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From “one of the most interesting and controversial vintages”: 1959 Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe


When I attended Bristol University in the early 1990s, it was the 1961 Bordeaux vintage that we discussed with desire.  There was no mention of 1962, 1964, nor 1966 and certainly no mention of the vintages from the 1950s.  The handful of old bottles we drank came from Reid Wines of Bristol.  In their Winter 1992/1993 catalog the 1961 vintage is described as an “Outstanding vintage” but the 1959 is noted as “Big, meaty wines, full of concentrated fruit.  Most are delicious.”  I am not sure why the 1959 vintage escaped my lips, perhaps it was the slight uptick in price.  The missed experience of drinking from this vintage was only just corrected.

The 1959 vintage in Bordeaux followed a string of three vintages that “were bitter and cold years for the winegrowers and very little wine was made.”[1]  It was a very good year that received much publicity.  In Bordeaux, it was a hot and dry time with the only rain falling during a one week period in September.  The grapes were unusually rich in sugar which made for “big, robust, red wines, with a high percentage of alcohol” but in consequence the wines could be low in acidity.[2]  The warmth lasted through October both day and night.  This created problems in making the wines for fermentation temperatures were very hot and in some cases, went out of control.  In the worst case the native yeasts died off and vinegar yeasts activated making unpleasant wines.  In general, though, it was felt that these were generous, quickly maturing wines.

Clive Coates wrote in The Wines of Bordeaux (2004) that “1959 was the last great year when the wine was made by old-fashioned methods”.  The early 1960s saw the introduction of controlled vinification, stainless-steel vats, and general replanting of vineyards.  This transition to modernity began with the end of World War II.  Vignerons in Burgundy began to make wine that matured more quickly by reducing tannin content.  While this style became more common in the 1953 and 1955 vintages in Burgundy, it only started to be practiced in Bordeaux at the end of the 1950s.  The combination of these new techniques and the low acidity vintage, meant that this style of early drinking Bordeaux was both memorable and controversial.

When I saw the bottles of 1959 Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe at MacArthur Beverages I knew I needed to buy one.  I wanted try a bottle for all the historic reasons, regardless of the condition.    Chateau Montrose produced traditionally made, long-lived wines that were high in both Cabernet Sauvignon and tannins.  Their adherence to tradition meant that an even lower-fill bottle was reported to me as good.

Nathan Chroman tasted a bottle at Binpin Desai’s Chateau Montrose vertical tasting in 1982.[3]  He described that it “may have been the best of the bunch [of 1950s].  Here is a taste that is subtle, rich, and soft with layers of flavors.  Superb to drink now with flavors that seem to go on and on.”[3] Tasted more than two decades later, Michael Broadbent found it “Outstanding – still fairly deep and velvety though fully mature…glorious rich flavor” and rated it five out of five stars.  I hoped that even if this bottle was dialed back a notch or two, that it would still make for good drinking.

Montrose2

I ended up with the last bottle which had a low to mid-shoulder fill with no signs of seepage.  When I rechecked the cork at home it budged slightly.  I had planned to taste the wine the following night with Lou.  Worried about the cork, I removed it, poured off a small taste, then gassed the bottle and sealed it with a new cork.  The wine was sound so I felt that it would survive to the next day.  Survive it did, for when we pulled this second cork, the wine handled air without any problems.  In fact, Lou decanted off the last glass for me to try the subsequent day.  At this point it had a metallic edge to it but was completely drinkable.  At its best, this wine had a core of cherry fruit mixed with an earthy/funky bit.  It still possessed tannins but more importantly it had strength.  I suspect that well-stored, high fill bottles will offer an outstanding experience and continue to do so for years to come.  For me, this bottle represents the twilight of an era when wine was cellared for future generations.  This wine was purchased from MacArthur Beverages.

Montrose1

1959 Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe
Originally shipped by Grierson, Oldham & Adams Ltd of London then shipped by Compass Wines Ltd. Imported by Direct Import Wine Co.  The color was a medium+ dark with brown hints.  In the mouth was a dense, animale start with some roast earth and plenty of life.  There was a hint of cherry fruit that eventually developed into a core of fruit.  The flavors oscillated with a bit of vintage perfume in the end.  The wine left a fresh impression, with ripe, textured tannins, and citric grip with air.  It exhibited power that slowly unfurled.  *** Now-2025.

Montrose3


[1] It Sure Puckers Your Mouth. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 15, 1959; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times. Page B5.
[2]A sober view of 1959. Baile, Nicholas. The Guardian (1959-2003); Nov 22, 1960; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer. pg. 12
[3] A Tasting for Montrose Wine: Vintages From 1979 to 1906 Sampled at the Event. CHROMAN, NATHAN. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 7, 1982; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times. pg. M50

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