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Remember, Remember: 1945 Bordeaux
BY NEAL MARTIN | MAY 08, 2020
Today is the 75th anniversary of V-E Day. Plans for mass celebrations have been cancelled as the world faces its biggest challenge since World War II, denying us the opportunity to publicly honor and thank the veterans who fought for our freedom. None of this diminishes the importance of the day. This article was written to coincide with V-E Day and the momentous year of 1945. It is more than a list of wines and scores. It endeavors to present an objective analysis of the vintage and its wines, explaining why it turned out more successful than others. Most importantly, it provides historical context, not only as a region under the control of the occupying German army, but also from the viewpoint of individual châteaux.
No Bordeaux vintage has more réclame than 1945; fate had already scripted that Bordeaux would celebrate the end of hostilities with a stellar vintage after a series of dreary wartime growing seasons that reflected the tumult of the time. And no wine is as emblematic of that momentous year as Château Mouton-Rothschild and the indefatigable spirit of proprietor Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Its justified acclaim virtually defines the reputation of the haloed vintage, to the point where it lies beyond criticism. While it is true that the growing season allowed many properties to produce outstanding wines that stood the test of time, there are two caveats.
Firstly, nearly all Bordeaux estates suffered acute lack of investment not only during the war but also in the preceding decade. The Great Depression eviscerated markets, and the miserable run of vintages during the 1930s compounded winemakers’ woes. At the time war was declared on the eve of the 1939 harvest, many estates’ modus operandi was little changed since the late 1870s. The lead-up to the war was a period of stagnant investment, when there was no concept of yield control, only rudimentary means of regulating fermentation temperatures, no idea of malolactic fermentation, and continued reliance on outside entities to mature and bottle the wine. Also bear in mind that the region had suffered widespread outbreaks of oïdium and phylloxera, the latter necessitating piecemeal replanting that lasted until the late 1930s.
War deprived châteaux of manpower and of skilled artisanship traditionally passed from father to son; consequently, much of the day-to-day work was valiantly continued by women and children. Even glass for bottles was difficult to procure, hence the blue or sometimes brown tints. During the occupation, château buildings were used to billet German troops, and out of spite or plain ennui, many an irreplaceable cellar was ransacked, save for those hastily bricked up and hidden. Fortunately, no château was totally destroyed. The Weinführers, Boemers and Segnitz, who administered the occupied regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, respectively, knew full well that high command intended to celebrate victory with fine wine, and they were expected to safeguard the most prized vineyards and cellars. The historic estates, part the fabric of French culture, were merely Hitler’s bounty. In fact, Boemers had a long career as a wine merchant and before the war had built friendships with proprietors who now faced a quandary: whether to treat him as friend or foe. As one owner said, it depended on whether he was in uniform. Despite the high command’s willingness to safeguard the productivity of the region and the punishment of German soldiers unable to maintain discipline, Bordeaux still staggered out of the war in fairly ruinous condition. When Ronald Barton returned to Langoa Barton in summer 1945, he found the entire vineyard covered in weeds. Clive Coates MW calculated that of the 60 top Médoc estates, a quarter were only nominally in existence by the end of the 1940s and hung on to survival by a thread (I refer readers to my profile on Château d’Issan).
Secondly, it must be remembered that the postwar years were ones of economic hardship and austerity. Initially, despite the 1945s being born tannic and unapproachable, a great number of bottles were consumed too young simply because there was no other decent vintage available. However, in general, up until the late 1950s, continued rationing and economic malaise meant that demand was feeble and practically every Bordeaux château struggled to make a profit. According to May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, erstwhile proprietor of Pichon-Lalande, their 1945 was put on the market at the same price as inferior wartime vintages – 80,000 francs per cask for the aforementioned Pauillac. For many years, these now coveted wines were almost impossible to sell and languished in merchants’ warehouses.
The bottles lined up after a memorable evening.
The Growing Season
Allied forces liberated Bordeaux on August 28, 1944, so the 1945 vintage was the first since 1939 made without the presence of occupying German troops. Given how fêted the 1945 vintage has become, you might assume that the growing season was benevolent, a shoo-in for winemakers basking in newfound freedom. On the contrary, some of the greatest vintages were born out of troubled and challenging growing seasons, and 1945 is no different. The year commenced with heavy snow and temperatures plummeting to –10°C, followed by a prolonged dry spell until March and a blisteringly hot April that accelerated the vines’ growth cycle. On May 1, widespread frost decimated vineyards, the region as a whole suffering 60% vine damage from frost and localized hailstorms. June was warm and showery, then July saw a heat wave and temperature spikes to 36°C. August was slightly cooler and intermittent showers helped ripen remaining bunches to perfect maturity by the beginning of harvest on September 10. The result was a crop of just 1.48 million hectoliters – the smallest since 1915.
Winemakers tended to practice longer-than-usual skin maceration, hence the wines’ deep colors and richness. Predating stainless steel vats and temperature control, all these wines were fermented in large old wooden vats or cement, with blocks of ice dunked inside if the must needed cooling. One curious aspect often overlooked is that because of the shortage, or in some cases the absence, of treatments in the vineyard and sulfur in the winery, many 1945s were quasi-natural wines. Of course, this lack of protection led to spoilage and oxidation, but clearly the results in the bottle suggest that in many cases, a lack of SO2 did no harm at all. As was common at the time, depending on the château, a percentage of the production was bottled by merchants, though interestingly, Edmund Penning-Roswell averred that many were bottled too late.
The French merchant Lawton was convinced that a legendary vintage had been made from the start. “According to information that is coming to us,” he wrote, “an 1870, an 1881 or a 1906 is being made. They will be good to drink in 50 years.” The 1945s were deeply colored though hard and unyielding in their youth due to the tannins. In fact, Penning-Roswell described 1945 as a “controversial vintage” and speculated whether the wines had sufficient fruit to last long-term and whether they risked drying out. Had he been at the dinner in Hong Kong this evening, I have no doubt these bottles would have allayed those fears.
Louis and Edouard Miailhe pictured here at the end of World War I. Thanks to Edouard Miailhe for kindly sharing this family photo.
I vividly remember my first 1945 Bordeaux, a 1945 Cos d’Estournel saved for a Christmas dinner with friends in 2003. It did not disappoint. Something magical was derived from both the ethereal quality of the wine and the significance of the vintage. Since then, I have tasted 1945s from many Bordeaux châteaux. In December 2019, I was invited to dinner with a good antipodean friend in Hong Kong, the munificent “Koala,” as he is affectionately known. He opened no fewer than 15 bottles from this hallowed year, mainly but not exclusively from Bordeaux. (Readers should note that I augment these with additional 1945s, Montrose and La Mission Haut-Brion inter alia.) It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study and compare similar wines side by side and formulate an impression of an iconic vintage. Of course, provenance is an issue, though I can vouchsafe that our host had gone to great lengths to source from the ideal cellars (details provided where possible).
The first to be poured was a 1945 Rauzan-Ségla that came from no less than Hugh Johnson’s private cellar, which was auctioned several years ago. This vintage was not included in the vertical held at the estate a couple of years back. It developed a gorgeous, opulent nose in the glass, revealing traces of camphor. The palate was pliant and what it lacked in complexity was compensated with its cashmere finish. It was not an earth-shattering Margaux, but it was damn delicious. And this was just the warm-up wine! The next pairing deviated away from Bordeaux to Burgundy with an intriguing comparison of the 1945 Musigny Vieilles Vignes from Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé. I cleaved this away to use as a Cellar Favorite that readers can find here.
The next pair contrasted two wines from Saint-Estèphe, a magnum of 1945 Calon-Ségur against the 1945 Cos d’Estournel, the first time I had encountered this vintage since that aforementioned Christmas dinner. At this point in time, Edouard Gasqueton managed the estate, and his tenure from 1931 until 1962 saw immense improvement in quality, albeit mainly during the postwar period of the late Forties and Fifties. Therefore, this 1945 just predates the melioration, and maybe that is translated by the seeming funkiness on the nose, the solid but rustic palate, and the tangible dryness on the finish. Given the format, I suspect that this may be past its peak. Meanwhile, Cos d’Estournel was then owned by the Ginestet family. During the war, it was said that the decorative bells in the château’s tower could be heard ringing. Did it signify the end of war? No; German soldiers were using them for target practice. (The bells must have been replaced, since there are no bullet holes.) The château-bottled 1945 Cos d’Estournel acquired from Berry Brothers & Rudd outshone the Calon-Ségur, and you can see why it was English wine writer Edmund Penning-Roswell’s pick of the Saint-Estèphes. Gorgeous eucalyptus scents developed on the nose, and the tannins felt riper and more succulent. Perhaps there was a little dryness on the finish, yet the wine still provides great pleasure, even if it lags one or two steps behind some of the other Deuxième Crus.
Next were two Deuxième Crus commencing with the 1945 Pichon Comtesse de Lalande. A syndicate headed by Louis and Edouard Miailhe had acquired the estate in 1926 .
Don and Petie Kladstrup’s essential book Wine & War details how the estate was snatched from their hands: In 1940, the property was one of the first to be requisitioned by the invading German army, just one week after jackboots marched through Bordeaux. Around 250 soldiers turned up outside the château and ordered the family to vacate immediately, along with their Charles X furniture and 19th-century artwork. The only piece that remained in situ was a heavy armoire that was moved to hide the basement wine cellar. The subterfuge was discovered within hours. A German officer ordered the family back to Pichon, reprimanded them for presuming the Germans were thieves, and vowed not to touch the cellar. And he kept his word. The Miailhe family relocated to Margaux to live with Edouard’s parents at Château Siran, where they faced a more serious concern. A Jewish wine merchant from Trieste had escaped persecution and fled Italy for Bordeaux, and the Miailhes installed his family at Palmer. It was only a matter of time before soldiers would discover them in a walled-up annex of the requisitioned château. Under cover of night and using forged documents, Edouard Miailhe smuggled them through multiple German checkpoints so that they could board a vessel from Bayonne to the safety of Argentina.
Around 250 German soldiers were billeted at Pichon-Lalande, lit by candles and gaslight, the rooms filled with bales of hay for soldiers to sleep on. You can imagine the state the property was in by the time they left in 1944. Yet the following year, the Miailhes still managed to produce an excellent wine that has lasted to this day. This bottle, purchased from Christie’s, had a gorgeous floral bouquet with a touch of volatile acidity, the palate beautifully balanced. While not as complex as some of its peers, it seemed to revel in its fleshy, Merlot-driven finish, which reminded me of the 1982 at its peak.
The proprietorship of Léoville–Las Cases in 1945 is a little opaque, since there was a gradual transition between part-owner and general manager Théophile Skawinski and his son-in-law André Delon, Jean-Hubert’s great-grandfather. The 1945 Léoville–Las Cases was one of the standouts of the evening and a real surprise because while I admire ancient vintages of this Saint-Julien, few have really set my world alight. This one did. Blessed with a beguiling bouquet of vivacious red fruit intermingling with cedar and mint, as I write in my note, it was like “Mouton’s younger cousin.” On the palate, everything was perfectly judged, with not a hair out of place, so much so that it came across as a forebear of the outstanding 1985. I doubt that I will ever encounter another bottle as good as this.
Next was an intriguing trio of Pomerols. The Pomerolais don’t really like to mention the fact that during the war, the occupying Germans did something the French have never done to this day: they classified Pomerol. Of course, it was unofficial and authorities never ratified it, but having perused the list myself, I found it pretty accurate. Pomerols from this vintage are extraordinarily rare because unlike other appellations, it was perceived as a bucolic rural backwater where some elderly paysans still wore sabots or wooden clogs. I have been privileged to taste “two and a half” 1945 Pomerols, and if you think that is more than my fair share, expect two more to appear in forthcoming verticals.
Two and a half? Well, Cheval Blanc is a quasi-Pomerol, sharing an extension of the gravel plateau with large percentages of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1945, Cheval Blanc was owned by a société civile consisting of members of the Fourcaud-Laussac family. Having tasted it three times previously, I was never convinced that it belongs in the same rarefied atmosphere as the 1947, 1948, 1949 or 1950. Why might that be? Well, according to David Peppercorn MW, “half the crop was piqué [sour] and had to be pasteurized.” However, this was unquestionably the best example that I have tasted. Its bouquet is just a little loose-knit and frayed at the edges, yet the palate is a marvel, beautifully poised with filigreed tannins and a finish that takes your breath away.
It was fascinating to
compare the Cheval Blanc against its neighbor, the 1945 La Conseillante. The Nicolas family bought this Pomerol back
in 1871, and they still own it to this day. The label indicates that it is a
“1er Cru” in name only, common in this era when properties located on the
plateau were deemed superior to those on flat, sandier soils in the west of the
appellation. I tasted this extremely rare wine once before, during an epic
vertical as research for my Pomerol tome; served blind back then, it was one of
the highlights. This bottle couldn’t replicate that performance... could it?
Well, it did. The bouquet is utterly entrancing, featuring loamy red berry
fruits that are incredibly delineated and pure. The palate is perfectly
balanced with lace-like tannins and a crystalline finish. Moreover, it improved
with aeration – remarkable after three-quarters of a century.
The third bottle was the one I was most anticipating because it is as rare as hens’ teeth. Over 20 years of tasting, I have never even seen a bottle from this era for sale, though vintages are fabled thanks to eulogizing by one Robert Parker. I’ll come back to my old boss in a minute. We are talking about the 1945 Certan-de-May. The small, five-hectare estate was then owned by André Badard, grandfather of present owner Jean-Luc. It was en fermage to the négociant Ginestet and the wine was made at another property they owned, Petit-Village. Now, I am going to be brutally honest – this is one bottle whose authenticity I doubted. It was ridiculously opulent on the nose, featuring black plums mixed with camphor and honey, the palate delivering cashmere tannins, and a finish that was so exuberant, concentrated and lush that I could not help thinking of a supremely well-crafted Priorat. I privately dismissed the bottle; however, after inspecting the bottle and perusing Parker’s own tasting note, I was shocked to find his commentary has similarities to mine. So was it real? Or was it adulterated? I don’t think so. That was not a practice undertaken in Pomerol because the wines sold for a pittance, and it was not financially worthwhile to tamper with them. I have encountered ancient bottles direct from château cellars that defied all rationality and tasted incredibly young, so it is not impossible that this one was authentic. In the end, I am never going to taste it again, and like Parker, I choose to leave it as a reference point for readers if they happen to come across it themselves.
The next flight was off the charts, a triumvirate of First Growths: Haut-Brion, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild. Before you phone the Vinous hotline, yes, I am aware that at this point Mouton was a Deuxième Vin, but we all know that in Baron Philippe’s mind, it was not. Who can blame him when he created legendary wines the caliber of this immortal?
It should be noted that Pauillac suffered acutely during the war. Both Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild were confiscated and accommodated anti-aircraft garrisons, making them targets for Allied bombers. The bombs left 250 civilians dead or wounded, according to the Lawton archives. It is a miracle that during those four years neither First Growth was hit, though between the two estates around 100,000 bottles were drunk by German soldiers. Baroness Philippine de Rothschild recalled how the invading soldiers began shooting paintings in their house, their tearful cook running around trying to remove as many as possible before they were all destroyed. That was just the beginning. As a scion of a very visible Jewish family, Philippine’s father was an obvious target for the Nazis, as was the branch of Rothschilds at Lafite, whose proprietor Baron Elie de Rothschild was a cavalry officer and a prisoner of war, including a spell at Colditz. Baron Philippe had been imprisoned by the Vichy French in 1940, and upon gaining freedom the following year, he crossed the Pyrenees to enlist with the Free French forces in England, then participated in the landings on D-Day. However, Mouton-Rothschild was not his greatest (though as it transpired, temporary) loss. Bordeaux itself had been liberated by 1945, but Baron Philippe’s wife, the Comtesse de Chambure, died at Ravensbrück concentration camp in that same year.
Given his experiences of war and the loss of his wife, the baron must have felt some sweetness overseeing the 1945 Mouton-Rothschild. He famously celebrated by incepting, or more accurately reviving, the tradition of commissioning an artist to design the main label. The “Année de la Victoire” label, with its symbolic capital “V” inspired by Winston Churchill, was the handiwork of then-unknown artist Philippe Jullian, who went on to become a successful dramatist. It is not the most aesthetically pleasing label, but it is the most symbolic.
A wonderful, evocative photograph of Baron Philippe de Rothschild in splendid bow tie during harvest at Mouton-Rothschild. Given the laughing faces behind him, he must have been entertaining the troops. This famous image actually dates from 1953, though it captures his spirit that got him through the war.
This was my fourth bottle of 1945 Mouton-Rothschild and the second in three months. Though the previous bottle in September came direct from the château, that example missed the je ne sais quoi that makes the wine so special. This bottle was much better, with a telltale eucalyptus-scented bouquet and bewildering precocity that almost makes you burst out laughing, it’s so blooming outrageous. The palate is graced with heavenly balance and opulence. This is a monumental wine that continues to cruise at high altitude. It has always been superior to 1945 Latour. The vineyard here suffered frost damage on May 1 and 2, when their growth cycle was three weeks ahead of schedule. According to château records, the vineyard had missing vines and suffered a lack of suitable treatment, so that yields were between 15 and 20hL/ha, predominantly from their stock of old vines. Records also show that the wines underwent a troubled vinification due to high levels of volatile acidity. (Of course, they were not the only ones – it was passim across Bordeaux.) After all that, how was the bottle? Well, this one was not correct. It was not corked, but it felt discombobulated, possibly by a period of inappropriate storage. Readers already have a recent tasting note on the Vinous database to peruse.
The 1945 Haut-Brion set out to make amends. This was my wine of the night. It was the apotheosis of wine, the pinnacle. To ram that point home, if asked to choose between this Graves and the Mouton-Rothschild on that night, I would choose the former. In the early years of the war, Clarence Dillon, the financier who bought the château in 1935, converted its buildings into a hospital for French soldiers, its urban location convenient for receiving the wounded. Subsequently, the German army requisitioned the property and used it as a rest home for the Luftwaffe. One vignette from Jane Anson’s Bordeaux Legends told how the wife of winemaker Georges Delmas, grandfather of present winemaker Jean-Philippe, remonstrated the commandant for allowing his soldiers to pilfer fruit and vegetables that she grew in her small garden for her son. The commandant’s orders for them to stop went unheeded, and she questioned his authority. The commandant posted a guard to protect the garden from peckish soldiers.
According to château records, it snowed during the cold snap on May 2, and the hard frost decimated 80% of the harvest. The surviving bunches subsequently became very concentrated after the hot summer. Words cannot do justice to the ethereal quality of the Haut-Brion, which is perfect in every way, from its sublime earthenware-tinged bouquet to the crystalline palate whose tannins appear to have been sculpted by the tiniest chisel. While Mouton-Rothschild claims all the glory, in many ways Haut-Brion is more nuanced and no lesser a wine. Perfection.
Two final wines to finish, and they were no slouches either. The 1945 d’Yquem is one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century and ranks among the best I have tasted from this Sauternes, alongside the 1921, 1928 and 1937. The region was not spared the late spring frosts that affected d’Yquem on May 2, though according to château records it affected only the tops of the vines rather than the nascent buds below. A 41-mm rain shower on August 29 provoked botrytis, and the grapes were picked via six tries through the vineyard over six weeks between September 9 and October 20, apparently from Monday to Saturday, never on a Sunday. The resulting wine had high levels of both sugar – 164g/L – and alcohol. It is now deep amber in color. It remains pure and full of tension, mind-bogglingly concentrated and yet effortlessly poised. Like two previous bottles, including one at the château, the 1945 shrugs off its 75 years of age and will easily offer spellbinding drinking pleasure for another 75 years at least. The coiled-up energy of this Sauternes has to be experienced to be believed. Last but not least, the decanter was poured to the left for the 1945 Taylor’s Vintage Port. Though overshadowed by the legendary 1948, it is one of my favorite port wines of the era, and this bottle was up there with the very best, delivering a gorgeous menthol and cassis nose loaded with festive Christmas cake scents, the palate built around a perfect line of acidity and demonstrating incredible refinement on the finish.
Not often does one encounter bottles like these. Note how the 1945 Mouton-Rothschild carries two labels, the top one with Jullian’s artwork slightly narrower than the main label underneath.
That finished a memorable, once-in-a-lifetime dinner. For certain, it is clear that after 75 years, many Bordeaux wines still brim with vigor and often gift a profound sense of pleasure. It is strange to think that some of these 1945s will outlive the countless men and women who served in World War II. It is fascinating how many share a eucalyptus scent, a signature not just of Mouton-Rothschild but of many wines across Bordeaux and even the Vintage Port. That must surely derive from the concentrated berries and the volatile acidity that imparts an exotic allure. Yet that exoticism tends to be much more controlled than some 1947s. We were lucky that, apart from the Latour and the question mark lingering over the Certan-de-May, all the bottles had lived up to expectations and occasionally surpassed them. To savor these 1945s in a relaxed setting with a handful of friends, to observe them blossoming with aeration and to juxtapose them against each other, was an enlightening, almost humbling experience. The aura surrounding the 1945 vintage gleams ever brightly after.
Today is the 75th anniversary of V-E Day. There are no veterans decorated in medals, their heads full of memories, marching their last parade. There are no military bands, no fly-pasts, no bunting across the street. The pandemic snatched away the country’s final chance to honor their sacrifice and valor before their experiences can only be read in history books. Time marches on, yet we must never forget what happened lest we repeat the past. So, on the infrequent occasion you might find yourself in front of a bottle of 1945, raise a toast and remember not just the significance of that year, but those who made it possible for us to enjoy our freedom.
(My sincere thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Koala for hosting this memorable dinner at their home and for their generosity in opening this array of wines. This article is dedicated to Nan, who shot down bombers on their way down the Thames during the Blitz, and my step-grandfather, who drove through liberated France after D-Day in an army Jeep and picked up a taste for wine.)
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