If You Can’t Take The Heat...Bordeaux 1947

Ask Michel Rolland his philosophy towards picking and I would wager my children’s toys (both of them) that he will cite the 1947 Bordeaux vintage as proof that late-picked fruit is the bedrock of great wines the calibre of Cheval Blanc 1947 inter alia. It is this bottle that is always put forward to support this case and though I have never tasted a château-bottled example, first-hand reports suggest that it is a nice drop of vino.

But what about other château? How have their wines fared in the long-term? Is Cheval a one-off or was its success replicated across the Bordeaux hierarchy?

Foraging bottles from this vintage is not an easy task. They are old, rare and exorbitant in price, even if as we shall see, the humblest can prove that name is not everything. Thankfully there are people like Jordi Oriols-Gil, oenophiles that doggedly procure yesteryear bottles over many years in order to assemble an epic tasting such a 1947 horizontal. This was no dipping our toes in the water but an evening that took in over 30 bottles. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events. The venue was the private room at The Square and as usual, I spent most of the time diligently composing tasting notes, monitoring changes in the glass as our palates travelled from Left Bank to Right Bank and finally Sauternes, with a couple of welcome detours on the way.

Would this be the same? There was only one way to find out. I opened my computer, observed a bottle that had waited 180 years for its moment, and set to work. It was a rare treat to be able to journey through such a venerable, iconic Bordeaux vintage in comprehensive fashion. For certain, at sixty-six years of age, you are never going to enjoy an unbroken run of stellar wines.

Be suspicious if you do.

Some will not just be over the hill but out of sight and far away. At this age, the imperceptible differences from bottle to bottle will have been jemmied open by time. Inevitably there is an element of unpredictability, irrespective of reputation. For example, even though we had not one but two English-bottled examples of Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 (Yay!) sadly neither was in sound condition (Boo!) I will have to wait another time for this 21st century behemoth to prove what it can do. However, there were plenty of other spellbinding bottles that testified to a great post-war vintage.

The Growing Season

A little background first. Of the triumvirate 1945, 1947 and 1949 vintages, 1947 is perhaps the most controversial. The summer months from May onwards witnessed clement weather, each month seemingly warmer than the last. The official start of the harvest was 15 September according to Féret’s “Bordeaux et Ses Vins” (1949). However, the balmy Indian summer posed numerous challenges to chateaux, not least that they had little or no means of regulating temperatures of their fermenting must that contained unprecedented levels of alcohol and natural sugar. Get ready to dunk those ice blocks. Ergo there is a preponderance of high volatility levels that occasionally spiked what could have potentially been great wines. It was a massive crop: double that of 1945 at 2.7 million hectolitres. Whilst the 1949 vintage favoured both Left Bank and Right, the renown of the 1947 vintage rests more with the Right Bank, in no small part thanks to Cheval Blanc, but not forgetting fabled Pomerol “Holy Grails” such as Petrus, Lafleur and Vieux Chateau Certan to name but three (see recent Wine-Journal articles.) The 11th edition of “Bordeaux et Ses Vins” printed in 1949 described the 1947s as a “Très grand année”, the wine “Complete, full-bodied, energetic and well-built”.

It is also worth considering the backdrop to these wines, born just two years after the end of hostilities. I have heard more than one person in Bordeaux comment that economic hardship was felt most acutely not during the Second World War but after it, when France was recovering from occupation, rebuilding its infrastructure and implementing fiscal austerity measures that included the devaluation of the franc. France was riddled with strikes up and down the country. Some might say: “Nothing new there.” This backdrop of tumult whipped the carpet from under a destabilised wine market.

Let me convey the gravity of the situation via comments made at the time.

In 1946, broker and later régisseur at Château Latour wrote: “The fall in the market, beginning at the end of May, has increasingly become a general standstill and an almost total suffocation…the estates in general are entirely under the influence of the lack of confidence that prevails in all fields, and particularly in the currency. They sell parsimoniously to replenish their funds gradually.” He went on to lament: “They [proprietors] feel that the prosperity born of the war was only illusory.” For the first three month of 1947, merchant Daniel Lawton described Bordeaux as undergoing a “profound crisis” with transactions grinding to a halt. Yet the 1947 wines themselves were fondly received by Lawton. “The 1947s are unanimously appreciated…” but then cautioned, “…but one asks how and when will trade begin?”

The answer was that not until the 1959 vintage, when consumers began earning the disposable income to purchase luxuries such as wine.

With respect to the wines tasted in London, 19th April 2013, readers should note that they were tasted in flights per appellation and served single blind. For the sake of disclosure, Jordi had actually divulged the wines to me several weeks earlier, although to be honest I had forgotten exactly what all of them were and on the night, nobody but the sommelier had an idea in what order they would be served. Pouring them blind was a brilliant move – springing surprises that made this evening an enlightening and educational experience. So chapeau to Jordi and the crack team of sommeliers that served so many delicate and sensitive bottles so professionally. Even the one I awarded 50-points.

The Wines

On this auspicious occasion, Jordi welcomed bottles from beyond the Bordeaux boundaries so long as they were born in the same year. The evening commenced with three rare champagnes. The Brut Imperiale 1947 from Moet Chandon was a fitting start – slightly oxidative on the nose but better on the palate where its elegance could be expressed: dry honeyed tones on the delightful, burnished finish equidistant between pleasure and curiosity. Two half-bottles of Brut 1947 from Pol Roger were the weakest of the three, pole-axed by excessive volatility. The best of the trio turned out to be Veuve Cliquot 1947. For starters, it showed less volatility than the other two champagnes, imbued with a lovely hazelnut and smoke-tinged bouquet and a well-balanced palate with a crisp bead of acidity and a harmonious toffee and brioche-tinged finish. Delicious!

I will broach the Bordeaux flights per appellation in order of serving, commencing with a look at the Saint Juliens.

It was no surprise to me that Chateau Gruaud Larose 1947 was at the top of the pile. The estate entered a post-war purple patch and I suspect that they probably had deeper pockets than other Bordeaux estates under the proprietorship of Jean Cordier. At this time, he was actually at loggerheads with Henri Lemaire over the running of the estate. Lemaire was a former employee who had been given shares by Désiré Cordier prior to his death in 1940 and the imbroglio ultimately ended up with the Lemaire being relieved of their shares. Still, boardroom squabbles do not appear to have affected the wine. The enthralling nose was both complex and pleasurable, translating the warmth of the summer sixty-six years ago with its precocious summer fruits mingling with cedar and a touch of chlorophyll. The palate did not disappoint: harmonious, sensual and caressing – quintessential Gruaud Larose. This epitomised mature Claret and for several attendees it constituted the finest bottle of the night. What was more surprising was the quality of the Chateau Branaire Ducru 1947. At this time, the property was owned by Edouard Mital (one assumes that has nothing to do with the Indian steel magnate.) Remembering how well the 1971 performed a couple of years back, perhaps old bottles from this estate are some of the forgotten gems of the era. Deep in colour, the nose sprang from the glass with lush mulberry and blackberry scents interwoven with fireside hearth and charcoal. The palate was broody at first, opening nicely but with firmer tannic backbone than the Gruaud Larose, though without the same level of complexity. It was just a delicious Saint Julien. The Chateau Beychevelle 1947 was slightly overlooked being the first dry Bordeaux poured. At this time the proprietor was Archille Fould, whose ancestors had achieved high political rankings under Napoleon III. It remains thoroughly enjoyable with sandalwood and cooked meat on the nose, although the palate did not quite do justice to the aromatics, as if the wine had been kept in barrel too long. Unfortunately other bottles fared less well: Chateau Talbot 1947 past its best, two bottles of Chateau Leoville Poyferre 1947 injurious to one’s health, though the Chateau Lagrange 1947 offered vestiges of pleasure even if it has reached the end of its mortal coil.

We then moved north to Pauillac. A neophyte might assume that the Chateau Lynch Bages 1947 would have trounced the Mouton Cadet 1947. They might question the inclusion of such a lowly, commonplace and God forbid, supermarket wine within such auspicious company. However, let us factor in the background. The truth is that under Jean-Charles Cazes, Lynch Bages was a hobbling along during this era and the estate was in dire need of not just investment, but rebuilding. I recall present proprietor Jean-Michel Cazes telling me how asparagus was once grown in part of the vineyard. To me, this bottle suggested that the fermentation had just got out of control and I wonder whether the wine was even worthy during its infancy? Mouton Cadet on the other hand, was ostensibly the second wine of Mouton-Rothschild, Le Petit Mouton not debuting until 1993. Flush from the success of the epochal 1945, the estate was on a roll under Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who doubtlessly cared for the quality of Mouton Cadet as much as any other wine under his aegis. Funnily enough, this was actually the second time I have tasted the Mouton Cadet ‘47 and it reaffirmed that is an absolute delight: not complex for sure, but certainly endowed with plenty of fruit, well balanced and still emitting pleasure. This is no mere curiosity, rather one of those anomalies that make Bordeaux so interesting. Having said that, I would not advise trying the same feat of longevity with today’s Mouton Cadet. Supermarkets tend not to give refunds after sixty years.

Edouard and Louis Miailhe were still co-proprietors of Pichon-Lalande in 1947, the formers daughter and eventual owner May-Eliane destined to marry Hervé Lencquesaing the following year. The Chateau Pichon-Lalande 1947 was better than the magnum of 1953 that I tasted a few days earlier. Whilst it did not possess the complexity of a truly great mature Pauillac, it was nicely balanced albeit conservative. Its merlot no doubt relished the warm growing season and it was picked just at the right moment. However, there was a significant difference between the Second Growth and the thoroughbred Chateau Latour 1947. Consulting the monograph of the property, it is fascinating to note that as of 1948, the estates were still making deals with négoçiants over the 1945 vintage. Whereas other First Growths sold tranches at what might be considered fire sale prices, Latour elected to wait and the strategy paid off. Whilst Mouton-Rothschild sold 18 tonneaux at 200,000 francs each, Latour was sold for an average price of 340,000 francs. The growing was not without setbacks, the crop affected by both cochylis and eudemis during the year. Château records show that the wine matured rapidly but turned out to be long-lived. Two bottles of the First Growth were opened, the first lacking a little vigour but the second underpinned by fine tannins, superb acidity and a sense of focus and delineation that is befitting an estate of this stature. Whilst I do not regard it as fine as the regal Latour 1949, it is a great Pauillac that is continuing along its drinking plateau that has lasted years.

There followed a brief but highly enjoyable hiatus as we shifted attention towards Burgundy, with a divine Chambolle-Musigny Village 1947 from Domaine R Clerget. It was crystalline on the nose – close your eyes and you could almost imagine you were in the presence of a white wine. The palate was so fresh and so beautifully poised for a humble village cru with six decades on the clock that this balletic Pinot Noir made the Bordeaux appear clumsy, flat-footed by comparison.

There were two wines from the appellations of Margaux. I have very little experience of the 1947s save for the magnificent Chateau Margaux 1947 that I last opened during a riotous evening chez moi, when I decided to martyr all my most expensive bottles for no reason apart from the fact that I was excited by Christmas. At this time, the property was under the reign of Fernand Ginestet, although he did not succeed in buying all the shares until 1949 when they sold Clos-Fourtet. This Averys’ bottling reminded me of one of the great post-war vintages for this estate: the bouquet so generous and multi-faceted with kirsch and marmalade scents tincturing the giddy perfume, whilst there was a slight chocolate note just hovering in the background. There is great depth, great passion to this wine that is still going strong, which more than can be said for the Chateau Brane Cantenac 1947 that was in similar condition to Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi when he finally takes off his helmet.

There were three representatives from the Graves, though 1947 was 6 years before their inaugural classification. Then the property of Maison Louis Eschenauer, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 1947 attested the fact that the estate was producing lacklustre wines during this period, far removed from the great wines produced by Daniel and Florence Cathiard nowadays.

Let’s move swiftly on.

The Chateau Haut Bailly 1947 was a different matter altogether. Here is one estate that historically produced top quality wines that many connoisseurs revered as highly as First Growths. The only snag is that unlike the First Growths, most bottles were consumed in their youth, rendering it nigh-impossible to find bottles older than 1982. Yet Haut-Bailly had suffered enormously in the period before this vintage, bought to its knees during the 1930s when part of the vineyard was grubbed up and then bought to the verge of extinction by World War II. By then, just nine or ten hectares remained out of an original thirty-five. The ruined property was amidst a run of itinerant owners, though merchant Daniel Sanders had begun acquiring what little wine there was in 1945, eventually buying Haut-Bailly in 1955. Despite this gloomy background, somehow this bottle out-classed the Chateau Haut-Brion 1947. The Haut-Bailly was full of vim and vigour: complex on the nose with hints of chlorine that old Bordeaux often develop, the palate voluminous and sumptuous, reminding me of the stellar and outrageously precocious Haut-Bailly 1961 a few years ago. By comparison, the Haut Brion ’47 was worthy, but a little subdued by comparison. Unlike Haut-Bailly, the First Growth had been under the stable ownership of Clarence Dillon since the 1930s and a stable winemaker in the form of Georges Delmas (Jean-Philippe’s grandfather) who had overseen the vintages since 1921. Perhaps mirroring the hot growing season of 2003, the heat was intensified here in the urban suburbs and the curtailed hang time served to curtail complexity within its berries. It is not a bad wine by a long chalk, though no match for the peerless 1945 or fabulous 1955.

It was time to move over to the Right Bank. Would the wines live up to their formidable reputation? Alas, as I have already mentioned, both bottles of Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 were out of sorts – not undrinkable and certainly indicating the port-like nature of the wine, but not sufficiently good enough to proffer any professional judgement. Still, you are not going to weep for too long because two mighty Right Banks were on the horizon.

I have regaled the legendary Vieux Chateau Certan 1947 before: one of a series of sensational wines under Georges Thienpont, Alexandre’s grandfather, who was then in charge of the Pomerol estate that let us not forget, just a decade earlier had been flirting with ruin after a succession of terrible vintages and declassified crops. The post-war wines readdressed the debt that Mother Nature owed him – one of the greatest run of wines that was probably only appreciated by Pomerol fans that clustered in Belgium at the time. This was my third encounter with this wine following a less representative bottle in Antwerp in February. It testified a magnificent VCC that feels as fresh and as vital as the day it was born. Remarkably deep in colour, the aromas of red berries, sloes, fresh fig and quasi-vintage port-like richness were captivating, whilst the palate was perfectly balanced with voluptuous fruit and a sensual texture that left you with a post-coital glow. Yeah...it’s that good. It was partnered by a brilliant Chateau La Conseillante 1947 that was far superior to a muddled Belgian bottling I encountered some years ago. In the glass it appeared more mature than the VCC. But it possessed a delirious bouquet of a punnet of strawberries, balsamic and dried figs that was just beautifully defined and fresh. The palate did not possess the intensity of the Vieux Chateau Certan but the tannins were very fine and demonstrated great precision, lending it more focus but perhaps more conservatism. It felt flesh and lithe in the mouth, merlot at its best with a surprisingly youthful vivacious finish. There was a third Right Bank wine, the relatively unknown Saint Emilion cru Chateau Haut Pourret 1947, but there was some TCA on the nose – a great pity because what appeared on the palate felt promising.

Finishing off on the Right Bank, the Chateau La Dominique 1947 had a potent nose of melted asphalt and enough volatility to sink a stock market. The palate was actually better if you could put the aromatics to one side – grippy tannins, supple in the mouth with a sweet generous, pleasingly fleshy finish. I would love to taste an uncompromised bottle. Much better was the Chateau Ausone 1947. I am a big fan of Ausone from the 1940s and 1950s when it was managed by Jean and Cécile Dubois-Challon, the latter eventually marrying into the Vauthier family. Still, it is not that I get the opportunity to taste these rarities every night. It was interesting to compare it with the La Conseillante ’47 that came across as merlot in excelsis, whilst the Ausone was influenced by the Cabernet Franc that lent it a more structured Left Bank personality. Pure and autumnal, perhaps Figeac-like on the nose, there was some lovely subtle minty, leafy aromas suggesting that they did not wait to pick the fruit as long as other estates. The palate was beautifully balanced, linear and statesmanlike and holding something back – an upstanding Saint Emilion more like a ’49 in style. Still, it was bottle of juice that you would not kick out of bed in the morning.

Of course, 1947 was a vintage not only great for dry reds, but also for Sauternes. They are now only intermittently seen, but they are well worth picking up if they appear at auction or in my case at the highly recommended “Comptoir Vignobles” shop in the heart of Saint Emilion. It was here that I purchased my contribution, the Chateau Rayne-Vigneau 1947, having been seduced by a fabulous ’59 the previous week. To be honest, that ’59 was better and you will find both notes in my Rayne-Vigneau article in the April issue of The Wine Advocate. The Chateau Raymond-Louis 1947 was presumed to be a precursor to Raymond-Lafon and the palate clearly and proudly stated that the vines were sandwiched between Yquem and Suduiraut. (I could not find any mention on the 1949 edition of Féret, though it had been acquired by Louis Pontallier in 1904 so perhaps it was an homage to its erstwhile proprietor). It offered an attractive bouquet of quince and Seville orange marmalade. What I appreciated about this wine was the energy, the frisson on the palate that pinged around the mouth, led by a citric bead of acidity stitched from beginning to end. It was glorious and totally unexpected. Last but certainly not least, the legendary Chateau Climens 1947 that is as decadent, unctuous and outrageous as before, although having recently enjoy the 1949, I wonder if it is the later vintage that presently offers the most sensory pleasure. The ’49 is a long sensual “kiss of pleasure” whilst the ’47 is “let’s do it on the floor” shag.

There was one ringer – the Vouvray Haut Lieu 1er Cru Moulleux 1947 from Gaston Huet. This is another legendary 21st century wine from the Loire, although to be honest I have encountered better bottles in the past and there was some discussion about different releases since the acquisition of the estate and whilst there was no doubt that this is a ridiculously great wine, the bottle felt less composed than others.

That more or less ended the evening’s vinous pleasure, although there was one Chateauneuf-du-Pape to finish that felt a little tired to me, but was interesting all the same. However, my notebook had been packed away by then.

So what did we learn? What could we draw from this fantastic journey through one of the most revered vintages of the 21st century?

Firstly, it was definitely a great post-war vintage – no question about that. The fact that so many of these bottles remain so fresh and vital after 66-years is a feat that modern day vintages must not only live up to, but surpass, given that period’s rudimentary means and tools of winemaking. Secondly, although the sample was small, it probably leans towards a Right Bank vintage insofar that stellar wines such as Vieux Chateau Certan lie on that side. Thirdly, it attested that bottles can be excessively volatile – more so than either 1945 or 1949, though it can enhance the wine (indeed, Anthony Barton once said that wines need that volatility if they are to age long-term.) Perhaps the most surprising aspect of these bottles was that acidity levels did not feel particularly low as you would expect for a warm vintage, but they did fell lower than either 1945 or 1949 and consequently denied the wines of the same poise and tension, but substituted them with rounded textures, generosity of timeworn fruit and occasionally sumptuous and sensuality that Bordeaux can manifest marvellously in vintages such as 1982 and 1990.

Some of these wines are beginning to fall by the wayside, which is nothing to be ashamed of after decades of service. The best bottles continue to bloom and the great Pomerols will surely last another twenty years without problem.

No, not every bottle was brilliant. But I think Michel would have enjoyed it.

My sincere thanks to Jordi Oriol-Gils for organising this epic tasting and for having the balls to conduct it blind.

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