Desert Island Dinner: 1961 Pomerol in Excelsis


What’s your desert island tasting?

Where would it take place, and most importantly, who would you share it with?

Your nearest and dearest? Then again, would they appreciate the wines? Perhaps it is better to open them with your closest ‘oeno-buddies’, or since we’re dealing with fantasy, you could invite celebrities, past or present. Imagine hosting a vertical for Sir Winston Churchill, Jay-Z, David Beckham, Orson Welles and Jesus, all partial to the joys of fermented grape juice. Not sure if they’d fit around my kitchen table, but the conversation would certainly be fascinating, and they could fight over who does the washing up.

The Hong Kong skyline.

I have been privileged to participate in a number of astonishing once-in-a-lifetime tastings throughout my career. The one that I’ve long dreamt about is a horizontal of 1961 Pomerols that included the holy trinity: Latour à Pomerol, Lafleur and Petrus. I’ve drunk two of those three, but my solitary encounter with the fabled 1961 Lafleur turned out to be Rioja, not even good Rioja at that. I’ll check my Pomerol tome, but I’m sure the Robin sisters never planted Tempranillo.

Then, last September, I took a trip to my desert island. It was not in the South Pacific, though I guess it was in that direction. Rather, I was in a cab en route to an apartment up in the Peak District of Hong Kong, where a renowned and munificent English oenophile with a cellar that takes a lifetime to assemble was about to host a dinner that had me salivating for weeks. The main event comprised no less than seven 1961 Pomerols, and yes, it included the aforementioned trinity. In a week bejeweled with astonishing tastings, I confess that this was the one I was anticipating most. Why? Well, authoring a book on Pomerol inevitably fomented an affinity for the appellation. Plus, I mused upon the fact that it constitutes one of the last occasions when these wines will gather within the same four walls. Even if you have the financial means, they rarely appear for sale nowadays. Ask the château to open one? I know for a fact that most of them do not possess a single bottle since this was an era when they had to sell every last one. Another factor is provenance. Foretold the origin of some of the bottles ups the ante even further and renders some of them unique. It meant that the odds were stacked in our favor in terms of them showing their best because experience has taught me how these wines can be variable. I’ve had my share of misfires, but surely TCA would spare us this auspicious occasion, wouldn’t it?

I don’t need to remind you that 1961 is one of the most revered vintages of the last century. Thanks to a mild winter, flowering was three weeks earlier than normal, around May 20, before frost on the night of May 30/31, acted as a natural, if ruthless, means of slashing yields, especially for the Merlot. The remainder of the season was hot and dry, particularly in August, which witnessed drought-like conditions, with the mercury reaching 30°C into September. It meant that sunlight channeled its energy on fewer bunches, predicating concentrated and structured wines predestined for longevity. Keep in mind, this was only five years after the devastating January freeze of 1956 that froze exposed vines to their core and killed countless. Pomerol’s cold clay soils, plus its lack of proximity to the temperature-regulating effect of the Gironde Estuary, meant that it was impacted more than other appellations and necessitated widespread planting. So, despite their reputation, a proportion of these wines would have come from vines in their third or fourth leaf, with the exception of Petrus since Mme. Loubat could not countenance uprooting them. She took a risk and folded the cane back into the soil, known as provignage, hoping they would spring back to life. They did.

According to Clive Coates MW writing in Grand Vin and from my learned friend, Barry Philips, who tasted the 1961s in their flush of youth, these wines were tannic and slow to develop. Apparently, even by the early Eighties, some of the top wines were not ready. After stagnant release prices since the war, the 1961s were up to triple the price of the 1959s due to the tiny quantity produced. This meant some consumers were reluctant to snap them up, notwithstanding that merchants were still selling the voluminous 1959 alums.

I arrived early for a pre-prandial inspection of the bottles and uncorked them. I never get nervous opening rare bottles of fermented grape juice, but on this occasion, I silently prayed that none of the saturated corks would crumble. Thankfully, most were gingerly prized out without too much difficulty, and the wines decanted. They were flanked by champagne, two dry whites, Sauternes and Port. Readers will find tasting notes in this article, and trust me, they weren’t shabby either. Guests arrived, just nine or ten. We had a glass of 2002 Pommery Cuvée Louise on the balcony, where we were afforded a spectacular panorama across the city’s fairy-lit skyscrapers around Kowloon Bay, then gathered around the table for the evening’s wine. I’ve always applied the maxim that the more complex the wines, the more attention they need, the simpler the food. Tonight’s meal, cooked by the host, was dead simple: beetroot soup to start and a delicious cut of beef with minimal seasoning. They provided the perfect canvas so that the wines could really shine.

Before broaching the Pomerols, let me state for the record that there was no succession of faultless wines. Get real. I would have been suspicious if they had been. These bottles are over six decades old, born when viticulture and winemaking were rudimentary. In a sense, their juxtaposition revealed their virtues and shortcomings and offered a representative ‘photograph’ of the wines.

The first pair was 1961 L’Evangile and 1961 Vieux Château Certan, whose vineyards conjoin. L’Evangile had been owned by Catherine Horeau until she died in 1957. In 1961, ownership was being contested by family members, her nephew Louis running the estate with his wife, Simone, who ultimately sold it to the Rothschilds in 1990. Vieux Château Certan had renovated their winery in 1957, which was run by Léon Thienpont and his son Georges. However, the family, including a six-year-old Alexandre, lived at Château Puygeuraud. Léon Thienpont never got to taste the finished 1961 as he passed away the following year. Both wines acquitted themselves well, the former a little richer than expected, yet still youthful and full of energy, the latter, which I have drunk several times, consistent with previous bottles, more tertiary and Cabernet-driven, elegant and refined with a ferrous finish.

The 1961 l’Église-Clinet came from Graham Lyon’s renowned cellar auctioned over a decade ago via Zachy’s. This is a vintage that I have encountered two or three times before and derives from an era when régisseur Pierre Lasserre made the wine. (Lasserre had designs on eventually purchasing the vineyard from absentee owners, the Durantou family, though Denis had his own plans to take back the estate.) This has a Médoc-like bouquet, quite mellow in style with a fine-boned finish. Readers should note that I had another delicious bottle in Bangkok in March this year that displayed a little more volatility. The 1961 Trotanoy came from collector Bill Koch’s cellar but was corked. The château had been sold to Jean-Pierre Moueix eight years earlier. Thankfully, we had a half-bottle as a backup that I found ostentatious, a little spirituous on the nose, sporting some volatility on the finish that denuded clarity. Fortunately, in March 2024, a friend flew over from the United States and opened a splendid magnum that he had promised to open in my presence for many years. It was worth the wait. It has no qualms reflecting its age and yet paradoxically is bewitchingly youthful, elegant yet ineffably powerful. It begs the question of whether there was some kind of winery selection. Perhaps the best barrels were assigned to larger formats deemed to age better. It’s all speculation now. Unquestionably, one of the wines of vintage and among the greatest Pomerols ever to grace this Earth, the 1961 Trotanoy is a monumental wine.  

Let’s broach the trinity.

Comparing the 1961 Latour à Pomerol and 1961 Petrus is a vinous act I could never have imagined when starting out. They make a fascinating juxtaposition, akin to comparing a Monet with a Manet, Bach with Beethoven. The Latour à Pomerol had lived its entire life in the cellar of English wine writer Edmund Penning-Rowsell and traveled directly via an intermediary to our host, so provenance was impeccable. It is luxurious, sexy and, in an odd way, modern in style, perhaps a precursor to the 1982 Le Pin. I can see why it seduced Robert Parker, who bestowed the perfect scores that galvanized its reputation, though perhaps its opulence slightly obscures its complexity and nuance. The 1961 Petrus is out of this world. To reiterate my stance in awarding perfect scores, there cannot be any scintilla of doubt. Absurd as it sounds, its perfection must be obvious and indisputable. This wine is like a comet blazing across the night sky. The aromatics are indescribably complex and exquisitely defined. The palate is so well balanced that it boasts bewitching weightlessness despite its concentration. Among the 1961 Pomerols, it is unquestionably the finest. To think, when I interviewed Christian Moueix for my book, he told me that the wine was made by a factotum, ostensibly the gardener in the employ of ailing proprietor Mme. Loubat, whose last breath was soon after picking. Then, this wine endured a stuck fermentation, so it was touch and go, and no one knew whether any wine would be produced at all. Amazing.

I have not mentioned the 1961 Lafleur. Of all the wines, this was the one that I was most eager to taste due to the enigma that is their 1961. It is one of Bordeaux’s rarest wines; the entire production was sold at the time, and nearly all bottles were consumed before it gained renown. I brought the glass to my nose. I experienced a feeling similar to a teenager asking a girl for a date, and she says an unfeeling “No.”

There was a slight cork taint—not enough to write it off completely, but enough to spoil the occasion. The TCA enabled us to imagine what an unaffected bottle is like, especially on the palate, which seems to have hardly a trace. Now, a friend has a bottle of the Lafleur and promised to open it in the future, so perhaps when he does, if it is sound, then I might add a postscript to this piece. That’s life.

Among other bottles this evening was a beautiful 1962 Yquem.

It was an exceptional evening. The company was full of laughter and bonhomie, even down to ceremoniously opening the 1945 Croft with a pair of heated tongs, which admittedly did take three or four attempts. The only thing anyone would have changed is that touch of TCA on the Lafleur. These wines were not a banal roll call of perfect scores. Each one had their personality. Each had something to say about the 1961 growing season. Each was delicious. After the Trotanoy magnum, I will no longer refer to the Pomerol “trinity” but rather a quaternity.

Now that I have ticked off a 1961 Pomerol horizontal off my list of dream tastings…what’s next?

That would be telling.

But when it happens, you’ll read all about it.

My sincere thanks to our generous host for this memorable dinner and to Mr. Palmer for the magnum of Trotanoy.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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