1960s Archive

A Decade of Vintages: 1952-1962

Originally Published January 1964

As if to console us for the problems and anxieties of modern living, the vine, man's old comforter and friend, has been exceedingly kind to us over the past decade. Certainly never before has there been such a remarkable succession of good vintages and bountiful harvests since World War II. We have had almost no lean years at all, none even comparable, at least, to those of that bitter and hungry interregnum of 1930-32.

Possibly we have come to take our good fortune too much for granted and expeor another “year of the century” to be unveiled every autumn. Yet it is unquestionably true that much of all this is due, not to sheer good luck, but to a vast increase in technical knowledge and skill among both vine growers and vintners. What were catastrophes thirty years ago are now problems of manageable proportions, and when something odd and disquieting seems to be taking place in a vineyard or in a cellar, one simply calls for the most competent nearby technical expert, as a few more enlightened vintners have been doing since the time of Pasteur. But today there are many more experts than there were, and far fewer ignorant vintners.

If this progress continues, as we hope it will, vintage charts may become less and less necessary. I myself am doubtful of the value of many of them today, particularly the small pocket kind. One digit can hardly give an accurate appraisal of the wines of a thousand different vineyards, their value, their original excellence, and their present quality.

What follows attempts at least to be something a little more complicated and quite different: a fairly 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 for more years than I like to admit. The commeres are as disinterested and honest as I can make them, but of course they represent, inevitably, just one expert's personal opinion.

Ratings, 1 to 20, are based on the relative value and quality of the wines today, not on what they were when originally produced or first marketed. 18-20=Very Great, 16-17=Great, 15=Very Good, 14=Good, 12-13=Fair, 11=Poor, 10 and under=Very Poor. Where no ratings are given, the wines are either loo old to be interesting or no longer on the market today.

Red Bordeaux

1963. Probable quality (evaluation as of November 15): Fair in the Médoc, elsewhere poor, like 1956 and 1954. Between 10/20 and 13/20.

1962. Surprisingly (for the weather was miserable until late June), this proved to be both a copious year and an extremely good one. In total production, it was the largest since the last war; in quality, it was very nearly “great,” easily better than 1960, 1958, 1957, 1956, and 1954. The lesser wines are fruity, attractive, soft, with fine bouquet; many of them will be in bottle and ready to drink by March, 1964. In the upper brackets, too, the ’62s promise to be early maturing and relatively short lived. and we should probably expect to drink them before the firmer and sturdier ’61s. They arc perfect Clarets of their type, and good values. 16/20.

1961. This was an exceedingly great vintage in Bordeaux, one of the best of this century. The crop was a small one; the wines were expensive from the start and will remain so, but their quality can be described only as superb, better than 1959 in St. Éimilion and Pomerol, and in the Métloc at least as good. However, they are quite different from the ’59s in character and what the French call “grain”—more closely knit, less charming, but better balanced and surely destined to be longer lived. A few of the smaller ’61s are now being bottled and shipped; they are excellent (although all of them could stand more age) but provide only a modest preview of what we can expect of the greater wines to come. These, especially the bigger ones, will hardly be ready to drink before 1966 at the earliest. 20/20. 1960. The wine have now had a year in bottle and we can judge them fairly: they are the pleasantest little fellows imaginable—fruity, delightful, ready to drink. They resemble the ’54s but arc better; they are anything but great and they will last. Unfortunately, many of them are overpriced. Drink them and enjoy them; do not put them away. 13/20.

1959. Hailed from the outset as the “Vintage of the Century,” 1959 possibly deserved this name in Burgundy (where the quality was excellent and the quantity broke all records), but in Bordeaux it was simply a great year, or very great year, comparable to 1953, 1947, 1934, 1929, yielding wines of immense early charm, which for the next half decade will delight us but most of which, ten years from now, will be gone. Until then. 18/20.

1958. This, for a long time, was a sort of ugly duckling vintage, overshadowed by the full-bodied ’57s and the obviously superior ’59s. It is nevertheless a good year; the wines have come round extremely well and (hey are now about the best values available—sound, well balanced, nor too expensive. 14/20.

1957. Very full-bodied wines, still hud and unpleasing, There arc a lew exceptions, and it is possible but by no means certain that some may eventually prove great. Like 1926 and 1937. 13/20.

1936. A poor year. Some pleasant, small wines now past their prime. 10/20.

1955. Under rared at the beginning, a very good, nearly great year, which has delighted and surprised nearly everybody, giving us Clarets not too expensive, often distinguished, always sound. They will not last forever and should be drunk. 15/20.

Subscribe to Gourmet