The Quiet One: 1962 Burgundy & Bordeaux 


After Elvis received his draft papers and before the Beatles conquered the world, there was an interregnum during which cultural momentum petered out. The fad of rock ’n' roll and teenage rebellion had seemingly run its course, and, as a consequence, most people regard the early Sixties as a rather regressive, beige period. In reality, the era witnessed an astonishing progression in jazz from titans like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, the rise of Motown and the emergence of dance crazes like the “Twist”, all contemporaneous with the debuts of 007 and the Pill, and momentous historical events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of JFK. Ipso facto, it wasn’t exactly “quiet”, and the period foreshadowed what was to come.

Apropos of all things fermented, it was an intriguing period in time. The 1959 and 1961 vintages are touchstones for Bordeaux and Burgundy, even though the latter delayed its own annus mirabilis until 1962. My introduction to that particular vintage came courtesy of a 1962 Grands-Échézeaux from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti around 20 years ago. My fledgling website was just getting off the ground, and a mate—a dab hand at this computer malarkey—received his scurrilous payment in the form of fermented grape juice to spruce it up and at least make it look professional. The aforesaid bottle was acquired from a merchant who warned that it had a low ullage and kindly gave me a discount—the princely sum of £80.00.

Prizing out the blackened, saturated cork, my nostrils began to twitch as intoxicating aromas filled my tiny kitchen. The perfume made me swoon. I took a sip. Choirs of angels sang outside the window. My mate appeared to undergo a transcendental experience. The wine’s spectral beauty lay beyond the sensory, crossing into the spiritual realm. Now, I could understand the paradox of weight and weightlessness, the ineffable transparency of Pinot Noir—its mercurial, transmutable nature that emerges as oxygen unlocks its secrets swirl-by-swirl, an alluring enigma. That experience became a cornerstone of my education. Thereafter, I scoured restaurant and merchants’ lists for any 1962 Burgundy, and for that matter, Bordeaux, accumulating a cache of positive experiences from both regions.

Every subsequent 1962 Burgundy was a madeleine for that Grands-Echézeaux. Bizarrely, the wines were given short shrift upon release, a vintage unfairly ignored and overlooked for many years. Allen Meadows and Doug Barzelay, writing in their Burgundy Vintages tome, remark that the 1962s exist in the shadows of the ever-popular 1959s and celebrated Bordeaux 1961s. The 1962s’ youthful charm misled cognoscenti to presume they had short shelf-lives, repeating their misjudgment apropos the 1953s. This inexplicable oversight and the vintage’s perceived inadequacy lingered into the salad days of my career, explaining how I could amass several tasting notes. As pointed out by those authors, even as late as 2001, respected writers Bazin, Hulot and Piot nominated 1961 Burgundy over 1962! Nineteen sixty-two was “George Harrison”, aka “the quiet one”, leaving 1959 and 1961 to hog the limelight. Only in the last decade has 1962’s stock risen for both regions. Its reappraisal prompted sharp hikes in auction prices. Nowadays, hushed reverence prevails whenever one is opened. 

Given all this, you can imagine my anticipation upon being invited to a private dinner, Burgundy-themed around the 1962 vintage, part of a series of private gatherings that follow in the footsteps of 1958 and 1959. The evening straddled not just those two classic wine regions but also delved into Champagne and a sole representative from Spain, with nearly all bottles proffered by guests, including a sprinkling of winemakers who raided their own cellars.

Before continuing, a brief summary of the respective growing seasons that year: This is a year when conditions in both Bordeaux and Burgundy were broadly similar. Vine growth stuttered due to the cold, so the vines were three weeks behind schedule. Inclement weather continued, and by the time flowering occurred, the cycle lagged by two weeks. Fortunately, a hot July, intensified by a sirocco wind, allowed them to catch up. By August, the heat meant some vines began to suffer hydric stress. The balmy summer stretched through to September, prompting talk of a new 1945. However, a storm on October 2 interrupted the inchoate harvest. It was pretty late in both regions, with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti not even beginning until October 15—a date that seems incomprehensible today. Some vines had completely shut down, so must weights were not particularly high. The picking concluded relatively late, on October 22 in Bordeaux and around the same time in Burgundy.

Let’s crack on with the wines. We commenced with a couple of Champagnes. A 1962 Dom Pérignon, sadly DOA, was ameliorated by a divine 1962 Krug Private Cuvée. As expected, it is fully mature, maybe lacking the crystalline quality of Krug from the top drawer. Nonetheless complex, with commendable delineation and weight, the action occurs more on the nose than the palate. Even without the glistening clarity of other vintages, there is something regal about the 1962.

No less than 11 bottles from Burgundy followed, ranging from utter perfection to others that flatlined long ago, regrettably including a faulty 1961 Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Saint-Jacques from Armand Rousseau. C’est la vie. Personally, I was a bit nonplussed by two or three from Maison Leroy. The best, a sublime 1962 Échézeaux that was detailed and autumnal, to my surprise, surpassed what ought to have been a memorable 1962 Musigny, denuded the anticipated profundity of the vineyard by nothing more than time. I was circumspect about the 1962 Nuits Saint-Georges 1er Cru, as it felt unnaturally youthful and ersatz, its questionable authenticity exposed by the company of its cohort. The 1962 Chambertin Clos-de-Bèze from Faiveley fell victim to mild TCA, while the 1962 La Romanée, bottled by Misseney, was not the same caliber as another encountered at the vertical four or five years ago.

At the other end of the spectrum, Jean-Nicolas Méo poured an otherworldly 1962 Nuits Saint-Georges Les Murgers 1er Cru, crafted by the legendary Henri Jayer. Utterly beguiling on the nose, this bears a seamless texture and exquisite balance on the palate, with just a prickle of exotic Eastern spice enhancing the finish. Completely divine. Of course, perfect provenance played its part. This was more like it—a bottle that lives up to the reclamé of the vintage.

Three more wines from Burgundy illuminated the evening with their haunting, ethereal nature. Firstly, a 1962 Échézeaux from Domaine René Engel, which was made by Pierre Engel, who, to quote Clive Coates MW, worked “under the shadow of his father [René].” Whoever crafted this masterpiece possessed indescribable refinement—sculpted with the finest chisel, transparent and ethereal with a peacock’s tail finish. This is Engel in full flight, undimmed by age.

Aubert de Villaine attended the dinner and nipped down to his cellar to pour two bottles. The 1962 La Tâche

In today’s feverish atmosphere of score inflation, I wish those spewing perfect scores like confetti could experience what bona fide perfection actually tastes like. Almost impossible to translate into words, the 1962 possesses a profound, complex and kaleidoscopic nose, a sense of symmetry on the palate that compels me to just sit and gaze at my glass, wishing life could be temporarily paused at this moment. To repeat my mantra, perfection can only exist when there is absolutely no doubt. There is no doubt—this is the apotheosis of Pinot Noir.

Yet the bottle freighted with emotion was, of course, the 1962 Grands-Échézeaux that had such a profound effect on my learning. This was the first time I had encountered this wine since pouring it two decades earlier. Would it replicate that showing or dampen my fond memories? Thankfully, it is ethereal. Picking at straws, maybe the juxtaposition exposed the fact that it is not quite as profound as the La Tâche, yet there is a mere hair’s breadth between them. Like a song that potently evokes a specific time and place, this wine transports me back to those innocent days when someone penniless like myself could find the means to procure such a bottle. I am just thankful to be able to re-taste this wine.

After those astounding bottles, who’d want to be a Bordeaux following them up? As it turns out, the wines acquitted themselves with much aplomb. Even against the caliber of Méo and DRC, they were not to be outclassed, almost stealing the limelight. Like the Pinots, there were a few misfiring bottles, such as the 1962 Lafite-Rothschild that was out of condition, and a 1962 Ausone, born in a period when this Saint-Émilion lost its way, just like Château Margaux, whose sticky patch lasted until the late Seventies.

However, these were more than compensated by strong performances elsewhere. The 1962 Mouton-Rothschild, a wine I had not tasted for many years, begins modestly on the nose before lighting aromatic fireworks, lifted by a touch of VA. The palate is fleshy and sensual, almost Right Bank in style, testifying to how Baron Philippe de Rothschild had not lost any of the flair he displayed in the post-war period. The 1962 Cheval Blanc, another wine I had tasted only once before, offers gorgeous tobacco and cedar on the nose, with sensational delineation and a finish that simply oozes class. The “dark horse” of the tasting, a deeply impressive magnum of 1962 Ducru-Beaucaillou, displays copious amounts of saline black fruit, replicating a fabulous bottle that I vividly recall 16 years earlier. It’s up there with the First Growths. As I expected, the pick of the bunch was the stunning 1962 Latour, which I’ve been fortunate to drink several times. A strong contender for wine of the vintage, it is still so concentrated and beautifully balanced—a more exotically-styled Latour that veers back to its trademark classicism on its graphite-infused majestic finish.

The final red was a magnum of the lauded 1962 Unico from Bodegas Vega Sicilia. This was the fourth time I encountered this Holy Grail, the second in large format. Compared to the rest of its alums from Bordeaux and Burgundy, it seems half the age of even the youthful Latour. It is utterly spellbinding—almost primary, bestowing a luscious veil of black and blue fruit, crushed violets and hints of eucalyptus. A fellow guest speculated whether it was, in fact, a sexagenarian. Time tends to unlock the hidden facets of a wine as it grows into adulthood, whereas one could contentiously argue the Unico is locked in juvenilia, resolved to never grow old. That is a marvel in and of itself, though you could counter-argue that it denies a glimpse of what it is predestined to become.

It was a privilege to drink, not taste, this roll call of iconic wines from a vintage that has always entranced me. Not everything deserves superlatives. Discussing the bottles later, it was generally felt that, after six decades, some are beginning to wane, perhaps more so compared to the 1959s. Irrespective of how grand or iconic a bottle might be, nothing is immortal, even if some like the Unico suggest it. Nonetheless, the highlights were truly memorable. They might lack the density and concentration of 1959 or 1961, yet they possess a sense of grace and occasionally transparency that continues to glimmer, even if slightly less bright with each passing year. Bottles may not be easy to obtain like they once were, but they have lost none of their allure…just like that unforgettable 1962 Grands-Échézeaux. My mate still waxes lyrical about it whenever we meet.

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