A Century of…Fours 


Driving through Fleurie last spring, I noticed the streets festooned with flowers and buntings. Inquisitive, I asked about the upcoming festival. My driver, a local, enlightened me about La Fête des Conscrits.

Between December and May every year, villages across Beaujolais, and to a lesser extent Jura and Alsace, celebrate the cadre of residents born in years ending in the same number. This chronological tradition began in 1880, a valedictory parade for men entering military service. During years of conflict, they marched through the streets in front of cheering loved ones, the unspoken understanding that not everyone will return. In recent and more peaceful times, any person born in the appropriate year can participate, well, all except the women of Villefranche. Even though the town hosts the largest Conscrits, it remains an outmoded, men-only affair. Participants dress in costumes in their number’s assigned color, and villages host banquets, church services and concerts, of course, with a cheeky glass of Gamay or two. Hence, in 2024, it is the turn of the ‘fours,’ and anyone born in 2014, 2004, 1994 and so forth, back to the oldest living person, is eligible. Les Conscrits extends beyond an annual knees-up. Communities coalesce around these groups, freemasonry without the funny handshakes, nurturing fidelity between members who help each other out for potentially their entire lives, a social glue unifying generations in an age when young and old seem increasingly disparate.

The Crystal Palace Stadium.

Forgive the digression. Apart from wishing to relate this parochial heart-warming tradition, it strikes me that my annual “Centuries of…” article follows the same rubric:  a chronological shepherding of tasting notes into a single article, analogous to young and old marching in lockstep onto your screen. Introduced a few years ago, recognizing that wine lovers, including myself, celebrate anniversaries or milestones with wines that share the same birth year since inception, it’s been one of my favorite articles to research and write.

This year, the spotlight shines upon wine born in a vintage ending in four. Confined to Bordeaux, it is far from a roll-call of lauded vintages, more a minefield of seasons that winemakers prefer to forget. Perversely, that makes them more intriguing. Isn’t it fascinating to scythe through history to explore the unknown? We travel all the way back to 1904 and veer down lesser-trodden seasons such as 1914, 1944, 1954 and 1984, pertinent reminders never to write off a vintage by dint of reputation and hearsay. This report never fails to spring surprises.

This year, the format is tweaked. Firstly, I decided to publish the 2014 Bordeaux as a separate article on Vinous because they don’t inhabit the same realm of maturity as vintages with more on the odometer. Claret needs a couple of decades before it can call itself “grown up,” less of a truism for Burgundy that obliges less time to mature. To this end, I augment the claret with a herd of 2014s from the Côte d’Or since the theme is temporal, not geographical. These notes are culled from various domaine visits during my barrel tastings last year, interpolated with bottles from Alsace, South Africa and California, the latter a useful juxtaposition against Bordeaux.

Previous “Centuries of…” have been structured along two axes. The x-axis is vintage, and the y-axis is cultural context, music, film and events pertaining to that year. Great idea for a book. This year, recognizing that the Vinous parish is full of sporty types, the y-axis is a parallel timeline narrating the history of the FA Cup, the world’s longest-running knockout football* competition. A sport now watched by four billion avid fans, its origin dates back to 16 March 1872, when the Royal Engineers took on Wanderers at the Kennington Oval, a venue now synonymous with cricket**. The rules were still being codified back then, and players came almost exclusively from public schools. Researching these finals unearthed vignettes that impart a sense of time and hopefully render this piece more interesting to read.

*For disambiguation amongst my American cousins, we are talking soccer, not that other “sport” where men in helmets and shoulder pads run around like children playing tag and inexplicably stop every ten seconds.

**Another sport invented by the English that present-day fans have difficulty accepting gives us absolutely no preordained right to be the best.  

As usual, these notes derive from three sources: multiple tastings at various châteaux, the annual Académie du Vin shindig in Bordeaux and a dinner hosted by Olivier Bernard at Domaine de Chevalier whereby guests proffer bottles blind. These are augmented with ad hoc notes from soirées in London, New York and Hong Kong. Readers should note that a vast majority of these notes come from bottles directly from châteaux that, to a great extent, obviates the issue of provenance. That said, I would like to remind readers of the oft-forgotten fact that entire productions were rarely bottled in a single run. Often, they were bottled in batches that gave rise to variation. Moreover, during wartime, the wines often underwent abnormally long élevages because of a lack of market or means of transport.

The Vintages: 1904-2014

1904 - Manchester City 1, Bolton Wanderers 0

A century before Sheikh Mansour bought the team for £250 million, Manchester City took on Bolton Wanderers in the 1904 final held at Crystal Palace. Neither side had won the competition before, but City had never gotten past the second round. I doubt Pep Guardiola would retain his managerial post if that were the case today. Among the 61,374 spectators, droves traveling down by train and sleeping at Euston or St. Pancras stations, you could find Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and several cricketers, including the legendary W.G. Grace. Billy Meredith’s goal in the 23rd minute prompted one over-excited fan to run onto the pitch. Instead of throwing him out of the ground, the police were so impressed by his passion that they escorted him back onto the terraces.

Though no bottle of 1904 was dusted off during my tastings, I unearthed a review for a 1904 Batailley, opened a while back at the château for a memorable dinner. It was splendid, testifying that this was the best vintage for an otherwise meager decade for Bordeaux.

The 1914 FA Cup Final.

1914 - Burnley 1, Liverpool 0

The 1914 FA Cup final was the last played at Crystal Palace, the venue having hosted the final since 1895. The South London venue was notorious for its dire sight lines, and a purpose-built stadium was planned for northwest London in Wembley. It was both teams’ maiden appearance and the first attended by a reigning monarch, King George V, who wore a rose in his buttonhole since the sides were Lancastrian. Hence, it became known as “The Royal Final”. Members of the Burnley team prepared for the match by playing rounds of golf and taking brine baths in Lytham. Bert Freeman scored the winning goal in an otherwise rather dull match. It was Burnley’s first FA Cup victory…and their last (to date). None of those watching the game knew that war was on the horizon. How many of those spectators never lived to see another match? On Christmas Eve that year, German troops on the Western Front began singing carols from the frozen trenches. Unofficial truces were called, and games of football, more likely light-hearted knockabouts, were played out on no man’s land between German and English soldiers until they were ordered to return to the trenches and resume the massacre.

This is a long-forgotten growing season in Bordeaux. Even though it was actually a fine, warm summer, the harvest commenced on September 20 under benign conditions. Extraneous factors poleaxed this vintage: the sudden lack of manpower and resources, notwithstanding vanishing overseas markets. I was privileged by three reds from this vintage. The most prestigious was a 1914 Lafite-Rothschild, though it seemed enervated by time, unlike the stellar 1914 Siran. Proprietor Edouard Miailhe brought three bottles to the Académie dinner, two very good and one spectacular, suggesting that this was simply a fine growing season born at the wrong moment. Intriguingly, the 1914 Château de Bürck comes from a vineyard in Mérignac on the outskirts of Bordeaux city, close to the airport. Its function as a vineyard ceased at the end of the 19th century, though a parcel of vines remained towards Pique-Caillou. Incidentally, the chartreuse was renovated in 2015 and remains open to the public.

I'm not sure how many bottles of 1914 Château de Bürck exist. Was this the last?

1924 - Newcastle United 2, Aston Villa 0

The 1924 FA Cup Final was played at Wembley Stadium, which had opened the previous year in its present location in northwest London. Dubbed the “Rainy Day Final”, the heavens opened just before the match and turned the pitch into a quagmire. Without umbrellas, the 91,695 spectators used their programs to cover the heads, which is why surviving copies are extremely rare and fetch £6,000 in auction. Newcastle’s team included Billy Hampson, to date the oldest person to have played in a final, at 41 years and 257 days. Two late goals by Neil Harris and Stan Seymour secured an unexpected victory over Villa, who had been aiming for their seventh victory in the competition.

Nineteen twenty-four is a Bordeaux vintage with which I have some first-hand experience, not least two or three encounters with the majestic 1924 Latour. The season suffered some storms in June, and then July was overcast. August was slightly better. It was saved by a second summer; therefore, it could be viewed as a forerunner to the 2023 season. No less than nine centurions were opened during my time in Bordeaux. While 1924 lies in the shadow of 1928 and 1929, well-preserved bottles can be excellent. The 1924 Domaine de Chevalier, Cos d’Estournel, Montrose and Pontet Canet all distinguish themselves; likewise, the 1924 Rieussec testifies that Sauternes came within a whisker of producing a classic vintage. Of course, there will be some duds, the 1924 Lagrange volatile, while others like Branaire-Ducru and Poujeaux are drinkable, albeit pale imitations of their 1928 counterparts.

A mini-horizontal of Claret from the 1924 vintage. Not an everyday occurrence.

1934 - Manchester City 2, Portsmouth 1

Twenty-one shillings would have got you a seat at Wembley to watch the FA Cup final in 1934. Prices have gone up a bit since. City’s team included a young Sir Matt Busby, who went on to become the famed manager of Manchester United and who survived the 1958 Munich air crash that killed several members of his team, the so-called “Busby Babes”. In the 28th minute of the final, City’s goalkeeper Frank Swift let in a howler. The ball slipped through his fingers. After taking the lead with just two minutes to go, he became more and more agitated, not helped by the reporter behind his goal counting down the seconds. When the final whistle blew, Swift fainted with relief. After the trauma of this match, he hung up his boots and became a respected football journalist. If only that was the happy ending. Tragically, he boarded that doomed flight in Munich, one of the 22 fatalities that night.

Generally considered to be the best vintage in an otherwise poor decade for Bordeaux, I was surprised that more bottles were not opened in Bordeaux. Châteaux seemed to prefer their 1924s. A heavenly 1934 Yquem was martyred at the château by Pierre Lurton, surpassing another opened a couple of years ago. A brilliant Sauternes can rival the lauded 1937, and I’ve added just one note for the 1934 Montrose

1944 - Charlton Athletic 1, Aston Villa 1

The first televised final took place in 1938; however, the competition was on hiatus during the war. In its place, an unofficial competition known as the Football League War Cup took place, the Wembley final watched by 85,000 spectators. Charlton ran out winners, and the trophy was presented by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander of the Allied Forces. They went on to play the winner of the North final, Aston Villa. The score was one-all, but a replay was canceled due to transport restrictions and bomb threats. Hence, it marks the only occasion when the trophy was shared between two teams.

Pierre Lurton opened several bottles ending in “four,” an opportunity to taste some of Yquem’s more esoteric vintages, such as 1944 and 1954.

Eclipsed 12 months later by the 1945, the 1944 vintage is almost completely forgotten these days and hardly seen. It was warm during the summer, but heavy downpours meant rot was a constant threat and almost impossible to contain due to a lack of manpower and tools. That was the least of their problems. Two-hundred and fifty people were killed during aerial bomb attacks in Pauillac alone that August. Puts everything in context. The German army left Bordeaux city by train at the end of the month, and the occupation came to an end. However, the late harvest was hampered by falling temperatures and rainfall.

I tasted just one wine from this vintage. Pierre Lurton opened a 1944 Yquem at my request. Hardly anyone at the estate had ever tasted this wine. I found it perfectly drinkable, oddly with almost red fruit aromas intertwined with those associated with Sauternes.

1954 - West Bromwich Albion 3, Preston North End 2

The 1954 FA Cup was a dramatic tussle between teams that had won the competition before. Albion were heading for what would be the first “Double”, League and FA Cup winners in the same year. Unfortunately, two of their star players were called up for the national squad. Their absence led to a poor run during the closing games, and the League title slipped from their hands, so there was added pressure to win at least one piece of silverware. Against the run of play, they went 2-1 down, and the game lay on a knife’s edge until they were awarded a penalty. Such was the tension that Jim Sanders, Albion’s goalkeeper at the opposite end of the pitch, turned his back. He couldn’t face the tension, an image immortalized in a famous photo (see below). He was made of sterner stuff. Sanders was a decorated war hero who was playing with a bullet lodged in his spine. The RAF had told him that his playing career was over, but he was on the winning side after Frank Griffin converted a late penalty with three minutes on the clock.

Another rarely-seen vintage, the 1954 was sandwiched between the superior 1953 and 1955 and bereft of a market upon release. It’s one of those “dark horse” growing seasons, definitely not one to write off before tasting. Four wines were included, a 1954 Beychevelle that I think surprised winemaker Philippe Blanc as much as myself. Delightful! The 1954 Carbonnieux Blanc floored everyone when its identity was revealed at Domaine de Chevalier – a timely reminder of how dry white Bordeaux can age…if allowed. The 1954 Pichon Lalande was fraying at the seams when Nicolas Glumineau opened a bottle from the cellar, better than the 1954 Yquem. It might be considered a bit one-dimensional yet bestowed with satisfying complexity and presence.

The 1954 FA Cup Final.

1964 - West Ham United 3, Preston North End 2

Captain Bobby Moore guided the ‘Irons’ to their first FA Cup victory. Yet again, Preston North End was the underdog but took the lead twice in the 10th and 40th minutes. Moore’s fellow ‘66 World Cup hero Geoff Hurst set up the winning goal headed in by Ronnie Boyce, who sounds like the archetypal Cockney geezer. The final saw its youngest-ever player run onto the pitch, 17-year-old Howard Kendall, later manager of Everton. That record was beaten by Paul Allen when he ran onto the pitch in 1980…for West Ham.

Rightly revered as a fecund vintage on the Right Bank after late September rains ruined picking for the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, I was privileged with half a dozen 1964s that formed the centerpiece of the soirée chez Domaine de Chevalier. Running out easy winner was the brilliant 1964 Figeac, closely followed by a Belgian-bottled 1964 l’Église-Clinet and my own contribution, the 1964 Feytit-Clinet. The Left Bank is often dismissed because of that inopportune rainfall (though the 1964 Latour can be astonishing). Likewise, I’ve always enjoyed Saint-Estèphe wines from this vintage, and a 1964 Montrose poured at the château vindicated a great vintage for the estate. Another surprise was the showing of 1964 Léoville Las Cases, not a wine that I have immense experience with. However, two bottles were coincidentally offered by guests on the same evening, and both performed above expectations. Maybe the most surprising showing of all was a marvelous 1964 Carbonnieux Blanc that was an absolute doppelgänger for Burgundy on the nose! Finally, an extremely rare 1964 Y de Yquem was too oxidative for my liking.

1974 - Liverpool 3 Newcastle, United 0

Liverpool had only won the FA Cup once, leading to the 1974 final. This was the early days of their famous squad that went on to dominate football in the latter half of the 1970s, with players like Kevin Keegan and Emlyn Hughes playing under legendary manager and another RAF veteran, Bill Shankly. This was Shankly’s final match. After clashes with the club’s board, he had announced his shock resignation. When the ref blew the whistle on a one-sided final, Liverpool supporters ran onto the pitch to bow at Shankly’s feet. To repeat his famous, if misquoted line: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Perhaps this article proves that, at times, it is.

Oh dear. Did anything go right for the Bordelaise this year? Actually yes. Up until mid-September, this could have been an excellent vintage, following regular flowering and a hot July. There was a bit of stress, but nothing to get too worried about. Then, on September 21, the heavens opened before temperatures dropped to almost freezing in mid-October. The late Jean-Michel Cazes once said to me: “We had problems with everything.” That includes an eviscerated fine wine market due to the ongoing oil crisis. This is a year when wine lovers descend on California, a benchmark year for the region, attested by the 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve poured blind at Domaine de Chevalier, only slightly beating the regular cuvée that I served at a dinner a couple of years earlier. (I did re-taste the legendary 1974 Martha’s Vineyard, but if you don’t mind, I’ll save that for a Cellar Favorite.) Don’t completely write off Bordeaux. A 1974 Château de Fieuzal Blanc, served by Jean-Charles Cazes at Lynch Bages back in October, was a pleasant surprise and a timely reminder that the most disparaged vintages for reds can turn up lovely whites.

1984 - Everton 2, Watford 0

Plymouth Argyle came close to being the first Third Division side to play in an FA Cup final but were knocked out by Watford in their semi-final. Watford’s team was ravaged by injuries in the run-up to Wembley, something that chairman Elton John, who had just tied the knot with Austrian Renate Blauel, could not solve. As such, Everton were favorites to lift the Cup despite Watford having the talented John Barnes in their squad. Foreshadowing the direction football would take, it marked the first occasion where sponsors' names were emblazoned on each team’s kit. Everton ran in winners but only after a controversial second goal where Andy Gray was alleged to have fouled Watford’s goalkeeper.

Worst vintage of the decade? Step forward to the much-maligned 1984. Flowering went badly, particularly for the Merlot so that many châteaux ended up with 100% Cabernet Sauvignon in their blend. You don’t need me to tell you how the Right Bank fared. The harvest was spoiled by five days of rain in early October, just as that all-important Cabernet was about to be picked, although some did manage to get most of the crop in beforehand. The vintage was soon forgotten when the far superior 1985s waltzed into view twelve months later.

Shall we skip this vintage and move straight on to 1994? No, no and thrice no. Véronique Sanders gallantly brought a double magnum of 1984 Haut-Bailly to the Académie du Vin soirée that must surely be the only Bordeaux that 40-year-olds can enjoy this year. It’s not the best wine ever produced by the estate, but it was quite delicious. Likewise, the 1984 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, a wine I’ve had a couple of times before, proves the caliber of dry whites in this maligned year. I’ve included a smattering of other notes, a rather rum 1984 Yquem that was part of a pre-prandial 1980s vertical at the château and a superb 1984 Monte Bello from Ridge Vineyards that needs more time in bottle. Who said only Bordeaux wines have longevity?

This year, a flush of 1964s, many in large formats, were poured at the Académie du Vin tasting.

1994 - Manchester United 4, Chelsea 0

Earlier rounds in the competition saw several giant killings, and David defeating Goliath was an integral part of its attraction. Manager Alex Ferguson (an avid oenophile) had coalesced a talented squad even before David Beckham (another oenophile) added celebrity star power. Talismanic striker Eric Cantona had added Gallic flair throughout the season before flying kung-fu kicks at abusive spectators and philosophizing about seagulls following trawlers. Cantona scored two penalties to secure the Red Devils’ maiden double, auguring their dominance in the national game under Ferguson’s imperious command.

It was set to be a great vintage after a hot summer, yet an inopportune series of storms in September forced some estates to pick before the Cabernet was ripe, and rain thwarted the rest of the harvest. Nevertheless, the wines were warmly received by the press simply because the previous three had been so poor, but at least the trade had a chance of getting behind a primeur campaign. It has never been touted as a bona fide great vintage, but I have a sentimental attachment to it, partly because I regularly tasted it in the salad days of my career. The wines were cheap as chips, and I bought truckloads for restaurants across Japan.

I am glad to have had a proper look at this vintage, with around 20 wines poured at various châteaux. Considering that it is only 30 years old, it’s been rather forgotten about by cognoscenti. No, it’s not nearly a great vintage, but rather what I term a ‘useful’ vintage that I find consistent and above average. Saint-Julien is strong with excellent showings from Beychevelle, Léoville Las Cases, Léoville Barton and Langoa Barton. However, Gruaud Larose had hit a sticky patch, and their 1994 is best avoided. Perhaps the 1994 Smith Haut-Lafitte is better than expected, whereas others are solid, though going nowhere. The vintage is pretty cheap compared to others, and if you choose wisely, then you can obtain value for money.

2004 - Manchester United 3, Millwall 0

With Wembley Stadium being rebuilt, the 123rd FA Cup final was played at the Millennium Stadium in Wales. The final no longer brought the country to a halt. The Euros and the League had usurped its eminence and become more important financially. It was Millwall’s first appearance in a final, and they came in as underdogs. Their team included Curtis Weston, to date the youngest footballer to have played in an FA Cup final at the tender age of 17 years and 119, a record that had stood since 1879. Millwall enjoyed a few opportunities on goal, but when Cristiano Ronaldo broke the deadlock just before half-time, the game was over.

The 2004 vintage has been overshadowed by 2005 since birth. It was almost a flip-reverse of the 1994 vintage; this time, September saved the crop. Summer had seen some hydric stress, and vines had focused on growing their foliage rather than bunches later in the season. Ripeness levels were all over the place until a second summer trotted along and did much to even things out and allow picking to take place in perfect conditions. Indeed, I remember touring the region that month…it was t-shirt and sunglasses weather.

Is it really 20 years ago that I was tasting the 2004s en primeur? Time flies. Like the 1944, 1984 and 1994, the wines were eclipsed by the succeeding vintage, but in the last ten years, there has been immense progress in viticulture, and many wineries have been modernized. That’s why there are fewer misfires in this vintage than in previous ones, and plenty are cruising on the drinking plateau today, Château Margaux, Pontet Canet, Léoville Barton, Haut-Brion and Cheval Blanc, among my favorites.

These two vintages were opened by Pierre-Olivier Clouet on one of my first château visits in early April.

2014 - Arsenal 3, Hull City 2

The final had returned to the new stadium in Wembley, where ticket prices were between £45 and £115 per person. X Factor winner Leona Lewis sang the pre-match national anthem. In the fourth minute, underdogs Hull scored and then doubled their lead five minutes later. Could the unlikeliest victory be on the cards? Two goals from Arsenal meant that the match went into extra time, then Ramsey scored in the 109th minute to give manager and yet another wine-lover, Arsene Wenger, victory for the Gunners.

For information on the growing season, refer to my report on the vintage published on Vinous in March. Readers will find some additional notes from Bernard Magrez, while I also include a number of 2014 whites and reds from Burgundy. This was always renowned more for the whites than the reds. Indeed, there is a clutch of thrilling wines from the likes of Domaine Paul Pillot and Marc Colin. The rarest is unquestionably a 2014 Montrachet from Domaine d’Eugénie opened by Frédéric Engerer. Around 160 bottles are produced per annum, and with respect to this maiden vintage, after the first two were blended into other cuvées, barely a dozen remain. It was pretty brilliant, which is some feat given the obstacles vinifying a minute quantity of must. The reds are less consistent, yet not without a few gems, such as the Nuits Saint-Georges Les Chaignots from Domaine Robert Chevillon and Corton-Bressandes courtesy of Tollot-Beaut.

Final Thoughts

Composing this piece, I found an unexpected parallel between football and Bordeaux. The 1855 Classification predates the first FA Cup by only a few years. They both gained immense popularity. Yet it was not until the 1990s that money poured into football via sponsorship deals, thus becoming the global phenomenon of today. Bordeaux also underwent reinvention. It is no longer merely fine wine but an aspirational luxury item where branding and marketing seem as important as picking date, taste or quality.

One of wine’s unique virtues is eliciting sensory pleasure while seamlessly evoking a sense of time, in some instances, a drink with a coeval lifespan. Bordeaux contains many châteaux whose wines can equal or outlive us. In our misguided clamor for instant gratification, it risks losing this preternatural power that makes it almost unique. Claret reaches its zenith not at primeur nor after bottling but after 15 or 20 years when it is allowed to manifest its kaleidoscope of secondary aromas and flavors for terroir to overcome the imprimatur of winemaking. Longevity is not exclusive to Bordeaux…but no other region offers the sheer array of wines that enable you to flit between eras with such ease, bottles young and old eliciting pleasure in their own way.

That’s why I’ll be back next year, just like Les Conscrits and the FA Cup, to cast my view on the fives. Oh, the 143rd FA Cup final this year saw Manchester United defying expectations and denying Manchester City the double with a 2-1 victory.

It was the BBC’s top news story.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Test of Endurance: Bordeaux 2014 Ten Years On, Neal Martin, March 2024

A Century of Bordeaux: The Threes, Neal Martin, August 2023

A Century of Bordeaux: The Twos, Neal Martin, September 2022

A Century of Bordeaux: The Nines, Neal Martin, September 2019