1960s Archive

A Decade of Vintages: 1950-1960

Originally Published April 1961

Of the many diverse pleasures which wine-drinking affords, one of the most singular is the extent to which it permits us, quite literally and actually, to recapture and relive the past. For what we are fasting, when we open a fine old bottle, is simply the warmth of one particular, memorable summer, the fragrance of one special autumn, unlike all others.

This is one of the reasons why a wine which carries a vintage is basically more interesting than one which does not, even if it is no better or less good, as is occasionally the case. There is something agreeable, even if a little nostalgic, about being able to say, to one's friends, “this is the wine they made the summer we were in Paris,” or “tonight we will drink the wine they made the year our son was born.”

For reasons such as these, and others less valid and more commercial, vintage charts have become very much the vogue—one of the indispensable accessories of the well-dressed man, like cuff links and a collection of credit cards. This is perhaps to be deplored, for the best of such pocket vintage charts is really nothing more than a sort of signpost or reminder: it cannot possibly be a guide. No one could review a book or a play, or even comment adequately on a well-cooked dish or a flower show or a football game, in terms of one or two digits or stars or a couple of words. How then present in capsule form the vastly varied wines of a thousand different vineyards?

Then, too, a good many of these vintage vademecums are put out by merchants who have large stocks of certain vintages which they wish to sell, and therefore tend, despile themselves, to favor; others are prepared by people who have never tasted one-tenth, let alone one-half, of the wines they presume to rate.

What follows attempts at least to be something a little different—a pretty detailed description of the wines of each major district and each year. It is based on carefully kept notes, made at the time of tasting, covering some four thousand wines comparatively tasted every year (except for the war years) since 1935, plus a good many dégustations, made as an amateur (in both the French and the English senses) during the preceding decade. The comments are as disinterested and honest as I can make them, and although they are based inevitably on personal opinion, this is at least an informed opinion, and I have no ax to grind.


1960. What the French call a “jealous” year, with wide variations in quality from one township, and indeed from one vineyard, to the next. Over publicized during the early summer of '60, when the outlook was rosy, it is turning out to be far from a great vintage—better, to be sure, than '56, '54, and '51 (which is faint praise), less good than '50 … perhaps, if we are lucky, on a par with 1958 … about 13/20. This for the reds; the drier whites are on the whole more successful (14/20) but the Sauternes and sweeter whites were touched by mold and deserve no more than 11/20.

1959. Extremely great, possibly the best since World War II, especially in the Médoc, where the red wines promise to surpass even the wonderful 1953s; less remarkable in St. Emilion and Pomerol. Already overpriced, they will become practically unprocurable as soon as they are bottled and shipped, in 1962, and those who get them will have treasures, indeed. Soon ready but superbly balanced, they should have ft long and glorious life. The whites are no less outstanding, and an 18/20 grade for both is perhaps too low.

1958. Generally underrated, a good and useful year, especially in red wines. These will be sooner ready than the '57s, in many cases quite as good, and far less expensive: for the next few years they will be the best values on the market in the way of chateau-bottled Claret, deserve 14/20. The whites, very much on the dry side, are less pleasing, race 12/20 to 14/20.

1957. Proclaimed with great trumpeting (which now seems to be the fashion in the Bordelais) as “a very great vintage.” '57 is actually nothing of the kind, but a year of hard, often harsh, deep-colored wines, high in tannin and acid, recalling the '48s, '37s, and '26s. Conceivably, a few of the best château wines may, ten years from now, prove magnificent, but this is far from certain and indeed unlikely. 15/20. The whites are less good, 13/20.

1956. Small wines, a few of them agreeable in their modest way. 11/20.

1955. A great year, and one that has surprised and delighted almost everybody. Considered “good,” or possibly “very good,” with some hesitation, at the start, it now deserves a higher grade, in the Médoc, than '52, and is better than '55 in St, Emilion and Pomerol. The '55s are now the best Clarets generally available, but they are even now becoming scarce—within a matter of months they will be hard to find, and a great deal more expensive. 17/20. The dry whites, never remarkable, are growing old; the sweeter whites were only fair to begin with. 13/20 or 14/20.

1954. There were a few light, fairly pleasing red wines; most of them are now on the decline. With malice toward none, let's say 11/20.

1953. An extremely great year, one graced (like '59 and indeed '29) with extraordinary softness, elegance, fragrance, and fruit almost from the very beginning. It would be unfair to expect such charms to last indefinitely, and only the very best Médocs are likely to improve much further. Most of the others, including all the St. Emillons and Pomerols, can advisedly be drunk in the next three to five years. For the moment, perhaps 18/20—which is too low for the best and too high for the others, The white Graves are now growing old, and so are all the other white wines except the top Sauternes—these (only the sweet ones) deserve 16/20.

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