Well, what if your neighborhood market increased their prices 200% over ten years. They might come in for a little criticism. An average release price for 1st growth Bordeaux wines in 2000 was $424. By 2010 the average release price was around $1000 per bottle and will be substantially more when they are ready to drink. Bordeaux has priced themselves out of the market of wine lovers and are now chasing the nouveau riche in Asia, who are looking for status symbols. So some Bordeaux bashing is well deserved.
But Bordeaux also comes in for criticism because of its unique ranking system. In 1855, in preparation for a world exposition, wine merchants ranked “left bank” Bordeaux properties according to the price of their wines and the vineyards’ reputation. First growths were the most expensive and celebrated, 5th growths were the least so, although worthy of being in the game. (The “right bank” was excluded and they now have their own classification system) If you weren’t on the list, marketing your wines was a challenge. It is remarkable that the ranking, with only minor modifications, is still in use. Despite the fact that vineyards have changed ownership, generations of winemakers have come and gone, tastes have changed dramatically, and so has the weather, the Bordelais still use this ranking system to determine price and quality.
Is this classification still relevant? The Wine Elite and the San Diego Wine Society fearlessly came to the rescue last Saturday, setting out to answer this question with a blind tasting. We tasted five Bordeaux wines each from a different growth. Limitations of budget and availability prevented us from tasting wines of the same vintage so there are limitations to this “test”. The five Bordeaux were as follows:
1st Cru Château Margaux 2004
2nd Cru Château Durfort Vivens 2010 (Margaux)
3rd Cru Château Langoa Barton 2003 (St. Julian)
4th Cru Château Brainaire Ducrux 2006 (Pauillac)
5th Cru Château Haut-Bages-Libéral 1995 (Pauillac)
Are these classifications even a rough guide to wine quality? Well, clearly the Chateau Margaux is worthy of its status. Although 2004 was an average vintage, this beautiful wine has the classic Margaux elegance with lovely floral notes to offset the rich blueberry flavors and dry, silky minerality. But the 2nd Growth from Durfort Vivens was a bit of a puzzle. Plenty of intensity and lots of earth notes but rough around the edges—the acidity and tannins were not integrated. This wine needs 5 more years in the cellar but it has the stuffing to age well.
The 3rd and 4th growths were similar with black current and leather aromas and a soft, supple palate. But the Langoa Barton had more weight and presence than the Brainaire which seemed flat and a little dull and neither had the power of the (still young) Durfort Vivens.
The surprise was the 5th Cru Haut-Bages. Despite its age, it has plenty of fruit left mixed with mushroom and pencil lead, and a refined palate with soft, round tannins. This wine displays all the virtues of even a moderately priced, well-aged Bordeaux.
So what conclusions can we draw? It is difficult to compare wines of such sharply varying vintages and this is too small a sample to count as more than a single data point. But with one exception, I thought the ranking of these Chateaux conforms to their quality level. (There was of course a good deal of disagreement on that point among the participants.) The one exception? I suspect the Haut-Bages deserves better than its 5th Crus rank. Yes it is hide bound, officious, subject to corruption and surely inhibits creativity, but this ranking system is not without its virtues. It preserves the focus on terroir which the French value highly and, if you know the system, gives consumers a good idea of what is in the glass.
I came away from this tasting with the thought that Bordeaux will be back. It is widely reported that, with the wine market now a global market brimming with quality wine from all over the world, wine lovers have moved away from the staid, over-priced Bordeaux. They do have to get their pricing in line with global markets. But this tasting brought home to me the fact that Bordeaux wines exhibit a distinct style that is not duplicated anywhere else in the world. There is nothing like a well-aged Bordeaux.
To break up all this “dirt and acid”, 5 other wines were included within our blind tasting. But there was never any doubt when we were tasting one of the Bordeaux. I suspect wine lovers after traveling far and wide will still want to sample that dirt and acid from time to time.
The other 5 wines were:
Le Pont 2010 Bandol
Pierre Amadieu 2011 Vacqueyras
Nada Fiorenzo Barbaresco 1998
La Conreria Priorat 2009
Windsor Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Estate Reserve Sonoma