Magician’s Fool: 1950s Bordeaux
BY NEAL MARTIN |
FEBRUARY 28, 2018
Magicians. Bloody magicians.
Yeah, we all watched them growing up, whether it was perma-tanned David
Copperfield pulling a mildly surprised elephant from a top hat or Paul Daniels
vanishing before an audience’s grateful eyes. I cannot deny that I enjoyed the
entertainment. However my cynical disposition meant that in the unlikely event
of participating in any magician’s act, then I would see through the facade. I’m
no fool. I’ll show them who’s the clever one.
So I am invited to Mr. A’s
private dinner and the theme? The 1950s. Arriving at our host’s mansion, I am
the only person not dressed as a member of the T-Birds, all greased back hair,
jeans and leather, though one chap has ticked one off his bucket list and come
dressed as a disturbingly convincing Marilyn. The radio plays the golden greats
of rock n’ roll: Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Elvis, whilst
Mrs. A has prepared trays of mini-hamburgers (100-points NM). Naturally, all
the wines were born in this decade and some pretty serious names too. I can’t
But first, for our pre-prandial
entertainment, Mr. A has booked a magician. I will be honest, when he enters
the room in his glittering lamé jacket, I am hoping that we can get pre-prandial
prestidigitation over and done with it quickly because I want to get my tonsils
round that 1959 Palmer. But anyway, we form a horseshoe and the show begins.
The first couple of tricks are simple sleights of hand and I barely raise an eyebrow.
I’ve seen it before. But as his act progresses the conjuring provokes
ever-increasing degrees of awe and incredulity. I am hooked. How the hell did
he do...wait...now bottles of DRC are materializing from empty cylinders, a
trick last seen in Rudy Kurniawan’s kitchen, just before the FBI rang his
doorbell. I make a mental note to contact DRC’s agents. This chap would be
useful helping out with limited allocations. Need another few mags of La Tâche?
Each of our party is invited to
take part and come the final trick he choses yours truly. This is my moment.
This should be easy. I’ve had enough of this tomfoolery.
The magician hands me a pack of
cards and invites me to shuffle. He turns his back and I choose a random card
and return it to the pack. It is the nine of spades. He asks if I am happy with
my choice and just as he is about to continue, I doth protest and ask to choose
another one. I do this twice. He’s on edge. What kind of mug does this guy think
I am? Eventually I settle on the three of hearts. I place it back in the pack
and then the magician asks me to hold out my hand, palm upwards perfectly flat,
as if I am about to walk like an Egyptian. He places the pack into my palm.
Then I enclose the deck by placing my other hand over the top, whereupon he casually
walks over to the opposite side of the room. My brain works overtime
speculating how he could guess my chosen card. He is rabbiting on now. I’ve
caught him out. He’s playing for time. Get that Palmer open...
Then he utters the words. “He no
longer has the deck in his hands. They’re here on my hand. He is holding a
block of glass.”
W.T.F. I swear that about half
a second before the big reveal I felt the sharp edge of glass however, my brain
cannot compute this irrational metamorphosis and...HOW THE HELL DID HE DO THAT
WHEN HE IS ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE ROOM! I mean he placed the deck in my
outstretched hand. I saw them there. I put my other hand on top. The cards
cannot escape. Nothing can enter. How did card become glass? I’ve been staring
at my hand the entire time. There are audible gasps around the room as logic
and a majority of Newton’s laws of physics come apart at the seams, applause
erupts around the room. I half-heartedly clap because a few cerebral synapses
have short-wired trying to work out what just transpired.
The only way I could recover
was by drinking astonishing Claret. I should point out here that whilst this
was an evening of jollity, banter and rock ‘n roll, these bottles were not only
serious in quality but of sound provenance, some having been acquired at
auction from the ex-Nicolas cellar and other ex-château. My tasting notes were
written before the fun began and the music turned up loud, notwithstanding that
I could monitor their progress over the course of two or three hours
We now look back at the 1950s
as a golden age for Bordeaux, a continuation of those halcyon postwar vintages
courtesy of 1953, 1955 and 1959, not to mention pretty good 1952s and a cluster
of Right Bank 1950 gems. It would not be until the 1980s that the region
enjoyed such a benevolent run of vintages. It is easy to forget two things.
Firstly, most Bordeaux château including the First Growths barely scraped a
profit indeed a majority even at the top end made a loss. The merchants, still
bottling much of the production, dictated the market and called the shots.
Secondly, that market was restricted to a very small niche of oenophiles. In
these austere ration book times, wine was a luxury reserved for the tiny number
of the upper class and noble professions such as doctors, lawyers and the clergies..
Vintages now revered as 20th century pinnacles were not met with the
hoopla commonplace nowadays, but with a few bon mots in periodicals such as
Cyril Ray’s “Wine & Food” magazine and merchants’ brochures. It was the
1959 vintage that finally restored some essence of profitability for the first
time after the Second World War.
We began with a rare dry white
Bordeaux wine, the 1950 Laville
Haut-Brion. To be honest, I was not taken with this wine that lacked the
sparkle and vivacity of some of the great Laville’s from the 1960s such as the
1962 and 1964. Others appreciated more than myself, but for me it lacked
clarity and just felt rather decrepit, unsurprising given age and mediocrity of
the growing season.
Bottles of L’Evangile from this era are now very difficult to find.
According to the label, this 1955 was shipped by Hapnappier, who seemed to
import a high percentage of the estate’s wines into Benelux countries.
Moving on, it was the turn of
the Right Bank. The 1959 Cheval Blanc
was spectacular and given that this bottle had been bought directly from the
château via auction that comes as no surprise. This was my third encounter with
this wine that last with the late great John Avery in 2011. Crystal clear in
colour, refulgent even, it boasted an intense bouquet with wild strawberry and
black cherries, and a touch of glycerin. The palate translates the
concentration and precocity of the 1959 vintage, coming across more Merlot-driven
than Cabernet Franc. It outshone the 1959
L’Evangile, different appellation (well partially if you want to be
pedantic) but certainly neighbors. That is to take nothing away from another
impressive wine that replicated the performance of a double magnum tasted in
2009. You had to admire the density and structure, the same richness as the 1959 Cheval Blanc but without quite the
same sophistication. This wine was actually made during a tricky period for the
estate, embroiled in family squabbling over proprietorship since some of the
member of the Ducasse family wanted to sell L’Evangile after frost had
decimated the vineyard in 1956. So, it is interesting to compare this 1959 with
the 1955 L’Evangile, which would
have come from much older vine stock when it was owned by Catherine Horeau. It
had a very complex bouquet with pinecones and an odd but attractive scent of
Chinese XO sauce. The palate was typical of 1955 Right Bank wines, exuding
purity and grace, delivering a spellbinding sense of symmetry on the finish. It
was a privilege to taste these two L’Evangile bottles. They are extremely
difficult to find nowadays and we were lucky that both showed as they ought to.
Let’s stay with the 1955
vintage. Long terms readers will know that it is one that I have promulgated
since my primordial Wine-Journal days and over the years nearly every bottle
has vindicated that view. This is a bona fide great Bordeaux vintage that was
under-rated for many years. Unfortunately, the 1955 Carruades de Lafite had seen better days, which can be excused given it is a deuxième vin. You can’t win ‘em all. The
1955 Latour restored order: a
brilliant wine from the First Growth, again, provenance playing a key role as
this came direct from the Mähler-Besse reserves. Consulting their records, the
1955 was picked on September 25, underwent a “very active fermentation” that
produced rich musts comparable to 1949 and 1952. There is no messing about the
nose that goes straight from the jugular: vivacious red fruit, hints of
eucalyptus (a trait that I often discern on the 1945) with breathtaking focus.
The palate is structured but exquisitely balances with a long deep and
satisfying finish. It is a magnificent Pauillac cruising at high altitude after
We moved back to the 1953
vintage. This was a favorite amongst the British wine writers, especially
Michael Broadbent. I have enjoyed some spectacular encounters, in fact, one of
the greatest bottles I have ever drunk comes from this vintage, but Vinous
readers will have to wait for me to retell that. The 1953 Léoville-Barton sported that fabulous old art deco label that
is now used for the second label. This came from the era under Ronald Barton.
As Clive Coates MW mentions, the château was in a poor state after the war with
one-quarter of the vines missing, so when this 1953 was made, Ronald was still
reconstituting the vineyard and making barely a penny. Yet, as I mention in my
note, it conveys a sense of “faded class”. You had to ignore a nagging metallic
note on the nose, but the core of fruit was extant if not as powerful as
Léoville Las-Cases, with a bucolic finish that reflects the rudimentary
conditions this 1953 would have been made in. The 1953 Léoville Las-Cases was better, although I have had finer examples
in the past. It sported a far superior nose compared to the Barton, yet the
palate seemed more fatigued than I think larger formats or other bottles might
show. Returning to Léoville Barton,
we later enjoyed a bottle of the 1959.
Despite the vineyard having been devastated by the frost three years earlier,
this is a resounding success. Cedar and scents of antique bureau on the nose,
plenty of degraded red fruit and floral scents developing with time, it was
just a lovely mature Claret. There was something gentle yet compelling about
this Léoville Barton even if I feel it is in gradual decline.
A late addition to the line-up
was the 1957 Mouton Rothschild,
which was served blind and totally threw me thanks to the liveliness on the
mint-tinged nose. This vintage is not common these days, forgotten between 1955
and 1959. However, it is one of those vintages that can surprise, just like
this bottle. Despite a little volatility, you had to admire its density and
detail after all these years. Current winemaker Philippe Dhalluin told me that
this is his birth-year so I hope he has tasted this Mouton himself. It is a
The stellar 1959 Palmer, unfairly in the shadow by the 1961 with the
1959 Grange, one of Max Schubert’s “hidden” vintages just visible alongside.
The final Bordeaux was the 1959 Palmer. Now, I know several mavens
who argue that on its day, the 1959 can outclass the legendary 1961 though
neither example I have encountered previously vouchsafed for that view.
However, this bottle certainly did. Wow! The bouquet just soared from the glass
with cassis and juniper berries, the palate beautifully balanced with
incredible horsepower towards the bravura of a finish. Interestingly, this was
made just a couple of years after the Sichel/Mahler-Besse families had acquired
the neighboring Château Desmirail and incorporated part of that vineyard.
The last bottle is one that, to
be honest, I underappreciated as I drank it and write my note. Too blasé. I dislike transgressing on fellow
Vinous writer’s patches, so I hope Josh forgives my retelling of this important
wine. Our host has one of the most enviable collections of Penfolds Grange and he poured one of the most elusive: the 1959 Hermitage Grange Bin 46, to give
it its full title. It was only later that I realized that this was the last of winemaker
Max Schubert’s “hidden Granges”, made when his paymasters objected and forbid
the production of dry red wine since the industry and commerce was built upon
fortified wines in those days. Inspired by his visit to Bordeaux some years
earlier and undeterred, Schubert covertly made three vintages. It was only when
they were slipped into wine shows and began picking up awards that his
employers relented and an icon got the green light. Therefore, not only is this
Grange extremely rare, but it holds historical significance. The 1959 was a
blend of 90% Shiraz and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and according to the label,
bottled in 1960. It was just a beautiful mature wine, rich and quite candied on
the nose with hints of praline and nougat, sensual on the palate, somehow
conveying that Australian warmth after all these years. You just wanted to
raise a glass to Max Schubert for creating a wine that decades later, stands shoulder
to shoulder with the very wines he sought to emulate.
So, the night drew to a close
with the Everly Brothers crooning Cathy’s Clown on the radio. If only all wines
were as harmonious as those siblings’ voices. My brain is still fried by the conjurer
and recounting the episode now I cannot, for the life of me, work out how he
did it. Then again, tasting some of these 1950s wines after over sixty years,
it is clear that some of those long-forgotten winemakers waved a magic wand to
create wines that have stood the test of time. In many ways, winemakers are
turning to these as reference points, predating the use of chemicals and
herbicides, made in a natural way not because of predesign but simply because
there was no alternative. Despite the backdrop of slowly recovering from the
war, the decrepitude of some vineyards, the absence of profitability and
therefore investment, the havoc wrought by the spring frosts of 1956 and the
fact that few people were regular wine drinkers, it is a miracle that this
golden decade provided a raft of fabulous wines that continue to offer
pleasure. The finest 1955 and 1959s remain utterly sensational, the 1953s
perhaps now just beginning to fade, yet still worth seeking out if provenance
is assured. If only I could borrow some of the magician’s cylinders to magic
these bottles out of nowhere. And now, back to thinking how he put that block
of glass into my enclosed hand...
(My sincere thanks to Mr. and Mrs. A for hosting this splendid and fun
night, and for those that contributed to bottles of wine worth writing about.)
You Might Also Enjoy
2008 Bordeaux: A Day In A Life, Neal Martin, February 2018
So Neal, What Can I Expect?, Neal Martin, February 2018
Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 1921-2016, Antonio Galloni, October 2017
Larcis Ducasse Retrospective: 1945-2014, Antonio Galloni, March 2017