There Has Never Been a Better Time To Buy, Enjoy and Cellar Wines from France's Premier Red Wine Region
My tongue feels like old cotton balls. My teeth are stained black from the wine's deep purple essence. My senses are slightly numbed by a day-long assault of alcohol and young tannins--for the third day in a row. And there's another round tomorrow, with dozens of additional wines to be tasted.
Tasting raw, red Bordeaux from the barrel is definitely not the same as leisurely sipping your favorite silky Cabernet from a well-aged bottle. The concentration of alcohol, fruit, tannins and acidity in young red wines can be almost overwhelming. By day's end, you start to feel like you've done a few rounds with Mike Tyson. Yet, since 1983, I have spent two to three weeks a year evaluating the latest crop of red wines from Bordeaux's finest chateaus for Wine Spectator magazine.
Despite the difficulties, it has never been a better time to taste Bordeaux's finest red wines. In the past 15 years, France's premier wine region has experienced no fewer than six outstanding to classic vintages--an unprecedented run of excellence in this century. Not since the 1860s and '70s has Mother Nature lavished the area with such terrific weather, fabulous grapes and superlative wines. The result has been amazing quality in the vintages of the 1980s, which people have realized only after four mediocre to good vintages in the '90s. Vintages such as 1982, 1986, 1989 and 1990 are already considered classics and are becoming harder to find and more expensive to buy. The message is straightforward--don't delay. If you have ever thought of buying great Bordeaux, now is the time.
It may sound simplistic, but buying the best is the only strategy to take, especially in selecting young reds for cellaring, but even if you're looking for everyday wines. There's a good reason: Most wines from the Bordeaux region are eminently forgettable. No fewer than 15,000 growers harvest grapes each year from more than 250,000 acres of vineyards. Bordeaux's massive annual production exceeds 50 million cases in just about every color and type. Most are simple reds, made primarily from Merlot, and bottled by large merchants or small wineries. These bread-and-butter Bordeaux are sold mostly in France and seldom appear abroad.
The best chateaus, however, are to Bordeaux what Partagas, Hoyo de Monterrey and Cohiba are to Havana. These top-flight wineries offer the finest wines money can buy, producing a level of quality and pleasure unmatched by just about any other wine in the world. Some enthusiasts might turn their noses up at the thought of focusing only on a few of the top chateaus and forgetting the rest. But Bordeaux is enormous. Struggling through even the basic definitions of regions, subregions and grape varieties can be confusing at best. In addition, the traditional rules and classifications are widely regarded as outdated, and should be used only as signposts, not buying guides etched in stone.
The traditional approach to understanding Bordeaux begins with the area's geography. It goes something like this: Bordeaux is broken down into many appellations, or districts. The best wines are confined to nine districts: Haut-Médoc, Médoc, St.-Estèphe, Pauillac, St.-Julien, Margaux, Pessac-Léognan, St.-Emilion, and Pomerol. Many of the other regions produce undistinguished wines and go by virtually unknown names like Blaye, Graves de Vayres or Puisseguin-St.-Emilion. They are probably best forgotten. Are you lost yet?
The struggle isn't over. Once you master the basic geography, you must also understand the style of wines produced in each district and by each chateau. For instance, Pomerol tends to produce softer wines than St.-Estèphe because it predominately uses Merlot for its wines; that tends to make them more accessible. In one very prominent region, Pauillac, the unpredictability of wine production is highlighted in the Pichon-Longueville wineries, which sit across the road from each other. Pichon-Longueville-Lalande usually makes more approachable reds than Pichon-Longueville-Baron, because the Lalande estate uses a higher percentage of Merlot in the predominantly Cabernet wine. Are you thoroughly lost now?
Further complicating matters is the reliance some Bordeaux aficionados place on the legendary 1855 Classification. That ranking 140 years ago placed 61 of the region's top chateaus from first growth to fifth growth, according to the prices they fetched in the marketplace at the time. Granted, price does sometimes have a relationship to quality, but not always. Since the evaluation was based on the wine-making skills and savvy business practices of men and women six to seven generations ago, how relevant can it be? Get the idea? The classification can be as misleading as Hollywood's promotion of a blockbuster movie.
However, there's no point in getting hung up on the minutia of classifications, varietal blends and vintage ratings. It is interesting for the devoted Bordeaux wine lover, but you don't need it at your fingertips to buy great Bordeaux. The reason is simple. The top red wine estates in Bordeaux have gone through an unprecedented renaissance in the past 10 years. Many wine makers have studied updated production techniques and traveled the world to observe other great wine making, so they now possess the technology and methodology of all the best wine regions. The updated methods have improved the wines. As a result, many of the long-established rules for buying Bordeaux have been further compromised by the inability of the market to keep up with the changes.
For instance, anyone who buys Bordeaux reds only according to the 1855 Classification would be missing out on some of the greatest wines of the region, particularly the chateaus of Pomerol, including Pétrus, Lafleur, Le Pin, and La Fleur de Gay. They were excluded from that rating. Another example of the classification's shortcomings is Lynch-Bages. It is clearly one of the top 10 wineries in Bordeaux, yet it remains a fifth growth in the 1855 Classification behind dozens of others making inferior wines.
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.
Pomerol's Lafleur, No. 11, is everything but a bargain. However, it remains one of Bordeaux's most momentous wines. Made of equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Franc, Lafleur seduces you with its exotic, wild fruit character. About 1,000 cases are made each year, with bottles going for about $140 to $200 each.
In comparison, you could buy four bottles of the No. 12 wine, Cos-d'Estournel, for the same price and it would be nearly as good. Cos is one of the most consistently fine wine producers in Bordeaux. Even in very difficult vintages, such as '91 and '92, it made very good wines.
The tiny Pomerol estate of Le Pin, No. 13, is one of the most sought-after reds from Bordeaux, due to its tiny production and unique style. Made almost entirely from Merlot, only about 600 cases are available each year. If you can find it, buy it. With the exception of the '92 vintage, Le Pin has been making superb wines each year. Bottles sell for about $150 to $300.
My 14th wine, Pichon-Longueville-Baron, has long been a favorite in Bordeaux, although it wasn't until the late 1980s that the property made truly great wines. Owned by the AXA Insurance Group since 1987, the estate has undergone a metamorphosis. Nothing has been spared to create the best wine possible. Try to find the '89 Pichon-Baron, which was Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 1992. More recent vintages sell for about $30 to $40 a bottle.
The two estates in my 15th spot are nearly as impressive and are making excellent wines. The chateau of Pichon-Longueville-Lalande is directly across the street from Pichon-Longueville-Baron, although the former's wines tend to be softer and more elegant. May-Eliane de Lencquesaing is a devoted owner and one of the most dedicated wine producers in Bordeaux. Look for the '90, '89, '86 or '85. They are all outstanding, especially at about $40 to $50 a bottle.
Lagrange, by comparison, is a more recent standout. Since Suntory Ltd. bought the property in 1983, the Japanese wine and liquor giant has invested millions of dollars to produce the best wine possible, and the results have been impressive. Look for the '90, '89 or '88. They are all terrific quality and sell for $30 to $35.
My top 20 would not be complete without a great St.-Emilion, so it is fitting that Ausone comes in at No. 17. Most of the small estate's vineyards are located on a beautiful hillside at the entrance of the medieval town of St.-Emilion. With only about 2,000 cases made each year, Ausone offers one of the most collectible wines from Bordeaux. Look for the '90 and '89, although the recently released '93 is also super. Recent vintages sell for about $110 a bottle.
La Mission Haut-Brion, a long-time classic and my No. 18, is equally collectible, and the Pessac-Léognan estate makes bold and powerful wines. La Mission has been particularly good since the '80s--in large part due to a change in ownership in 1983, when the owners of Haut-Brion bought the property. New releases cost about $45 a bottle.
No one could be considered a serious Bordeaux wine lover without a bottle or two of Palmer in the cellar. No. 19 on my list, Palmer never bowls you over with powerful wines, but instead seduces you with its finesse and suppleness. New vintages sell for about $40 a bottle.
The final estate in my top 20 is L'Angélus. I can't think of another Bordeaux estate that has moved to the top more quickly. Hubert De Bouard de Laforest, a cigar lover and manager of the estate, has redefined the boundaries of quality for his family's estate and the region of St.-Emilion. He makes rich and wonderful reds with layers of ripe fruit and fine tannins. Even in weak years such as '92, L'Angélus made very good wines. Young wines sell for about $35 a bottle.
Looking over my list, it was hard to pick only 20 in Bordeaux when many others are on the way up. A few other estates to watch out for include: La Conseillante, Pavie-Decesse, Larmande, Montrose, Domaine de Chevalier, Cheval-Blanc, Sociando-Mallet, La Fleur-Pétrus, Beychevelle, L'Evangile, and D'Armailhac. These chateaus have made impressive wines in the last decade and should continue to do so.
This doesn't mean, however, that you should blindly buy the youngest vintage available from any of the greatest chateaus. First look for wines from 1990 and 1989. From the outset, the top Bordeaux of '90 and '89 showed extraordinary concentration of fruit and structure in tannins yet retained superb harmony. I have a slight preference for '89 due to the exotic ripe fruit character in most of the top wines. The wines produced in these two vintages will improve for decades and should be remembered in the same light as 1928 and 1929, another pair of classic vintages that have served as benchmarks for all fine reds this century.
Of course, it would be a waste to open most of the top '90s and '89s until next century. Even the excellent '88s and '86s still need a few more years of bottle age. Vintages drinking well at the moment include '85, '83, '82 and '81 as well as '79, '78 and any of the well-regarded vintages before them. But they are extremely hard to find outside of the auction market. As an alternative for everyday drinking, you might consider buying some of the weaker vintages such as '92, '91 and '87. Both '92 and '87 are fading quickly, so keep to wines from my top 20 chateaus. Stay away from the '91s for now; they still need more time due to their hard tannins, but some of the best ones should be coming around in a year or two. After tasting them from the barrel, some of the '93s may also end up being very good--although I would stay away from the '94s, which are overpriced and overrated. No final judgment on either the '93s or '94s can be made, however, until they are bottled and tasted again.
After all, the leisurely sipping of a properly cellared bottle of great Bordeaux provides the deepest pleasure.
James Suckling is the European Editor of Cigar Aficionado and the lead taster in Bordeaux for Wine Spectator.