gianni Agnelli, the former head of Fiat who once controlled 4.4% of Italy’s GDP, was born in 1921. From 1990 to his passing in 2003, Agnelli’s family owned 75% of Château Margaux, which made a good wine in 1921.
1911: White Riot
The Champenois still produced some great wines in 1911, despite the riots.
Some Vintage Port was shipped to the UK for King George V’s coronation. It’s also known as a fine red Burgundy vintage.
1811: Captain Comet
“One” vintages in the 19th century are largely undistinguished, though the 1811 “comet” vintage produced wines of exceptional quality that were welcomed after a period of poor vintages in Europe. The 1992 film Year of the Comet (no, I haven’t seen it either) features 1811 Lafite in its plot.
The Roaring Twenties?
“I’ve got a feeling 21 / Is going to be a good year…” sang Pete Townshend on The Who’s 1969 album Tommy (he was referring to 1921). But perhaps this is overly-optimistic in the light of an abysmal 2020.
The inauguration of a new President of the United States promises a quieter four-year term. September 11th will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It will be a sombre year.
In the meantime, wash your hands; wear a face-mask when required to do so; keep your distance; and drink plenty of good vintage wine (but take off the mask first).