Clos Fourtet in St. Emilion (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Bordeaux is unquestionably the source of some of the world's greatest wines -- ageworthy reds based primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; dry, minerally whites blended from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon; and luscious sweet white wines from the Sauternes and Barsac appellations.
There is a long history to the great producers of this region, which includes a classification going back to 1855 of many producers on the Left Bank -- a hierarchy based on market prices in those times that continues to impact status and prices today.
Unfortunately, this is also the fine wine region that has long been the most commoditized of any in the world. Dewey Markham, Jr., in his book 1855: A History of the Bordeaux Classification, amassed decades worth of detailed pricings compiled by brokers and merchants based on appellation and hierarchy going back to 1647.
Bordeaux was the first region to carefully orchestrate campaigns and marketing strategies, including "en primeur" advanced sales, designed to fully maximize the prices for their product. Part of this scheme has involved inviting select writers and journalists to elaborate tastings of barrel samples and initial assemblages of the wines.
I've tasted a lot of barrel samples, enough to know that from a large vineyard like those of Bordeaux there will be great barrels and mediocre barrels, so that barrel samples may give some notion, but only a very preliminary one, as to how the final product might taste. Nonetheless, pricing in Bordeaux has long been driven both by the hierarchy of classifications as well as critics' reports from these questionable tastings held in advance of bottling.
Wines from the top ranked châteaux are highly collectible and often acquired more as investments than sources of pleasure. Indeed, there is a veritable industry these days of wine investment houses that scrutinize, week by week, the auction prices of past vintages of higher end Bordeaux and purchase or unload inventory accordingly. In recent years, prices have also seen rises due to large purchases at auction and en primeur by growing numbers of status conscious collectors in Asia.
Despite the commoditization and very high prices, however, there remains a level of winemaking and perfect matching of grape with soil and climate that sustains Bordeaux's importance and relevance in today's fine wine world.
2012 UGC Tasting at San Francisco's Palace Hotel
One of the best tastings of the year, which typically launches the new year's season of important trade tastings, is the annual U.S. five-city tour of Bordeaux Châteaux organized by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC). This association, which dates back to 1973, consists of 132 member estates from all the major appellations within Bordeaux.
The UGC does not include the famous Left Bank first growths -- Châteaux Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton and Haut Brion -- or the most illustrious Right Bank producer, Château Pétrus. Nonetheless, the majority of the other major producers participate in the U.S. tour, which always focuses solely on the current available vintage -- this year, the 2010.
In this wonderfully well organized tasting, held in San Francisco in the glitzy ballroom of the Palace Hotel, I managed to taste all 115 wines offered for tasting from 101 producers.
The 2010 vintage is even more structured and balanced, i.e., with more tannins and higher acidities, than the much ballyhooed 2009 vintage. The 2009 vintage was lauded for its ripe fruit and relative approachability for a new vintage, as well as its aging potential. Robert Parker gave an unprecedented number of perfect scores to wines from the 2009 vintage, based on barrel samples, and that vintage fetched record prices at the en primeur level with no shortage of buyers.
Despite almost equally good press for this latest vintage, sales have not gone so well en primeur for the 2010s. This may be due in part to price increases of 10 to 20 percent by many producers for the 2010s, as well as to the fact that the high end wine market was already saturated by massive purchases of the 2009s.
Château Pétrus and Le Pin
As to prices, we are talking truly stratospheric for wines at the top end of the hierarchy. The 2010 vintage of Château Pétrus, regularly the highest priced wine from the region, is currently available for an average U.S. price of $3,094 a bottle. Le Pin, another highly sought after wine from the Pomerol appellation, fetches $2,738. A bottle of the top two first growths of the Left Bank, Château Latour and Château Lafite, will set you back $1,771 and $1,623 respectively. That makes fellow first growths Château Mouton and Margaux look like relative bargains at only $1,172 and $1,169. And since Château Latour produces on average about 18,000 bottles a year, that means their output alone is theoretically worth over $38 million, without even counting their very popular second wine, Les Forts de Latour.
By contrast, the highest priced wine presented at the UGC tasting was Château Figeac, which retails for an average of $273 a bottle in the U.S. The average U.S. price for all 115 wines poured at this event is $77.46 a bottle, i.e., a lot more than the average American would ever spend on a bottle of wine.
So given the rarefied prices for the wines presented here, does their quality and the drinking experience justify them? That's not normally a question I ask at a high end wine tasting, but the highly attuned market mentality of Bordeaux requires one, I believe, to look at these products through that prism, more so than in the case of other regions' wines. In other words, when it comes to evaluating Bordeaux these days, I find I have to rely not only on my sensory evaluation and tasting notes, but also spreadsheets I populate with market prices, my scores and my own specially designed logarithm for quantifying price to value ratios.
That said, there was definitely high quality on display at this tasting, a function not only of a great vintage but also of the best equipment, facilities, grape selection and winemaking that money can buy. The dry white Bordeaux were at least as good as the 2009s, and in some case better, showing complexity, concentration and minerality. The Sauternes were good, although not nearly as impressive as the 2009s. The red Bordeaux were generally quite strong from all appellations, especially, for me, from Pomerol, St. Julien, St. Émilion and Pauillac, in that order.
As to the value question, I think a handful of these wines do represent fairly good buys for the money. Much better buys, of course, can be found from most other winemaking regions of the world. Still, the 2010 vintage is a very good one and Bordeaux crafts an excellent product, even if it also usually finds a way to demand top dollar for it.
So my picks for the top values are as follows:
For white Bordeaux, the best bet is Château La Tour-Martillac Blanc, which I scored 93 points and which sells in the U.S. for an average of $41. Those on a tighter budget are likely to prefer the Chantegrive Blanc, which I scored 91 points, since it goes for an average of $21. My favorite white Graves were the Château Pape Clement and Château Smith Haut Lafitte, both of which I scored 94 points. They are selling, however, for $177 and $120 respectively.
Domaine de Chevalier wines
Amongst the reds, the single best ratio of quality to price can be found in Pomerol -- surprising because wines from that Right Bank appellation, home of Pétrus and Le Pin, are usually among the highest priced. There were also a few decent values in St. Émilion and the Graves. The best QPR has to be Pomerol's Château La Pointe, selling for $52 (I scored it 93+ points). Good deals from St. Émilion are Château Grand Mayne at $49 (93 points) and Château Berliquet for $43 (92+ points). From Graves, I recommend Domaine de Chevalier, a pricey $88 but scoring 94+ points, and Château de Chantegrive ($24, 90 points). Another relative bargain was the lowest priced wine of the tasting, Château Beaumont ($17, 88 points). And the best QPR performer among the classed growths is second growth Château Gruaud Larose, whose delicious offering I rated 94.5 points. Its average U.S. price is "only" $88.
Gruaud Larose's David Launay
As to the very top wines of the tasting regardless of price, for me those were Château Troplong Mondot (95+ points, $190), Château La Conseillante (95 points, $256) and Château Pichon Lalande (95 points, $242).
For my tasting notes on all 115 wines, organized by appellation, as well as further comments regarding the showings of each appellation in 2010, see the complete report on my blog here.
Follow Richard Jennings on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rjonwine