A New Vintage Chart for Red Bordeaux
By Charles M. Bear Dalton
While red Bordeaux wine is clearly the most popular and collectable of the world’s great wines, it is unarguable that whole of red Bordeaux cannot be looked at as a single unit. The red wines of Bordeaux can be divided into overlapping groups by region, quality orientation, wine making philosophy, pricing philosophy, and a host of other factors. When looking at individual chateaux in Bordeaux, I ask whether it is Cabernet-dominant or Merlot dominant, Left Bank or Right Bank, “Cru Classé” or “Petite Chateau”, a “Wine of Balance” or a “Wine of Extraction”, a “Have” or a “Have-Not”. And there are other appropriate ways to classify Bordeaux. The 1855 classification of the wines of the Medoc and Graves was done entirely on price.
Over the last several years Bordeaux prices have risen steadily but not equally. Since the 1995 vintage was released as futures and the world market for Bordeaux wines expanded, the best wines have increased in price at a faster rate than the others. The trend continued through the 2003 futures (en primeur) price releases with some price retrenchment in the 2004 futures pricing back to a level approaching where the 2002 wines were priced en primeur. With the 2005 vintage en primeur pricing, there was a huge jump up in price for the top wines. At that time, most everyone in the wine trade thought that that jump was an aberration and that the 2006 vintage would offer a return to normal (as 2004 offered a return to the norm after the high prices of 2003). Apparently, the owners and mangers of the most highly rated properties see it differently. In any case, the so-called “first growths” – which includes Haut Brion, Latour, Margaux, Lafite, and Mouton as well as Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Petrus, and Le Pin – and some others (think Pavie, l’Evangile, La Mission Haut Brion, Cos d’Estournel, Palmer, Ducru Beaucaillou, and Leoville Las Cases) have taken small price decreases for 2006 but still stay at price levels closer to those of the 2005s than to where they originally sold their 2004s. With the increase in value of the euro versus the dollar, there was very little drop in price from the 2005 vintage to the 2006 vintage on these most sought after wines.
With these changes, there is now a new pricing model in place for Bordeaux. The former model was three broad ranges of prices based on a chateau’s wine being perceived as a “classed growth” (the best known chateau and highest range of prices), a “value” or a “sleeper” (a chateau emerging from the anonymous pack based on the quality of the wine – the middle range of prices), or one of the mass of over 8,000 Bordeaux chateaux (the lowest price range). There is (and has been for some years now) something of a “disconnect” between each of these pricing ranges or tiers. In the beginning, there was more overlap but the ranges are becoming better defined and it is now rare to see more than minimal overlap. Just where a wine’s price falls within one of these ranges is determined by how the winery (chateau) is perceived (first by its owners and managers and second by the market) in terms of ranking in that unofficial but quite real hierarchy of quality and reputation that transcends the boundaries of sub-appellations. It is that unofficial cross-Bordeaux hierarchy that ranks both Ch. Latour (a Pauillac classified as a first growth in 1855) and Petrus (from Pomerol, an appellation that has never had an official classification) as popular opinion “First Growths”
The new pricing model retains these three tiers but adds a fourth “Luxury Tier” to the mix. The first growths’ pricing policies have all moved them into that luxury tier along with several others that are trying – with varying degrees of success – to move with them. Pricing for the luxury tier is now as disconnected from the price of the “classed growths” as Screaming Eagle is from Phelps Napa Cabernet.
So here I am proposing a New Bordeaux Vintage Chart that acknowledges that there is a real, persistent, and growing price and quality stratification in red Bordeaux. Since “you can’t tell the players without a program”, here’s my guide to who fits where in the new strata of Bordeaux.
The VINTAGE CHART Categories
The Luxury Tier Bordeaux Reds
The new “Luxury Tier” of red Bordeaux wines includes the Medoc First Growths and some other luxury-priced Medoc wines, the Pessac-Leognan First Growth and other Pessac-Leognan luxury wines, and the big name Right Bank “Premiere Grand Cru Classe” and luxury wines. These are wines that are generally selling for from around $200 (retail) to as much as $1500 per bottle in the en primeur offers from the chateaux. The owners of these wines seem to want to consider them to be Luxury Goods in the same sense as a Bentley or Aston Martin automobile or haut couture clothing … and they are pricing them accordingly.
In speaking at the gala opening dinner for the 2007 Vinexpo trade show in Bordeaux, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, owner of of Ch. Mouton-Rothschild asked:
“What are our grand crus classés today? A luxury product or something to share with friends? Something to be drunk or a speculative investment? Should we fear that wine will one day quit the cellar for the strong-room, the table for the display-case?”
While she didn’t answer her own rhetorical questions, it is clear that the market will. At the prices the 2005s are selling for and at which the 2006s have been offered, there is little question that these best and rarest Bordeaux wines are becoming luxury items.
The luxury list from the Medoc includes all the 1855 First Growths: Chx. Latour, Margaux, Lafite, and Mouton. Other Medoc wines on the luxury list include Chx. Palmer, Cos d’Estournel, Ducru Beaucaillou, and ultimate “first growth wannabe” Leoville las Cases as well as Margaux appellation garage-wine Ch. Marojallia. Other chateaux, possibly including both Pichons (Lalande and Baron) and Montrose, may be poised to move into this category but have not yet done so. The Pessac-Leognan luxury list includes 1855 First Growth Ch. Haut Brion as well as Ch. La Mission Haut Brion and Ch. Pape Clement. The Right Bank luxury contingent starts with the universally acknowledged top wines of St. Emillion – Chx. Cheval Blanc and Ausone – and of Pomerol – Chx. Petrus and Le Pin. These are complemented by other luxury-priced Pomerols such as l’Evangile, l’Eglise Clinet, Clinet, Lafleur, and la Conseillante and St. Emilions such as Pavie and Pavie Decesse, la Mondotte, Valandraud, Magrez-Fombrauge, Rol Valentine, and Angelus.
The Classic Bordeaux Reds
“Classic Bordeaux Reds” is the category of the most interest to the non-millionaire wine drinker and keeper (as opposed to the trophy hunter) as these are the wines that provide great drinking pleasure along with fine age-worthiness. The price range here can be from the mid-twenties (in dollars) to over $100 for wines offered en primeur and substantially more for fine mature examples. The Classic Bordeaux reds category includes the top wines from Left Bank (Medoc), top Pessac Leognan, top Pomerol, top St. Emilion, and a select few other top other Right Bank (non-St. Emilion-or-Pomerol) wines.
The Classic Left Bank (Medoc) Reds include most of the wines classified as fifth through second growths in the Classification of 1855. Notable top names from Margaux include Chx. Rauzan Segla, Giscours, Kirwan, d’Issan, Brane-Cantenac, Boyd-Cantenac, Cantenac Brown, Ferriere, Durfort-Vivens, du Tertre, Lascombes, and Malescot St. Exupery. Top St. Julien include Chx. Leoville-Barton and Leoville-Poyferre, Lagrange, Branaire-Ducru, Beychevelle, Gruaud-Larose, Gloria, St. Pierre, and Talbot. Classic Pauillacs include Chx. Lynch-Bages, both Pichons (for now at least), Ch. Batailley, Clerc Milon, d’Armailhac, Duhart-Milon, Grand Puy Lacoste, Lynch-Moussas, Haut Batailley, Batailley, and Haut Bages Liberal. Classic St. Estephes include Montrose and Calon Segur (both for now), Lafon Rochet, Cos Labory, Haut Marbuzet, and les Ormes de Pez. Other Haut Medoc and Medoc wines considered in this category would include Chx. La Lagune, Sociando-Mallet, Potensac, and Poujeaux. The established “second wines” of the Medoc first growths (Les Forts de Latour, Pavillon Rouge du Ch. Margaux, Carruades de Lafite, and Petit Mouton) and many of the other classifieds (Segla, Tourelles de Longueville, Reserve de la Comtesse, Pagodes de Cos, Clos du Marquis, etc.) also fit into the classic red range.
Classic Pessac-Leognan reds include Domaine de Chevalier and Chx. Smith Haut Lafitte, Haut Bailly, Carbonnieux, Fieuzal, Haut Bergey, Bouscaut, and La Louviere along with top “second wines” such as la Chapelle de la Mission Haut Brion, Bahans Haut Brion, and La Parde de Haut Bailly. Classic Pomerols include Chx. Trotannoy and Vieux Ch. Certan (both for now), Bon Pasteur, Beauregard, Le Croix de Gay, Domaine de l’Eglise, Bourgneuf, Clos l’Eglise, La Fleur de Gay, Gazin, de Sales, etc. Classic St. Emilion include include Chx. Pavie Macquin, Canon and Canon la Gaffeliere, Clos Le Sarpe, la Confession, Faugeres, Fombruage, Moulin St. Georges, Clos de la Oratoire, Trottevielle, both Beausejours, Monbousquet and Troplong Mondot, Figeac, Grand Corbin Despagne, Clos St. Martin, etc. Other acknowledged Classic Right Bank wines include such chateaux as Fontenil (Fronsac), Ch. d’Aiguilhe (Cotes de Castillon), and La Fleur de Bouard (Lalande de Pomerol). Although there are many fewer “second wines” on the right bank, Gravette de Certan, Petite Cheval, and Chapelle de Ausone certainly qualify as classic.
The Fine Reds of Bordeaux
The “Fine Reds of Bordeaux” is the category inhabitited many of the “best buys” and “sleepers” and, with consistent quality, from which some wines that have in the past under-performed will emerge. Wines now considered classic that not too long ago were in this fine group include Chx. Haut Bages Liberal, Ferriere, Boyd Cantenac, Les Ormes de Pez, d’Aiguilhe, and Bouscaut. This general class includes Fine Left Bank Reds, Fine Right Bank Reds, and Fine Basic Bordeaux.
The current crop of Fine Left Bank (Medoc and Pessac Leognan) reds includes (but is by no means limited to) chateaux such as Hortevie, Carrone St. Gemme, Lalande Borie, Rochemorin, Cruzeau, Pouget, d’Aggassac, du Glana Bel-Vue, Clos Jonqueyron (the Haut Medoc, the Margaux-appellation wine from Jonqueyron is classic), Duplessis, Beaumount, Villegeorge, La Tour de Bessan, La Bernadotte, les Hautes de Lynch, Beau Site, Tour St. Bonnet, Cantemerle, Lannessan, Barret, Clarke, Labegorce, Malmaison, Paloumey, Cambon la Pelouse, and Pontoise Caburrus.
Fine Right Bank Reds include lesser known wines from St. Emilion and its satellites as well as over performers from Lalande de Pomerol, Cotes de Castillon, Cotes de Francs. St. Emilion in this class includes Chx. Laplagnotte Bellevue, Vieux Guinot, Pipeau, and Gaudet St. Julien. Ch. Puygueraud (Cotes de Francs), Vieux Chateau St. Andre (Montagne St. Emilion), La Fleur St. Georges (Lalande de Pomerol), and Croix Lartigue and Manoir de Gravoux (both Cotes de Castillon) are all examples “Fine Right Bank Reds”.
“Fine Basic Bordeaux” catches many wines labeled Bordeaux Superieur, Premiere (1er) Cotes de Bordeaux, Cotes de Bourg, and Cotes de Blaye and even simply “Bordeaux”. Examples include Ch. Parenchere (Bordeaux Superieur), Ch. Hostens Picant (St. Foy), Ch. Trocard (Bordeaux) and Ch. Bonnet (Bordeaux). The list is numerous (and opinions differ) as there are a number of over-performers who have found a good terroir and applied better technique amid a sea of mediocrity.
The Rest of the Reds
“The Rest of the Reds of Bordeaux” encompasses the over 8,000 red wine producing Bordeaux chateaux that do not fit into the above categories. This category is the above mentioned “sea of mediocrity”. In this arena, quality and potential are very uneven. Some of these chateaux have owners with pride and ability who are trying to make better wines but don’t have the right terroir. Some are neglected or owned by absentee owners and farmed by uncaring tenants. Some are on great terroir but the owners/managers are inept or too under financed. Whatever the case, these are the chateaux that only pop up with a very good to fine wine in years like 2005 when nature makes the wine. Even at there best in one of these great years, these are not wines to keep but to enjoy fresh and young.
At some point most of the “Fine Reds” mentioned above fell into this grouping. In those cases, something clicked into place as the right owner or manager or consultant figured out haw to get better wine from the terrorir hand they were dealt. Over time, some of these will fall back down and others will emerge. I’ll bet on Ch. Camarsac (Bordeaux) and Clos Bourbon (1er Cotes de Bordeaux) as two chateaux that, due to good ownership and excellent technique, should emerge into the fine group.
USING THE VINTAGE CHART
A quick look at the chart shows that the rating for each vintage for each category is listed as a range, maybe “91-100” or “83-88”. The range gives a generally inclusive spread in which the wines in that category scored in that vintage. The score ranges are broad as they have to be to accurately reflect the range of quality of the wines in each category in each vintage. In a given vintage, most of the wines in a category will score toward the middle of the range; of course in any class in any vintage there will be both over-performers and under-performers and those wines will tend to spread the range a bit. The ranges reflect where I rate the wines in these classes within these vintages (based on tasting well over 2,000 Bordeaux red wines per year). Revisions of this chart will show some variations in score ranges as the wines develop, improve, and decline. The youngest vintages are rated with the assumption of some development and improvement. Even on the older vintages, scoring in ranges makes the most sense as two bottles of the same wine will usually rate at least a bit differently due to bottle variation. (In some tastings of older wines, I have tasted three different “unflawed” bottles with as much as seven point difference in qualitative score – for instance, one bottle scoring a tired 88, one a lovely 92, and one a WOW 95.)
As much as possible, price is not taken into consideration in the ratings. However, price is the prime factor in the classification of a wine into one of the categories. Where there is no score given, most of the wines from that class or category in that vintage have evolved beyond drink-ability – which is to say that they are generally no longer any good. I stopped with 1993 as 1992 and 1991 are generally acknowledged as “bad” vintages.