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A dinner to celebrate 1961′s half century

November 3, 2011

by Al Buchanan & Maureen Downey

Purple pagers Al Buchanan of Chicago (left) and Maureen Downey of San Francisco met at a wonderful 1961 dinner I was lucky enough to host in New York last month. Below is their joint account of it. My own notes, together with those on some other red bordeaux that are celebrating their half-century this year, will be published next week, with some notes on the legendary 1961 vintage. Photographs ©2011 American Express.

We came to New York on 20 October 2011 to attend what American Express promised would be a ‘once in a lifetime experience’: a private dinner and tasting of the 1961 vintage at age 50, hosted by Jancis Robinson OBE, MW. It was a promise kept.

The venue, Le Bernardin, is one of five New York City restaurants holding three Michelin stars. It opened in 1972 as a small Parisian seafood restaurant, named after 12th-century Cistercian monks who appeared unassuming outwardly but were rumoured to indulge in fine food and wine behind closed doors. Such is the case today at Le Bernardin under the direction of world-renowned chef Eric Ripert (below).

For this author (AB), the prospect of tasting 50-year old wines with Jancis was thrilling but intimidating. What if I deemed a wine good only to have Jancis inform us that it was hopelessly flawed? Would the other guests be heads of state with 10,000-bottle cellars? Frankly I wondered whether I would be out of my league. Maureen (MD) was more at ease, having tasted with Jancis before, including at a Zachys sale that afternoon, and working regularly with old and rare wines. Good thing too as Jancis repeatedly put Maureen on the spot.

On entering, we were cordially greeted and ushered into a cosy reception area with flutes of Bollinger Special Cuvée and delectable hors d’oeuvres. As engaging and charming in person as she is in her writing [too kind – JR], Jancis graciously greeted and spent time getting to know each guest personally. We formed a cosy group of 19, none was a head of state. Perhaps some attended to celebrate a 1961 birth year, but ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ prevailed. Our diverse group included collectors, passionate enthusiasts and even an Episcopalian minister and professor of theology from San Francisco, who proffered the best quote of the evening: ‘Jesus said, drink the wine!’

Next we proceeded to a private salon to taste the 1961s. Sommelier Aldo Sohm (centre, with a colleague and Jancis, plus the Barolo, burgundy and the champagnes) had opened the line-up of nine 50-year-old wines hours earlier. Maureen was thrilled to learn they had not been decanted, but merely opened until it was time to decant sediment and pour.

Jancis offered an overview of the spectacular 1961 vintage as well as the story of how these rare bottles were acquired and handled [which I will tell when I present my own tasting notes next week]. Then we began quietly swirling, smelling and tasting for two hours. Thankfully there was little chatter as the focus was on these special wines. Jancis’ commentary was informative yet respectful; she was careful not to suggest her conclusion before we had ample opportunity to form our own. Here are our notes:

Lanson 1961 Champagne

AB: Coppery-salmon colour. Prominent nose of overripe pears and bananas. Porty. Oxidised? No effervescence. A curiosity but over the hill.

MD: Medium deep gold with a watery rim and no signs of pétillance. Moderately intense bouquet of caramel and oxidative sherry notes. Delicate on the palate with no mousse but fresher flavours than the nose. Reminiscent of aged Puligny with no wood. Vibrant mineral/acid edge keeps the flavours fresh for its age, despite being very tired. Butterscotch and wet stone finish that persists for several seconds.

Dom Pérignon, Charles & Diana Wedding Cuvée 1961 Champagne

In magnum, disgorged 1981. 99 regular bottles were sent to the Royal Wedding in 1981; all were likely consumed. According to our research, only 12 magnums were bottled, and this must be one of them!

AB: Far more delicate nose than the Lanson. So fresh, young and vibrant! How can this be 50 years old? There is tactile effervescence, although no visible bubbles. A real treat.

MD: Medium gold with visible persistent fine beads. Intense bouquet of brioche and wet stones with a putty sweetness (thank you, Jancis) and an almost youthful buttery character. Medium+ body with a surprisingly vibrant, fine mousse that lingers on the long, full palate. Flavours consistent with the nose. Mineral finish with a spike of acid up the centre that makes it refreshing, and leaves you wanting more. Charming, powerful and amazing are written in all caps on the top of this note. The fresh condition of this wine was a pleasant surprise. The concentration and balance made it my wine of the night!

Domaine Clair-Daü 1961 Chambolle-Musign

AB: When we cast votes for a ‘favourite’ wine, my hand went up. This was so good on its merits but its humble origin is what tipped the scales. Stunningly fresh for a 50-year-old village wine. Aldo identified it as his favourite for precisely these reasons. Remarkably clear and dark. Classic Chambolle-Musigny nose, highly perfumed and correct with just a whiff of peat. Much primary fruit remains – cherries and damsons – and bright acidity should keep it alive for years – if there is any more to be found.

MD: Light pink hue with a thin rim. Not as brickish as would be expected. Intense, bright feminine nose of dried raspberry and strong floral notes with a brandy-warmth. Palate less intense than the nose with medium body and coarsely textured, dusty tannins. Short warm finish of soft fruit and perfume. (Warm finish suggests/supports possible presence of Grenache?)

Giacomo Conterno, Monfortino 1961 Barol

AB: This was a divisive wine. I sided with those who didn’t care for it. Bricky/brown and cloudy. I perceived oxidation (although others said it was VA) and truffles and old leather. Medicinal.

MD: Brown core fading to an orange-brick rim. Some fine sediment suspended. Intense nose of hard cherry candies and black truffles with barnyard notes that persist through the strong high-toned volatile acid that dominates the nose. Soft and refined palate feel, medium body with elegant, resolved tannins – so rare for Barolo that it threw off several tasters. Dried violets and dark cherries with a dark mineral note linger on the long finish.

Château Calon-Ségur 1961 St-Estèphe

In half-bottles.

AB: Youthful, fresh acidity. Moderately hard tannins. Fading fruit. 
MD: Medium deep core with a bricking rim. Fairly vibrant nose of dried plums, leather, dusty earth and a herbal edge with a hint of tobacco. Dried-out palate with dusty tannins and only a hint of dried-plum fruit. Smoky gravel on the short-ish finish.

Château Lynch Bages 1961 Pauillac

AB: Promising bouquet of leather and dark cherries. Vibrant acidity, fruit is falling off. Not quite as fresh as Calon-Ségur (brett perhaps?), but also not quite as hard and easier to enjoy.

MD: Medium deep core holding surprisingly strong until the thin translucent rim. Moderately intense nose with a sweet edge to the plum and mulberry fruit and cigar tobacco. Medium bodied with full feel but a dried out and relatively short sweet tobacco finish. Pleasant but simplistic.

Château Palmer 1961 Margaux

AB: Iconic. Classic, perfumed Margaux nose leaps out of the glass. Fruit still going strong; great acid balance; silky tannins. Magnificent.

MD: All about mouth feel. Fairly deep red core with a wide pale rim. Intense bouquet of bright plum fruit, loads of violets and pipe tobacco. Full bodied with elegant velvety texture; tannins still have some grip. Flavours of dried plum and dried flowers. Not juicy but medium length perfumed finish.

Château Latour 1961 Pauillac

AB: Virtually opaque. Backward nose. (Perhaps that’s expected following a 1961 Palmer.) So fresh on the palate, classic Pauillac tobacco and mocha and gobs of fruit checked by substantial acid and smooth tannins. Long life ahead.

MD: Deeply coloured, and a bit cloudy. Dark purple hue extends almost to the edge with just a thin clear rim. Intense nose, seems to still be hiding some potential. Cassis and dark plum fruit with a cool herbal note of lead pencil, sweet tinderbox and underbrush. Full body with still grippy but elegant tannins and a smooth feel. Intense flavours of sweet fruit, leather and tobacco last through an extended finish. Note to self – revisit in 10 years.

Château Cheval Blanc 1961 St-Émilion

In magnum. 
AB: Dark colour. Pungent, fragrant green tea/bell pepper ‘leafy’ nose indicating much Cabernet Franc. Lovely sweet finish. So smooth!

MD: Medium-deep brickish hue with a watery rim. Intense, developed bouquet of dried currants, syrupy dark berries, pencil shavings, dark smoky minerals and sweet baking spices. Powerful, full bodied with elegant tannins. Flavours of grilled meat and lush, rich, sweet dark fruit and plum syrup, that linger for minutes. The sweetness stands out and does not give way until the next taste.

Dinner was then served in yet another private dining area.

Course One: Seared Langoustine Mâche, Wild Mushroom Salad, Shaved Foie Gras, White Balsamic Vinaigrette, paired with Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey 2006 Corton-Charlemagne

AB: My first Corton-Charlemagne. Honeysuckle nose, spicy oak (not overdone), ripe fruit, great acid/sugar balance, fresh. Lemon curd and hazelnuts. This could be addictive.

MD: Rich and dense. Concentrated and powerful with ripe apple and razor-like mineral notes that create a taut palate feel, with the roundness and body of CC. Long and delicious.

Course Two: Charred Octopus, Fermented Black Bean-Peach Sauce Vierge, Ink-Miso Vinaigrette, Purple Basil, paired with Domaine de Chevalier Blanc 1986 Pessac-Léognan

AB: Golden. Viscous (Sémillon). Sweet, spicy oak still prominent.

MD: Deep orange/gold. Intense bouquet of waxy straw. Full, lush feel with weight. Intense flavours consistent with nose. Beeswax, straw and a hint of candied orange rind. Long floral and straw finish. Excellent with the octopus!

Course Three: Roasted Rack of Lamb, Eggplant Charmoula, Spiced Pomegranate Jus, paired with Château Latour 1970 Pauillac
We were too busy chatting and both failed to take a note on this wine [Phew! So they are human after all and not just great note takers – JR].

AB: From memory it was impressive, but outshone by the 1961.

Course Four: ‘Religieuse’ – Elderflower Crème Mousseline, Crunchy Choux Apricot Coulis, Black Currant Powder, paired with Domaine Huet, Le Haut-Lieu 1937 Vouvray Moelleux
AB: Another wonderful ‘first experience’ for me. See Maureen’s notes.
MD: (notes on the good bottle) Deep golden honeyed hue with an intense, clean nose of bruised apple, wet stone mineral and sweet honeyed lanolin. Full bodied with high acid and high mineral flavours that make the wine seem almost dry and fresh despite the residual sugar that gives richness to the palate. Excellent balance and concentration creates an extended sweet and sour finish that lingers for minutes.

If only the night could have lasted for ever but it was, after all, a school night. We left laden with treasures including autographed copies of The Oxford Companion to Wine and Eric Ripert’s A Return To Cooking, a one-year subscription to Purple pages, a bottle of Lanson Black Label NV, chocolates, some new friends and fond memories of this ‘once in a lifetime experience’. Thank you Jancis, American Express, Aldo, Chef Ripert and everyone at Le Bernardin for a wonderful evening!

Al Buchanan is a commercial litigator and shareholder of the Chicago law firm of Michaels & May, PC. He has been studying and collecting Bordeaux wines for 30 years and hopes to pursue Master of Wine studies some day.

Maureen Downey owns Chai Consulting, a San Francisco-based wine collection services firm with clients across the globe. She specialises in old and rare wines, including detecting counterfeit bottles. She is also a partner in the San Francisco Wine School and is pursuing the MW.

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