Incredible bottles of old Burgundy


When Lou and I decided to tuck into some old red Burgundy we stood up multiple bottles fully expecting a few to be undrinkable.  We started with a single bottle of white as we snacked on cheese and charcuterie.  The 1988 Louis Jadot, Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles Grand Cru was interesting enough with its apple-orchard oxidized profile but it ultimately left me wanting to try the red wines.

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Each of us had selected a few, somewhat random bottles which we had stood up for a few days. We pulled the bottles from Lou’s cellar into the tasting room.  I first removed the cork on the most ullaged bottle from the pair of 1961 Domaine Amiot, Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru.   A quick taste revealed this bottle was in great shape, fruity on the nose and in the mouth, with plenty of life.  I honestly expected it to be dead.  Lou poured us the 1979 Robert Sarrau, Chambolle-Musigny.  Incredibly, this did not just seem young compared to the 1961, it was young compared to its 36 years of age!  Next up came a strong example of the 1983 Bernard Amiot, Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Charmes.  I was floored.  How could these three bottles of wine all taste so good?  Lou was pretty excited too.  With no need to open up any backup bottles we sat down to further enjoy our wine.

The 1961 Amiot reminded me of the 1959 Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe.  Still possessing fruit, this old Burgundy continues to live, not by tannins and acidity but through a compact vein of power.  This is then, a great example of traditional Burgundian winemaking from the post World War II era.  The years immediately after the end of the war saw the return to transportation within France followed by increased international exports.  Ronald Avery of the 18th century wine merchants Avery’s of Bristol noted in 1961 that stocks of Burgundy were not very plentiful except for “old-fashioned wine merchants”.[1]  In fact he felt that “sales of wine labelled Burgundy must amount to at least three or four times the legal output so great is the demand.”

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Demand in America for quality Burgundy was increasing as well.  Coupled with the reduced yields of the 1961 vintage and the view that this was the best vintage since 1929, The New York Times stated “The 1961 Burgundy vintage will be the most expensive ever.”[2]

The traditional way of making Burgundy, dubbed methode ancienne, involved keeping stems on the fruit and a long fermentation period.[3]  This meant it could take four years before the wine was bottled and around eight years before it could be drunk.  To meet the continually increasing demand for wine a new style of winemaking quickly took hold in Burgundy.  This methode nouvelle involved nearly complete de-stemming of the fruit followed by leaving the must on the skins for a much shorter period.  This resulted in softer, lighter bodied wines with less tannins that became drinkable in a shorter period of time.  The side-effect was that the wines did not last as long.

Cyril Ray wrote that wines produced by the methode ancienne had “greater body and staying power.”  While this certainly helps explain our lovely bottle of 1961 Domaine Amiot, Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru what of the bottle of 1979 Robert Sarrau, Chambolle-Musigny?  The demand for Burgundy in America continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  This caused so much back pressure in Burgundy that prices rose 300 percent during the 1970s.  Frank J. Prial wrote in The New York Times during 1974 that many Americans had finally become “appalled by short life of some of the finest Burgundies”.[4]  While the 1959s were excellent and still improving, newer vintages beginning with 1961 had “peaked and declined”.  Joseph Drouhin remarked to the Circle of Wine Writers, that he thought “many of us will be going back to the old way.”

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I cannot determine whether the negociant Robert Sarrau returned to the methode ancienne or never abandoned it.  What is clear is that the 1960s saw the introduction of temperature controlled fermentation, enamel and glass lined tanks, and stainless steel vats.  According to H. W. Yoxall there was a developing view that common wines were appropriate for methode nouvelle or quick fermentation and storage in the latest vats.  Quality Burgundy should be raised in wood.

The wines were not just excellent, they were exciting.  They were not just old, they were lively with fruit.  When I returned home with my share of the leftovers, Jenn and I decided to see the 1961 Domaine Amiot, Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru and 1979 Robert Sarrau, Chambolle-Musigny to the end.  After all, one could not risk the wine deteriorating over night!  The 1961 Amiot continued at its glacial pace of development, somewhat impervious to air.  It is true that the finish was a bit short but I did not mind, the wine transported me back in time.  The 1979 Robert Sarrau continued to develop, taking on a creamy almost buttery quality.  Jenn was thrilled and I could see how this wine should be double-decanted.  It was more complete than the 1961 and on emotion alone, I would score it even higher.

There was another wine in our trio of reds, the 1983 Bernard Amiot, Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes 1er Cru.  It was a completely different wine beyond the apparent youth.  Both on the nose and in the mouth were earthy, old-school animale flavors that existed in a lighter, more delicate wine but there was ripeness and the impression of plentiful flavor.  It is also a wine that should absolutely be cellared for further development.

I went to bed that night with bittersweet thoughts.  This was (and still remains) the best experience this year of drinking older wines with Lou.  Old bottles of Bordeaux and Rhone from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are still available at a reasonable price.  These old Burgundies are more difficult to find with prices beyond what I can afford.  After we exhaust this small tranche of Old Burgundy, I fear it might be many years before I can drink such vintages again.

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1988 Louis Jadot, Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles Grand Cru
Imported by Kobrand.  Alcohol 13.5%.  There was a light amber-apricot color that matched the decently aromatic nose of apple orchards and some perfume.  In the mouth, the fresh, salivating acidity existed with some structure that came out by the finish.  The flavors became puckering with a touch of weight in the finish.  Ultimately, the physical aspects of the wine were more appealing than the flavor itself.  ** Now but will last.

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1961 Domaine Amiot, Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru
Shipped by F. Hasenklever.  Imported by Great Lakes Wine Company.  Alcohol 12%.  This was the darkest wine of the lot with rather mature fruit on the nose.  In the mouth, there was a burst of blue fruit then black and red fruit flavors.  There was a short finish in terms of intensity but the flavors persisted throughout the long aftertaste.  With air a mature, ripe hint of fruit developed with tart acidity throughout.  The finish eventually took on spices and wood box flavors.  **** Now but will clearly last.

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1979 Robert Sarrau, Chambolle-Musigny
Imported by Sarrau Wines USA Inc.  Alcohol 12.5%.  The nose revealed fruit accented by toasted and roasted nuts.  In the mouth were youthful flavors of purple and red fruit that were subtle compared to the sure and rich finish.  With extended air, the wine took on some salty flavors as well as a smooth, not quite buttery, finish.  **** Now-2020.

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1983 Bernard Amiot, Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes 1er Cru
Shipped by Neal Rosenthal Wine Merchants.  Imported by Select Vineyards.  Alcohol 11%-14%.  The nose revealed ample leather aromas and other animale notes.  There earthy flavor was pervasive through the finish where some juicy, cherry and strawberry fruit mixed with acidity.  Overall the wine was lighter in nature with an old-school perfume, and drying structure.  It took on attractive, delicate ripe fruit flavors followed by a tart and strong middle, ultimately leaving the impression of ample flavor.  ***(*) Now-2025.

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[1] Avery, Ronald. Burgundy years. The Guardian (1959-2003); Nov 21, 1961; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer. pg. 15

[2] ’61 BURGUNDY TOPS IN COST AND TASTE: May Be Best of the Century, Experts Say — and Pay
By ROBERT ALDEN Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 22, 1961; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. pg. 21

[3] Adopted by the British press by the late 1960s.  See Bottles for stockings. Ray, Cyril. The Observer (1901- 2003); Dec 10, 1967; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer. pg. 29 and H. W. Yozall’s book The Wines of Burgundy (1978).

[4] Burgundy Maker Predicts A Return to ‘the Old Ways’: WINE TALK The … By FRANK J. PRIAL. New York Times (1923-Current file); Sep 14, 1974; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. pg. 14

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