Château Cardinal-Villemaurine vertical 1966-1975

Great bottles of wine seem to find their way out on to the market over the festive season, but this year I have been truly spoilt for choice.  UK wine merchant Laithwaites has offered up not just one, but three, magical vintages from the 20th Century.

The modern-era of winemaking is well written as starting with the 1982 vintage.  Prior to that the last three truly great years had been the 1975, 1970 and the 1966.  Imagine my surprise when all three of these Bordeaux vintages became available, and at very respectable prices too.

villemaurine logo

The well positioned sloping limestone vineyards of St. Emilion Grand Cru estate Château Cardinal-Villemaurine were, until recently, owned by the Carrille family.  The familiar story of complex French inheritance laws finally necessitated a sale.

Needless to say, buyers were extremely forthcoming, and the land was eventually sold to top drawer Premier Grand Cru Classé house Château Angélus, who clearly saw the quality.  The actual buildings and stock, however, stayed with the Carille family.  Jean-Marc Sauboua, a Bordeaux native and winemaker/buyer for Laithwaites was first on the scene, and given the keys to their vaults, tasting wines back to the sterling 1947 vintage.

Picking out the most-lauded pre-1982 vintages, from a time when vineyards were tilled via horse drawn ploughs, and grapes were fully hand harvested, this is an extremely rare trilogy of Bordeaux wines to come to market.

Gravity fed cellars avoided the stress of pumping over and, post two years on oak, the maturing bottles were kept at a constant cool temperature.

villemaurine 1966

villemaurine stains

From the above images we can see that the bottles have certainly been re-labelled, but existing dirt on the bottles, which carries on under the new labels, show that the physical bottles are original.  The corks are fully branded but it is unclear as to whether they have been re-corked prior to re-release.

villemaurine corks

Each of the following three wines are Merlot based blends which, if following the pattern of the vineyard plantings, would be potentially 75% Merlot, 25% Cabernet France and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.  The average age of their vines was 30 years old, spread over 12 hectares.

Château Cardinal-Villemaurine 1966, Merlot Blend, St Emilion, France, 12.5%, £50

Garnet in colour, with a thick sediment on decant, the nose was pungent and vegetal with stewed prune and figs.  Dark cherry and berry fruits fleshed over time in the decanter, but the overall sensation was rustic.

On the palate was faded black cherry, raisin, bitter chocolate and a touch of liquorice. Pepper spice, spent wood and a tea-like brew (following time in decanter) met with the still fresh acidity which kept everything lively and accessible.

The mid-palate carried well through to the acid and spicy and savoury characters, and the finish was respectable, carried by the acid and the dying embers of the black fruits.

Clearly a touch past its best, the sheer academic quality of drinking a good condition 1966 Bordeaux meant this was utterly worth the bottle price, and a good reminder of what mellow, but rich, wine tastes like at a modest 12.5% alcohol.

The tasting guide says drink to the end of 2022, but this feels like one to drink-up fairly soonish to me.

villemaurine 70 label

Château Cardinal-Villemaurine 1970, Merlot Blend, St Emilion, France, 12.5%, £40

Raspberry red in colour with garnet tints, this gave a finer sediment than the 1966.  Buyer Jean-marc was quoted as saying “I had to buy you this 1970. Delicate maturity”.

The nose was prominent, incredibly clear and well defined, even after 48 years.  With silky tones of mature (dried) red and black cherry, rich tinned raspberry, a perfumed floral vanilla nose and hints of raisin, this felt incredibly layered and complex.

The palate had a good medium weight with a touch of stew-like quality, but extremely well rounded from the off without the need for time in the decanter.  Black cherry, redcurrant and cake spice dominate and, despite its age, the fruit felt very much alive as well as mature.

Backed up with a still-lively mouth-watering acidity, the finish was in the realms of 2 minutes long and full of the depth of the palate.  Simply divine.

Laithwaites currently have magnums available for this vintage.  I would say that this is a must purchase.  The tasting guide says to drink to the end of 2022 but this one feels like it could go a little further, such was the was the immediacy, the freshness and the vibrancy.

villemaurine 75 label

Château Cardinal-Villemaurine 1975, Merlot Blend, St Emilion, France, 12.5%, £35

After a succession of dull vintages, 1975 was welcomed with open arms.  Medium ruby in colour with garnet tints, the sediment was once again fairly fine.

The nose was very clear and pronounced like the 1970, but in this case the character was overly herbaceous as opposed to fresh, with figs and prunes and a prominent mushroom tone.

The palate held a good weight, and a fresh high acid balanced against the faded blackcurrant, redcurrant and cherry.  The overall composition, whilst pleasant, seemed to drop off in the mid-palate.

The fairly short finish was saved somewhat by the acidity, but the overall savoury and herbaceous character of the wine wasn’t something that excited my palate, alive though it may be.

The notes say to drink to the end of 2025 and, for this one, it would be interesting to see which way it goes – it could do either.

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Dom Pérignon; cold Spring, warm Summer

Part 8 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

Following on from the packaging changes and the declaration of the 1969 vintage, the following two years provided another first for the brand. Although the ever-changeable weather influences at such a northerly latitude were still present, the eventual declarations of the 1970 and 1971 vintages gave Dom Pérignon its first ever hat-trick.  This may not sound such an incredible achievement today (having just come off the back of two such instances), but when you consider that up until this point Dom had only been produced in two consecutive years on just three occasions (1928/1929, 1952/1953 and 1961/1962), getting three consecutive years was unheard of.  In a world of uncertain production where something as simple as a badly timed hail storm could wipe out an entire years work, it was also very welcome.

Following the difficult 1969 weather and the subsequent late and lower yielding harvest, the weather in Champagne throughout 1970 wasn’t looking to fare much better.  Cold temperatures throughout spring pushed flowering back, perhaps helping the vines miss the worst of the storms that hit in June.  Once the rains had passed, a warm summer buoyed along the vines and harvesting began on the 27th of September.  After the small crop of 1969, the harvest of 1970 thankfully provided both quality and quantity.

The resulting wine was fresh and vibrant, with grapefruit, floral and flowery hints to the nose.  The palate was more austere being characterised by caramel, toasted almonds, brioche and white chocolate, and described as savoury, yet elegant.  The finish, whilst described as ‘haunting’ was also noted as being fairly short.

No 1970 Dom Pérignon Rosé was produced (being more Pinot Noir dependant than the vintage wine) meaning that, unlike the vintage wine, it didn’t achieve the hat-trick of releases.  At the time of writing it still hasn’t managed to achieve this feat, coming closest only with the consecutive vintages of 1985/1986, 1992/1993 and 1995/1996.

The year of 1971 presented something more of a challenge and, after a cold dry winter, spring frosts arrived and inhibited new bud and shoot growth across most of the vineyard.  The vintners could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking the year would be a write-off when heavy storms arrived in May and June, just when the vines were beginning to flower, but drier conditions in July and only minor storms in August started to turn things around.  Harvesting took place from the 18th of September in sunny and warm conditions, and produced another sizeable crop.

As if being rewarded for their hard work battling against the elements, the wines produced were superb, with prominent wine critic Michael Broadbent hailing the Dom 1971 as better than the great Dom 1961 (and even as good as the renowned 1928 Krug).  The vintage wine was full of the toast and sweet honey citrus that defines a good Dom, as well as earthy tones of mushroom, undergrowth and warm notes of wood smoke and vanilla.  Marked acidity, a good depth and long finish completed what was close to being a classic Dom Pérignon.  The Rosé was characterised by its Pinot Noir content, being a deep pink in colour, and full of smoke, spice, coffee and chocolate.

The following harvest of 1972 had it all – but not in a good way.  A cold spring led to late flowering and, whilst there was some warmer weather in July, it was far from what was needed.  This was further hampered by a cold and wet August, and a lacklustre September and October.  Harvests were late and unremarkable.  This poor year wasn’t, however, lamented by Moét too much at the time thanks to the previous three years.  These had ensured that between 1976 and 1978, and further beyond, the marketplace was full of exciting new vintages to try.

The spring of 1973 saw little frost thanks to evenly spread warm temperatures throughout, and the sun continued to shine all the way through summer and up to harvest time.  Conversely this warmth worried the winemakers as much as the years when poorer weather prevailed.  Vines need a good supply of water to grow, develop, and aid the growth of the grape clusters, and the limited irrigation from low rainfall was potentially as detrimental to the vines as any damage caused by a hard frost or bad storm.  After a nervous wait in September the heavy rains arrived and the grapes were ready to be picked from the 28th.

The harvest went on record as the 2nd largest Champagne vintage of the 20th century, so the key for producers was to carefully sort the rotten grapes from the ripened ones, and handle well the diluted juices swelled by the rain.  Moét winemaker Dominique Foulon described the vintage wine as characterised by honey, lemon and lime, preserves and plums.  Powerful on the palate, with vanilla characters and a marked roasted coffee and spice finish.  The Rosé was again a Pinot Noir influenced deep pink, with clean red fruits on both the nose and palate.  The palate delivered a fruity persistence, and a good acidity to balance out the alcohol.

Whilst it is honour enough to be declared in the first place, the 1973 ended up being a ‘middle of the road’ Dom vintage, and the following rain hit harvest of 1974 would go undeclared.  These, however, wouldn’t be the only worries for Moét to navigate at the time.  They coincided with the worst recession since the 1920’s, signalling the end of the post-war economic boom.  Widespread unemployment, high inflation, spiralling oil prices and a stock market crash ensured that the key export markets of the UK and the USA were tightening their belts, and Champagne sales slumped accordingly.

This was exactly the world that Dom Pérignon had been launched in to in the 1930’s, as a glamorous respite to the austerity.  The question emerged – could it do it again?

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