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Bordeaux's Finest

There Has Never Been a Better Time To Buy, Enjoy and Cellar Wines from France's Premier Red Wine Region
Posted: December 1, 1996

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There's also the tendency to judge wines based on their origins, like Margaux. The great first growth Château Margaux might be expected to have made feminine, elegant reds in the 1980s due to the unique soil and climatic considerations that characterize its eponymous district; yet the chateau has produced some of the most powerful and profound wines of the decade after revamping its wine making. These factors make it even more important to buy Bordeaux according to a chateau's performance today, not what a property did a century--or even a decade--ago.

If I had to list my favorite 20 chateaus in order of preference, the order would be: Mouton-Rothschild, Pétrus, Lafite Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour, La Fleur de Gay, Léoville Las Cases, Lynch-Bages, Clerc Milon, Lafleur, Cos-d'Estournel, Le Pin, Pichon-Longueville-Baron, Pichon-Longueville-Lalande, Lagrange (in St.-Julien), Ausone, La Mission Haut-Brion, Palmer and L'Angélus. My ranking is based on extensive tastings for Wine Spectator over the past eight years, and by averaging the scores I have given each estate's wines in every vintage from 1985 to '92.

Mouton-Rothschild as No. 1 should come as little surprise. The chateau has always made fabulous reds, and together with its stunning packaging (each year a world-famous artist is asked to design the label), the first growth Pauillac estate makes one of the most sought-after wines in the world. The property has always been considered one of the top five growths of Bordeaux, even though Mouton was not officially made a first growth until 1973--the only modification to the 1855 Classification. The late Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of the property, and his daughter, Philippine, worked long and hard to have Mouton placed with the other first growths. By the 1980s, their wines equaled, or bettered, most of them. Most young vintages sell for about $65 to $120 a bottle.

Pétrus is another consistent winner and, of course, already has a cult status with wealthy wine collectors. Insatiable demand has driven prices to near ridiculous levels (a new release usually sells for about $300 a bottle). But the demand is understandable; Pétrus continues to make better and better wines each year thanks to the pampering of its part-owners, the Moueix family. Recent classic quality wines include 1989, 1990 and 1993, but don't pass up the chance to drink any vintage.

At No. 3, Lafite Rothschild should be a favorite with cigar lovers. Its wines have been long described as having cedar cigar box characteristics, and the estate's part-owner and manager, Baron Eric de Rothschild, enjoys nothing better than lighting up a fine Havana after a few bottles of Lafite with friends. A current vintage sells for about $65 a bottle.

Fourth place is a tie between Haut-Brion and Margaux. Haut-Brion is also a cigar lover's dream; it produces wines with wonderful earthy, decadent tobacco aromas and flavors. Under the guidance of Bordeaux's finest wine maker, Jean Delmas, the property's stupendous reds, as well as one of the region's best dry whites, are highly sought after. A bottle sells for about $60 to $90.

Margaux also made terrific wines in the 1980s, although relatively unexciting wines were made in 1991, 1992 and 1993. It's difficult to say what happened, but perhaps too much was expected of Margaux after such fabulous wines as the 1990, 1989, 1988 and 1986. When Margaux is great, few other chateaus can make better. A bottle of any of the latter four vintages mentioned costs between $90 and $120.

Latour, No. 6, has also had some difficulty in the past 10 years, but whatever problems it had were solved by the 1988 vintage, and lately it has been doing extremely well. Its 1990--a perfect 100 points in my tasting book--may be the greatest wine produced in Bordeaux in the past three decades. Most young vintages sell for about $65 a bottle, although the '90 already goes for two or three times that due to the wine's fabulous reputation.

La Fleur de Gay and Léoville Las Cases share my No. 7 position. La Fleur de Gay, a Pomerol, is somewhat of an upstart when compared to the long-established Las Cases. Its wine wasn't even commercially available until 1982, but the chateau quickly gained recognition in the world market and now makes some of the most exciting wines in Pomerol. Only about 1,000 cases are made each year, so it is hard to find--especially at $40 to $75 a bottle. Léoville Las Cases is another recent success story, although the well-known St.-Julien estate has been making wines since the seventeenth century. Under the guidance of part-owner Michel Delon, the property has been making some of the best wines in the greater Médoc since the '80s. A great lover of Havanas, Delon strives for first growth quality in his reds and he is almost there--although his wines go for half the price of a first growth, or about $45 to $60 a bottle.

Lynch-Bages and Clerc Milon are both at No. 9, and are widely acknowledged as being underrated. Officially, they are fifth growths in the 1855 Classification. Yet both have scored highly in my Bordeaux tastings since 1985. Lynch-Bages makes racy, modern and powerful reds; the '89 and '85 are my favorites. Both sell for about $60 a bottle. Clerc Milon makes slightly less showy reds, but there's an understated power in them. I often call it the "Mini-Mouton," since the estate is owned by the Rothschild family of Mouton-Rothschild. Current vintages sell for about $25 to $30 a bottle.

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