Devil's Advocate - Was the 1970s the Greatest Decade in the History of Wine?

Fifty years ago, as the world approached the end of 1972, and headlines focused on an ongoing bloody conflict in Asia rather than Eastern Europe, the wine industry bore little resemblance to the one we take for granted today. Reviewing that decade, Robert Joseph argues that it marked the flowering of modern wine.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

People who really care about such things love to argue over when or whether music or art or a particular sport enjoyed its golden age. Music buffs, for example are split between the 1960s (Stones, Beatles, Dylan) and the 70s (Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Lou Reed, Bob Marley and loads of prog rock). As my list suggests, I favour the more recent decade which also happens to be the one I’d choose as a high water mark for wine.

Of course, the average quality and the variety of what is on offer today are far more exciting than they were 50 years ago, but I’d argue that the foundations for so much of what we enjoy now, at every price level, were laid during that extraordinary 10 year period.
 

In the Beginning There Was the Word

For me, it began with the publication of Hugh Johnson’s first Wine Atlas. Johnson had already changed the way many people saw wine, a few years earlier with his previous work, WINE, but in its design and breadth, the Atlas went a long, long way further. Decanter’s first monthly edition hit the streets in 1975, beating the Wine Spectator, Jancis Robinson’s Drinker’s Digest and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate by one, two and three years. On the other side of the world, in Australia, 1979 marked the publication of James Halliday’s first book, Wines and History of the Hunter Valley.
 

Tuscany Goes Super

Turning the clock back again, 1971 was also the year Tignanello was launched, followed by Montesodi, Solaia, Le Pergole Torte and I Sodi di San Niccolo by Castellare di Castellina three, six, seven and eight years later, respectively. Sassicaia was technically a wine of the 1960s, having had its first vintage in 1968, but it wasn’t commercially available during that decade. The first Super Tuscan to arrive on the market was San Felice’s 1968 Vigorello, but it was a Decanter tasting in 1979, at which Sassicaia trounced a  bunch of starry Médocs, that both helped to create its reputation and to launch the concept of Super Tuscan wines, even if that term wasn’t coined until the following decade.

In Spain, 1975 was marked by being the first vintage of Pesquera, a wine that brought US attention to Ribera del Duero. Miguel Torres senior had a busy time in the 1970s too, writing a book - Vines and Wines - in 1974, making a ground-breaking Cabernet Sauvignon, originally known as Gran Coronas Black Label but now as Mas la Plana and, in 1979, investing in Chile, where the industry was urgently in need of modernisation. 
 

The Professor Cleans Up

In Bordeaux, it was professor Emile Peynaud - the Michel Rolland of his day- who was shaking things up. Like his bearded successor, Peynaud, who turned 58 in 1970, came in for a lot of criticism from those who thought wines made under his influence as a consultant were overripe and overoaked. Jean Michel Cazes of Chateau Lynch Bages sees it differently. As he told the Wine Spectator, he called Peynaud in 1973 to say "Mr. Professor. We're up to our neck in shit. Can you come?’” At the time, the winery was “very old and obsolete” with old vats, no temperature control and an old “maître de chai who didn't know a thing about malolactic fermentation." I was lucky enough to meet Peynaud in the 1980s and to discuss his reputation for favouring new oak. I think too much is being used now, he said, but it's a lot better than the dirty, bacteria-spoiled barrels people were using before.

Apart from introducing hygiene, Peynaud also revolutionised Bordeaux by encouraging the notion of selection that gave us second wines. We may take it for granted today, but in the early 1970s it was rarely applied.

If Peynaud helped to turn Lynch Bages into the success it is today, following its purchase by the Mentzelopoulos family in 1977, he also pulled Château Margaux out of its decline. Equally significantly, the following year, the professor assisted Aimé Guibert in establishing the then-revolutionary Mas de Daumas Gassac estate in Languedoc Roussillon, a region that was then seen as a source for cheap blending wine.
 

From Lebanon to Beaune

In Burgundy, things were often little better than in Bordeaux. Indeed, Anthony Hanson MW’s book on the region, published at the beginning of the 1980s, described widespread overcropping, abusive chaptalisation and winemaking ignorance. But a charismatic Lebanese oenologist called Guy Accad was doing his best to improve matters, from the great vintage of 1978 when he was winemaker at the Hospices de Beaune through following years when he consulted to various estates including Grivot.

Accad was, and remains, controversial. At the time, his belief in ‘cold soak’ - pre-fermentation maceration - was thought to make big, spicy, atypical wines, at least in their youth. But, over time, his methods have become commonplace and the wines he helped to produce have won praise. More importantly, his advice on not over-fertilising vineyards and waiting until grapes had ripened, now seems like common sense.
 

From Germany to Australia

Australia’s best winemakers were already producing some brilliant wines in the 1960s and earlier, but it was a recently-arrived German called Wolf Blass who put a bomb under its industry with the first three vintages - 1973, 1974 and 1975 - of his Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon which won successive Jimmy Watson trophies, the nation’s top wine award. Blass’s secret, partly learned in Champagne, was to blend wines that were good to drink as soon as they were released - a revolutionary concept at the time, but a quality that would help Australia’s other producers do so well in export markets over the following decades. Another Australian wine that would be a precursor to a flood, was the 1971 Tyrrell’s Vat 47 ‘Pinot Chardonnay’ from the Hunter Valley, the first example of the grape to be produced in that country

The big rich, oaky, fruit-packed Australian Chardonnay style of the 1980s and 1990s has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years, especially in Australia, where Burgundy - and more specifically Grand Cru Chablis -  often seems to be the model. But those Rosemount, Brown Bros and Lindemans ‘Dolly Parton’ wines (as their detractors like to call them)  helped to turn a whole generation onto wine.
 

Kiwi Fruit

Of course, today, the negative comments are more likely to be directed towards tropical-fruit-salady New Zealand Sauvignon, about which I’d say the same thing. Neither style is necessarily synonymous with great wines, but both are delicious drinks. At least to the people who enjoy them. And, to return to the magic decade, 1979 was when the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs, made from six year old vines by Montana, hit the market in 1979.

These distant vinous events went largely unnoticed in Europe at the time, but of course that was not the case for Steven Spurrier’s 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting which turbo charged a Californian wine industry that was just getting back into gear after Prohibition and World War ll. (It is easy to forget that, as late as 1966, Robert Mondavi’s winery was the first of any significance to open on the Napa Valley floor since Prohibition).
 

The Other Judgment of Paris

Another Paris tasting of the 1970s has attracted far less notice than it deserves. The 1979 ‘Olympiade’ - 'Wine Olympics' - organised by the food and drink publisher, Gault Millau brought together 330 wines from 30 countries and - unlike the Spurrier event - was widely covered by the French media. A Trefethen 1976 Chardonnay from California took top place in its category, while Torres Mas la Plans was the most highly rated Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Eyrie Pinot Noir from Oregon did well enough to attract interest from the Burgundian Robert Drouhin who went on to invest in his own vineyard there. The Spurrier tasting was an A versus B event; the Olympiade was global, and it opened the door for the wide range of competitions that now take place every year.

The Widening Map

If the industry of the 1980s and 1990s boomed, opening the doors for wines from 'new' (or unfamiliar) regions, ranging from Sicily and Bairrada to Sonoma and the Barossa and from small estates in classic places like Burgundy, this was largely thanks by a new generation of Baby Boomers discovering wine, and by some fundamental changes on both sides of the Atlantic. On its western flank of that ocean, there was a new breed of exploratory importers and distributors exemplified by the great Kermit Lynch in California who launched his business in 1972 with a $5,000 loan. In the UK, change was wrought by something more fundamental: the decision to join the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU. One of the conditions of becoming part of Europe was the acceptance of European appellation rules which spelled the end of the so-called 'Brewer's Burgundy' blends that had been a major part of the British wine trade. Suddenly, British consumers began to discover that Beaujolais, Beaune and Chateauneuf du Pape didn't all taste the same.

Hitting the High Street

The places where people bought their wine changed too, British supermarkets were not permitted to sell wine until 1962 and they took little advantage of the law changing to allow them to do so. In 1967, their share of the take-home market was just 5%. Five years later, it had leapt to 25%, with the Coop having become the largest single retailer. At the time much of what they sold was semi sweet and German or basic Spanish red. But that changed too, thanks in part to fierce, innovative competition from a chain of specialist stores called Oddbins.

In France, Oddbins' counterpart Nicolas was no newcomer, celebrating its 150th birthday in 1972, but the 1970s also marked a change in its philosophy with an opening up of its shelves to a wider range of - French - regions.

Starting at the Bottom

Finally, as a Brit, I can’t resist mentioning that Breaky Bottom, one of my country’s best and longest-established wineries also dates from the 1970s.

But I keep an open mind, if anyone would like to make a case for the 1960s, 1980s or 1990s I look forward to hearing it.

 

Those who doubt that the 1970s was the Finest Music Decade (or Year) should listen to this Top 40 US hits of 1976 playlist. So many great tracks in a single year.

 

Note: The paragraphs 'The Widening Map and 'Hitting the High Street' were added on November 12th, a day after this piece was first posted. They had been inadvertently omitted from the original post.

 

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