1971 x 50
BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 12, 2021
|January:||Pearl – Janis Joplin;|
|Melting Pot – Booker T. and the M.G.’s;|
|Lick My Decals Off, Baby – Captain Beefheart;|
|Starsailor – Tim Buckley|
|February:||Tapestry – Carole King;|
|If Only I Could Remember My Name – David Crosby;|
|A Tribute to Jack Johnson – Miles Davis;|
|Tago Mago – Can;|
|First Utterance – Comus;|
|Journey In Satchidananda – Alice Coltrane|
|March:||Bryter Later – Nick Drake;|
|Aqualung – Jethro Tull;|
|Songs of Love and Hate – Leonard Cohen;|
|Histoire de Melody Nelson – Serge Gainsbourg;|
|Teenage Head – The Flamin’ Groovies|
|April:||L.A. Woman – The Doors;|
|Sticky Fingers – Rolling Stones;|
|Pieces of a Man – Gil Scott-Heron;|
|Just As I Am – Bill Withers|
|May:||What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye;|
|Stormcock – Roy Harper|
|June:||Every Picture Tells A Story – Rod Stewart;|
|Soul Revolution – Bob Marley & the Wailers;|
|Ram – Paul McCartney;|
|Donny Hathaway – Donny Hathaway|
|July:||Fireball – Deep Purple;|
|Maggot Brain – Funkadelic;|
|Master of Reality – Black Sabbath|
|August:||Shaft – Isaac Hayes;|
|Hot Pants – James Brown;|
|Al Green Gets Next To You – Al Green;|
|Who’s Next – The Who;|
|Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys;|
|Roots – Curtis Mayfield|
|September:||Imagine – John Lennon;|
|Faust – Faust;|
|Judee Sill – Judee Sill;|
|Electric Warrior – T. Rex|
|October:||John Prine – John Prine;|
|Coat of Many Colors – Dolly Parton;|
|Tupelo Honey – Van Morrison;|
|Meddle – Pink Floyd;|
|American Pie – Don McLean;|
|Killer – Alice Cooper|
|November:||Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin;|
|Nursery Cryme – Genesis;|
|There’s A Riot Going On – Sly and the Family Stone;|
|Quiet Fire – Roberta Flack;|
|Bless The Weather – John Martyn;|
|Muswell Hillbillies – The Kinks|
|December:||Hunky Dory – David Bowie|
Nineteen seventy-one was a pretty good year for music lovers: fifty classic 33rpms were released within 12 months 50 years ago.
What’s your favorite month on that list?
The reputation of this musical annus mirabilis has only recently been recognized. Music critics were still mourning the end of the Sixties and the Fab Four, compounded by the untimely deaths of Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison. Ipso facto, they did not fully appreciate the musical landscape. Only in hindsight, when the legacy of those albums is fully comprehended, does the stature of that year come into focus. If you still need convincing, consider that in 1971, David Bowie also released The Man Who Sold The World and recorded all but one track of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. That alone guarantees its status!
A few albums from my own vinyl collection – all original pressings, of course!
Quality Spread (Except Where It Counted)
It was also a vintage year for wine!
This outrageous claim (hence the exclamation mark) is one that I have made countless times over the years, only to be met with incredulous looks; it is dismissed as sentimental bias toward my birth year, or inebriation. While I accept that it is not as iconoclastic as 1945 or 1961, at least allow me to put forward my argument for 1971, just for today, because it’s my birthday and I’m “allowed” to do what I want.
The reason 1971 is often overlooked is that in those days, the quality of Left Bank Bordeaux dictated the reputation of a vintage by dint of its domination of the fine wine trade. But this is like judging 1971’s music on, let’s say, Elvis Presley, whose Elvis’s Christmas Album did not make the above list. Alas, 1971 was a mediocre vintage in the Médoc. Poor flowering during springtime reduced the size of the potential crop to 40% below the previous year due to widespread coulure acutely affecting the Merlot. But a mini heat wave from July 8 to 17 and another hot spell in August portended a magnificent vintage. And it would have been magnificent had it not rained between September 19 and 21. These downfalls divided the growing season into the lucky winemakers able to pick their earlier-ripening Merlot before the first spots of rain, and those tending later-ripening Cabernets, a majority of whom had to wait for ripeness and only started picking from September 27. Alas, the rain compromised the quality of the Left Bank and many afflicted by low fixed acidity levels due to the hot weather in summer were unable to last the distance. Clive Coates MW cited the fact that many châteaux prioritized quantity over quality and therefore blended juice from younger vines and lesser terroirs.
This did not prevent the Bordelais selling the Left Bank 1971s at high prices. It seems absurd given their reputations, but the 1971 vintage was released en primeur at double, in some cases triple, the price of the 1970. This was fueled by the more avaricious merchants and misguided commentators (Robert Parker was still planning on becoming a lawyer at the time) declaring the wines to be superior the previous year, encouraging négociants to buy across the board. However, overseas buyers took the praise with a pinch of salt, seeing through the unfounded hype. As the true quality began to reveal itself in bottle, it tarnished the vintage’s reputation further and left a bad taste in the mouth, both figuratively and literally, among merchants mulling over unsold stock.
So the 1971 vintage on the Left Bank has always been dismissed, and perhaps, given its birth, you can understand some prejudice against the wines. You simply need to look beyond the Médoc horizon. Saint-Émilion and in particular Pomerol were bejeweled with gems such as Petrus and an underrated Cheval Blanc. Even if they are nowhere near as consistent as today, there are sufficient numbers of successful Right Bank 1971s to at least partially offset the disappointment on the Left Bank. Otherwise, sashay down to Sauternes, since those same mid-September rains that spoiled the Médoc kick-started noble rot in Sauternes. We will visit some of those later.
Mosey on over to Burgundy. Although 1978 is regarded as that decade’s zenith, my experiences with 1971 are slightly more numerable. It was not a season without challenges. Frost and hail deprived winemakers of up to 60% of normal production, notwithstanding a severe outbreak of grape worms. Storms on August 19 were so violent that they temporarily stymied photosynthesis, but the 36 consecutive clement days from mid-July, plus a very warm September, saved the growing season. Picking commenced in the middle of that month. Having miraculously escaped rot, the fruit was high in sugar due to the uneven flowering earlier in the season that channeled the heat and light into a decreased number of bunches.
So why is it that for many years 1971 was overlooked as a source of fine Pinot Noir?
Firstly, Burgundy’s elevation to some holy grail is a recent phenomenon, and consequently only a niche group of wine lovers who dug Burgundy were cognizant of its quality. Secondly, the wines were purportedly unyielding in their youth and, like the 1993s, they took many years to show their mettle. Thirdly, just like in Bordeaux, salesmen were knocking on winemakers’ doors inveigling new herbicides and chemicals, short-cut solutions to mitigate rot and increase yields that many winemakers pursued since their wines sold for a few francs. Add in the fact that relatively few producers bottled their own production, and the pool of great 1971 Burgundies is tiny compared to today. However, when you do chance upon a quality-focused grower blessed with great terroir, then the wines can be ethereal. (Incidentally, Chablis also produced a tiny crop of concentrated wines, though I have only encountered one or two bottles.)
Let’s cast our net over France. Was it only Right Bank and Burgundy that prospered in 1971? Not at all. Champagne is renowned for its superlative 1971s, which Broadbent proselytized as “the epitome of elegance” in his Vintage Wine tome. This was despite spring frosts, uneven flowering and August storms. It resulted in a small crop of fine champagnes, as long as you selected carefully. Alsace, the Loire and the Rhône all fared extremely well. One must bear in mind that in the early Seventies, these regions were familiar names to wine lovers, but they were generally rural and parochial, their most respected producers selling wines for a pittance compared to nowadays. Many sold their crops to local co-ops or from the cellar door.
Conclusion? France performed extremely well this year... except for where reputations are based.
Crossing over the border, Riesling lovers get misty-eyed over the 1971 vintage in Germany, which produced a bounty of exceptional wines that, five decades on, continue to do their business. It was a five-star vintage according to Broadbent, who likened it to 1949 and 1953. Early and even flowering led to a perfect summer with dry conditions. German winemakers picked ripe and healthy grapes that reached their apotheosis in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Travel south to Italy, and Piedmont boasts any number of remarkable Barbarescos and Barolos. The European weak link is Spain and Portugal, neither of which repeated the success of the previous year that had seen a legendary Único and a General declaration in the Douro.
Finally, let us expand our purview globally (though I am sure it was a splendid growing season across the solar system). In 1971, Australia enjoyed a blissfully warm summer all the way through to picking, though like California, what might be termed the “modern era” of their wine industry was just getting going. Napa was in the midst of wide-scale planting, though at that time just 61% of vines were red. Here the growing season was up and down: poor fruit set, uneven ripeness levels and a late-season October frost meant some growers picked in November. Only the Cabernets delivered, as attested by my single encounter with a Monte Bello from Ridge. Then again, if you want one grape variety to prosper in California, surely it’s Cabernet. The wine industries of Argentina, Chile and South Africa were still primordial, and in the case of New Zealand, just a twinkle in the eye of Bacchus.
Taking stock of major wine-producing regions, apropos of 1971, it is easier to count the successes than the failures. Whereas today, technology elevates even mediocre growing seasons into excellent ones, in the Seventies it was uncommon for vintages to spread quality across such a diverse array of regions and styles: sparkling, dry white, dry red and sweet. That is why the reputation of the 1971 vintage should not be colored by the inconsistency of Left Bank Bordeaux, but by the strengths elsewhere.
I rest my case.
The Fifty Bottles
As my half-century approached, I reflected on the various bottles of 1971 that crossed my palate over the years; in particular, an otherworldly bottle from Willi Schaefer, one whose attendant note had been lost. I realized that it was not the only one. This inspired me to hunt down my notes recorded in tatty wine-speckled booklets and rusty old Word documents.
My goal: Fifty tasting notes to mark the occasion of my “birthday.”
I place that in quotation marks since COVID-19 denied any suitable celebration. I sought to avoid a “greatest hits” compilation that might bolster my claim about 1971’s overlooked status. That would have to include the likes of Petrus, Romanée-Conti, Jean-Marie Ponsot’s Clos de la Roche and Yquem, whose notes already exist on the database. None of the 50 wines in this report have preexisting reviews in the database and all deserve to see the light of day. To remain objective, I include Left Bank bottles that are invariably of curiosity value only. Several of the wines come from a charity dinner that I organized at The Ledbury as well as a memorable 1971-themed dinner in Christies’ boardroom organized by Linden Wilkie and the much-missed David Elswood. Others come from winemakers who knew my birth year and opened a bottle for the occasion, like they did at Meyney last February.
Let me give you the backstory on some of these wines.
You always remember your maiden birth-year bottle. Mine was a magnum of Château Tayac, sent by a Dutch importer at the beginning of my career in the late Nineties. What a thrill to imbibe a bottle of equal age. My expectations were modest and frankly, though it was drinkable, it was very austere and rustic. In fact, I was in finer fettle than this Margaux. Thereafter I began to accrue tasting notes of Left Bank wines, although bona fide pleasurable bottles were infrequent. The highest regarded is 1971 Latour, already accounted for in my vertical. A less celebrated success is 1971 Palmer, of which I have enjoyed two or three bottles, the last one donated by the estate for a charity dinner. It is one of the few Left Bank 1971s with a modicum of flesh and charm. It seemed to shrug off the dryness and meanness of many 1971s. Perchance it contains a higher percentage of Merlot picked before the mid-September rain, or did coulure earlier in the season deplete its contribution? I asked current winemaker Thomas Duroux, who searched the archives and informed me that although they did suffer widespread coulure, the blend contains 45% Merlot (the remainder is 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc and 8% Petit Verdot).
This underlies the reason why some of the Graves/Pessac Léognan 1971s can be pleasant surprises, not least the hidden gem of that vintage: 1971 La Tour Haut-Brion. Predating Domaine Clarence Dillon’s acquisition in 1983, Henri Woltner owned the property together with La Mission Haut-Brion. It is rather opaque as to whether La Tour Haut-Brion was de facto the Deuxième Vin or treated as a separate wine. I suspect it depended on the vintage. In my experience, I have found that in some years it can match or even surpass La Mission Haut-Brion, and that is certainly the case here. I have enjoyed three wonderful bottles of the 1971 La Tour Haut-Brion over the years in London and Tokyo. My one abiding memory is of a fellow oenophile, the aforementioned Mr. Wilkie, stumbling at a dinner, faculties compromised by a patently very liquid lunch elsewhere. Collapsing into his seat, he caught a second wind upon surveying the array of bottles, so I poured a glass and asked him to guess the wine blind. He nailed it without hesitation. To this day, I still don’t know how he did it. Neither does he. In fact, I’m not sure if he even remembers the dinner.
Readers will know of my adoration for Sauternes. I have rhapsodized the 1971 sweet wines for many years and tasted most of the major properties. In fact, early on in my career I put a few noses out of joint by claiming that the 1971 Yquem is better than the lauded 1967. Most Sauternes I have encountered have been consistently outstanding and going strong to this day. Probably the most revelatory wine has been several killer bottles of 1971 Coutet. Renowned for its acidic spine, this Barsac marries the intensity of that vintage with tension, and though I have never compared it directly with Yquem, it would give it a run for its money. Climens and Rieussec have also shown exceptionally well and come recommended, not least because they represent the best value for money.
Walking through the vineyard of Château de Pommard with then-owner Jean-Louis Laplanche in September 1998. It feels like yesterday.
Over the years, I have been lucky enough to taste a number of 1971 Burgundies. I cannot remember the first. It might well be a 1971 Château de Pommard in 1998. Together with half a dozen carefully picked close friends, I rented a gîte in Auxey-Duresses for a cheap-as-chips getaway. None of them were oenophiles. They were lured by Burgundy’s potential for wanton libation rather than examining the differences between Charmes Dessus and Dessous. With this in mind, I arranged just a couple of visits, including one to Château de Pommard, since I was acquainted with proprietor Jean-Louis Laplanche. His father had bought the estate in 1936, though Jean-Louis was renowned as one of France’s most esteemed psychoanalysts. I wish I had known this at the time, since one of our party is the granddaughter of German philosopher Walter Benjamin. Laplanche was in his seventies by then, an academic proud of his Burgundy roots, permanently attired in his tatty cardigan. On this blissfully warm, cloudless day, the 1998 harvest was underway. We cut a few bunches and chatted to pickers, then he invited us down to the cellar, where he asked each of us our birth year and opened a bottle of that year. I unearthed my original tasting note. It was no great shakes but certainly drinkable. Come to think of it, that surely must have been my maiden 1971 Pinot Noir - how appropriate that it was shared with friends. Looking back now, those were innocent times, when maybe Burgundy was a simpler place.
Among other Burgundy gems in this piece, you will find a fabulous 1971 Volnay Clos des Ducs 1er Cru from Domaine Marquis d’Angerville, one of the highlights of a memorable vertical, plus two bottles from Domaine Clair Daü, who were making fabulous wines in this era. I also include the 1971 La Romanée Grand Cru, which was being made by Albert Bichot at that time. It comes from the same epochal vertical that Antonio Galloni attended at Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair, so readers can compare our impressions. I have tasted all the red 1971s from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti over the years, the one glaring omission being perhaps the most renowned: La Tâche. I have encountered probably three or four bottles over the years. I don’t know what I did wrong in a previous life, but every one has been either out of condition or corked. At a vertical in London where the 1971 La Tâche was poured, I preempted disaster by forewarning everyone present, including Aubert de Villaine, that I involuntarily put a curse on this wine.
Aubert sniffed his glass. He glanced over to me in pity.
It was corked.
My most recent bottle of Burgundy 1971 was generously poured blind over supper in Beaune last October.
With regard to champagne, I have tasted a few bottles over the years. My first bottle of 1971 Clos des Goisses from Philipponnat was notable for its taint, having suffered goût de lumière, where exposure to sunlight creates a reduction that often displays a cauliflower aroma. The second, opened at a memorable vertical back to the Fifties, was absolutely splendid. The best sparkler that I have tasted is the 1971 Dom Pérignon from an original disgorgement, opened at the 1971 dinner chez Christie’s. Unfortunately, the 1971 Cristal was not in the best condition, although the 1971 Krug has held up well.
Two fascinating bottles that I vividly recall come from Hermitage. Both were poured at dinners upstairs at Christie’s boardroom. The 1971 Hermitage La Chapelle was served at a memorable dinner with numerous vintages bought directly from the estate back to 1961. It might not have the same kudos, but Jaboulet was then enjoying a purple patch under Louis Jaboulet. It was gorgeous, quite gamey on the nose but so deep and complex on the palate, a little sauvage but utterly compelling. Though it had already been established for 490 years by 1971, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave was less familiar to wine lovers than Jaboulet; Parker brought it to people’s attention a decade later. Gérard Chave, father of present winemaker Jean-Louis, would have been 36 years old when he oversaw the 1971 Hermitage Rouge. Bottles dating from this era are rarely spotted because most of them were martyred in their youth, and in any case, Rhône lovers were more likely to cellar the more esteemed 1972 (a great wine, incidentally). I found both Jaboulet and Chave’s Hermitages to show extremely well, and though provenance must be carefully checked, they should still give pleasure.
I return to the German bottle that inspired this article. I was touring German wineries with another friend, David Wainwright, the highlight being a pilgrimage to one of my favorite growers, Willi Schaefer. We spent the morning inspecting his vines in Graacher, with me fearing I might tumble down the vertigo-inducing slope into the river below as my feet slipped on the flint scree. After we tasted his latest releases back at the winery, Willi invited us for a brief lunch, whereupon he disappeared down to his cellar and returned with a dusty bottle. He poured an iridescent elixir into my glass, sat back and watched me sip this revelatory Riesling. It was a 1971 Graacher Domprobst Auslese. I was almost overwhelmed by the tension, purity and profundity of this dazzling bottle, and it remains my benchmark Mosel Riesling. Schaefer kindly donated a second bottle to the aforementioned charity dinner, this time a 1971 Graacher Himmelreich Auslese, that was a little more honeyed and did not quite deliver the same razor-sharp penetration.
I had not seen Willi Schaefer since that visit a decade ago. He retired in 2015 and the winery is now in the capable hands of his son Christoph. Upon writing this article, I contacted the winery because I did not possess a photograph of the bottle that inspired it. Christoph’s wife Andrea replied. She told me that he remembers our visit well. Schaefer said that in 1971 he was just 21 years old and has many fond memories of that vintage because it was the first in which he took more responsibility for the winemaking. He then dug out one of the remaining bottles and sent me the photograph below.
Willi Schaefer with one of the remaining 1971 bottles.
I am no German expert, but the several bottles of 1971 that I have tasted have often left me struck by their intensity, complexity and longevity. Among the tasting notes here, you will find an ethereal 1971 Spätlese from Egon Müller, plus a wonderful Schloss Johannisberger Riesling Rosalack Auslese.
Italian-wise, I have much less experience than other countries and leave that department to Messrs. Galloni and Guido. Perusing existing reviews on Vinous, scores clearly indicate a fantastic vintage in Piedmont. One of the most renowned wines is the Barolo Monfortino from Giacomo Conterno. I have encountered four bottles of this wine, including one offered by Robert Parker when I bemoaned how every bottle was out of condition. Finally, I would taste this legendary Barolo myself... It was corked.
Maybe I am just never destined to taste a representative bottle, and so I will enjoy it vicariously through Antonio’s notes. I have included two Italian bottles. Firstly, a 1971 Barolo Granbussia Riserva from Aldo Conterno that was sublime. Secondly, a 1971 Barbaresco from Gaja that derives from Festa del Barolo in February 2018, when I literally flew to New York on my first day at Vinous. The wines were wonderful, but the only note that I wrote down was this Barbaresco, from a large-format, double magnum if I recall. I was amazed by its precocity, and whoever did pour it, many thanks.
In 1971, though Australia’s wine industry was in its infancy, thanks to Penfolds’ winemaker Max Schubert’s efforts (and skullduggery) in the Fifties, they were ahead of the game in terms of transitioning from fortified to unfortified wine.
They produced a magnificent 1971 Bin 95 Grange. “If you had to point to a wine which fulfilled the ambitions of Grange, it would have to be the 1971,” enthused Schubert. How true that turned out to be when in 1979 this wine triumphed over top Rhônes at the Gault-Millau Wine Olympiad in Paris. Incidentally, despite that warm summer, the 1971 contained only 12.3% alcohol. Amazingly, a pristine 1971 St. Henri Shiraz can surpass Grange, as it did on the only occasion I tasted them side-by-side, with Peter Gago in London. Interestingly, Gago mentioned how in recent years the 1971 Grange has become more fragile and can vary from bottle to bottle, whereas the 1971 St. Henri is more consistent.
These are just a few of the bottles contained in this piece. Feel free to peruse others, from the likes of Rustenberg in the Cape, to Gaston Huet in the Loire and even a Colheita Port from Noval.
That completes my trip through the 1971 vintage. I am not expecting some mass reevaluation, and I concede that maybe it does not belong on the podium with the undisputed greats. To return to my musical analogy, 1971 is not a “Hunky Dory” or “What’s Going On.”
However, I have presented a balanced global overview of that year and explained how its reputation was tarnished even before the wines were in bottle. This vintage is often dismissed without consideration of the numerous wine regions and styles that succeeded. Just avoid using the Left Bank as a yardstick. From a buying perspective, I am fortunate that this oversight ensured that secondary market prices of a legion of 1971s remained comparatively good value for many years, though there has been some correction recently, particularly in regions such as Pomerol, Piedmont and Champagne. Given the wines’ age, buyers must check provenance. As I have discovered myself through bottles of misfiring La Tâche and Monfortino, even the most illustrious and expensive names are sensitive to mishandling. My rule is to prioritize provenance over status or price.
With that, it’s time for me to celebrate my birthday as best I can in the middle of a lockdown.
Am I drinking a 1971? Oh, you’ll find out.
(Thanks to everyone who has shared a bottle of 1971 with me over the years, especially to Linden Wilkie, David Wainwright, Jordi Orriols-Gil and Roy Richards, who have opened quite a few fascinating examples. This article is dedicated to anyone celebrating a half-century this year.)
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Beyond Wine: Neal’s Uplifting Anti-Viral Playlist, Neal Martin, January 2021
Delivering Where It Counts: Meyney 1971–2017, Neal Martin, July 2020
Cellar Favorite: 1971 Domaine Robert Arnoux Vosne-Romanée Les Suchots 1er Cru, Neal Martin, October 2019
Cellar Favorite: 1971 Egon Müller Scharzhof Scharzhofberger Riesling Beerenauslese, Neal Martin, February 2019
In Excelsis: Château Latour 1887 – 2010, Neal Martin, July 2018
Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair: La Romanée 1865 – 2014, Antonio Galloni, March 2016