Buying and Drinking Bordeaux Wines

By Charles M. Bear Dalton

Recently, I wrote about “BORDEAUX, INC. or How the Bordeaux Wine Trade Works” in which we looked at the path from producer (chateaux) through courtier and negociant, importer and wholesaler, retailer and restaurant (the “Retail Tier”) to the consumer. When considered how some of the tiers can overlap in different ways and how a wine can take some different paths to the final market. Now I’d like to focus in on the last two levels of that multi-tiered system: the Retail Tier and the Consumer (i.e. You).

To Review:
Together Retailers and Restaurants make up the Retail Tier. In Texas, we both buy from wholesalers and sell to consumers, retailers mostly for home consumption and restaurants pretty much exclusively for consumption at the restaurant.

Consumers buy wine from either restaurants (for consumption at the restaurant) or retailers (for consumption at home or wherever else they can bring it – such as BYOB restaurants). While the rest of the chain works with wine, it is the consumer who ultimately and actually enjoys the wine. As with other levels of the Bordeaux wine trade, there are overlaps between the retail tier and the consumer. Many of my fellow retailers (including me) and restaurateurs are avid consumers of Bordeaux wine.

How does this relate to Bordeaux and Spec’s and to You (and me), the end consumer?

Let’s start with Bordeaux. There are over 8,000 chateaux. If really pushed and given some time, I (as a Bordeaux wine professional) might come up with the names of as many as five or maybe six hundred. I think most really dedicated Bordeaux wine-loving consumers could come up with maybe a couple of hundred names (again, if both pushed and given some time) and those would be the most famous chateaux with the biggest reputation and highest prices. Why don’t consumers know more chateaux? They (the chateaux) are not in the market. Why not? Because I (and people like me in other markets) don’t think they (again, the chateaux) are worth the money. Some aren’t very (or any) good and some are very good and even fine or excellent and even wonderful but too expensive. A lot of wines never see the light of day because their quality is such that they sell in French super markets for from 3 to 5 euros per bottle. The wines that do make it into the market are wines that somebody (whether me or someone like me or a Robert Parker or a Jancis Robinson, etc.) feels are worth the money. They are wines that are both good and good enough to justify the price. (If they don’t or can’t justify their price, then people don’t buy them.) In any given vintage, the number of chateaux that make it into the Texas market might vary from as few as 130 to as many as 275, all based on the reputation of the vintage, the quality of the wines, and the prices in the market.

When, at the end of March of 2012, I went to Bordeaux and tasted several hundred wines, I was mostly tasting “known quantities” and some possible “up-and-comers”. The known quantities were featured both in some big trade tastings and in tastings at the individual chateaux. They include wines we buy almost every year such as Ch. Leoville Barton, Ch. Pontet Canet, Ch. Leoville Poyferre, Ch. Batailley, Ch. Haut Bailly, Ch. Smith Haut Lafitte, Ch. Rauzan Segla, Ch. Canon La Gaffeliere, Vieux Ch. Certan, the “first growths,” etc. The possible up-and-comers were tasted mostly in tastings at negoçiants’ offices and are touted by the negoçiants. They include wines like Ch. Tour Salvet (an excellent value-priced Haut Medoc), Vieux Ch. Saint Andre (the Montagne St. Emilion) home of “retired” Petrus winemaker Jean Claude Berrouet), Ch. Tour Sieujean (a reasonably-priced little start-up Pauillac chateau owned by a very nice young couple and her parents), etc.

Occasionally, you stumble onto something such as when I visited Ch. Pontac Lynch in Margaux and saw their second wine – Ch. Pontac Phenix. Up to that moment, I hade been unaware that Ch. Pontac Lynch even had a second wine. It turns out to be a blend of the Margaux that doesn’t make the cut for Pontac Lynch and some grapes grown a bit north of the Margaux appellation in the Haut Medoc (between Margaux and St. Julien). The wine proved to be delicious and is now a stable on the Bordeaux aisle at Spec’s. Or the time I walked into Ch. Penin (in Genissac across the river from St. Emilion) and was so blown away by the wines that I couldn’t help but wonder with if they were as good as they seemed. Over the next year, I went back twice with other people and both times the wines were as good as I thought they were so now we carry Ch. Penin Bordeaux Superieur ($9.79 per bottle).

And sometimes a chateau-owner gets fed up with the whole system and reaches out directly to Spec’s with what amounts to “Please come look at my wine. I’ve given up on getting a negoçiant to work with me.” Such is the case with Ch. Trocard and the several other wines we by from the Trocard family and Ch. Cantenac St. Emilion and Ch. La Lauzette Haut Medoc, both of which we buy from the Roskam family. On my last visit to Bordeaux when I stopped in to taste at Ch. Cantenac, Franz and Liz Roskam showed me a simple Bordeaux they have developed called simply enough “Roskam Red.” With lots of fresh, mostly red fruit and enough richness to appeal to the American palate, it should show up in Spec’s in 2013.

All of these are the wines that get to the market. Counting multiple vintages, we have over 700 different red Bordeaux wines in stock at Spec’s on Smith Street alone. I have tasted all of these wines and with just one or two exceptions, they are all wines I like and find to be more than “worth the money.” Why the one or two exceptions? For example, when I tasted Ch. Cos d’Estournel 2009, I though the wine was chalky and over-extracted (I later heard that the bottled wine was darker than the press wine). Nevertheless, a few weeks later, Robert Parker published a note in his Wine Advocate saying 2009 Cos d’Estournel was “one of the best young red wines” he had ever tasted. Some customers read that review and began to inquire about the wine so I bought some.

As to the Retailer side of the Retail Tier, I can’t speak for anyone other than Spec’s. Spec’s is owned by John and Lindy Rydman (Lindy being the daughter of Spec Jackson who stated Spec’s on Lyons Avenue back in 1962). When they were getting in to wine and the wine business in the early 1970s, fine wine in Texas meant (mostly) red Bordeaux and red and white Burgundy. The fine wine players back then were Sakowitz, Nieman-Marcus, and Richard’s. As the Rydmans came into the company around the time (1972) Spec Jackson opened the big Spec’s Liquor Warehouse on Smith Street, they got more interested in Bordeaux. John Rydman began traveling to Bordeaux and tasting and Spec’s, with a combination of broad selection and lower prices, quickly took over most of the Bordeaux market. By the time I came on board with Spec’s in 1996, Spec’s was the undisputed leader in Bordeaux wine in Houston. Now Spec’s is the dominant player in Bordeaux in the state of Texas and is known around the world for a Bordeaux department with breadth and depth and very competitive pricing. We consider being able to buy and sell the great wines of Bordeaux at great prices both to consumers (you and me) and, via Spec’s LD business, to restaurants to be one the key things that differentiates us from our competitors. We know that Bordeaux is important in the world of wine.

So now we get to the consumer. To you and me. (As a consumer of Bordeaux wine, I buy a lot of Bordeaux from Spec’s. As the lead corporate wine buyer for Spec’s, I am living the dream.) To the people who will ultimately enjoy the wine. Why do we drink Bordeaux? What is its appeal? Why, with the changes in fashion as to what we drink, is Bordeaux still both so popular and so important.

To start with, red Bordeaux is based (for the most part) on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the world’s most popular fine red wine grapes. If based on Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is usually blended with some Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and maybe some Petite Verdot. If based on Merlot, the wine is often (but not always) blended with a little Cabernet Franc and maybe some Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Malbec. There are a whole lot more 100% Merlot wines made in Bordeaux than 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines. I can’t off hand think of a red Bordeaux wine made from 100% Cabernet Franc, Malbec, or Petite Verdot. The point of this is that the flavors of good ripe red Bordeaux will be familiar both to Bordeaux drinkers and to people who are coming to Bordeaux from drinking wines from California, or Chile, or wherever. That familiarity is part of the appeal.

A key difference is that most red Bordeaux reflects where it is from both in the general and in the site specific senses. It reflects both the culture of the region and its terroir. A key reason is that for fine wine grapes irrigation is illegal in France. Dry farming naturally limits yields, concentrates flavors, and allows more of microclimate of the specific vineyard to effect the finished wine.

Although Bordeaux is not a “cool climate,” it is cooler than say Rutherford in California or the Maipo Valley in Chile. As such, the grapes in Bordeaux are a little less ripe (or maybe less over-ripe) and more likely to show (depending on the vintage) at least some if not mostly red fruit Such as red cherry, red currant, and even red berries) as opposed to black fruit (such as blackberry, black currant, blueberry, and black cherry). Also, red Bordeaux is more likely to show notes of tobacco and tea whereas some of the riper new world Cabernets lose that good herbal note and replace it with cocoa or even chocolate syrup. Of course the primary consequence of a bit less ripeness is lower alcohol and a bit more acidity. Where a lot of California Cabernet is now over 15% alcohol (and some over 16%), even in the riper years red Bordeaux is rarely much over 14% alcohol.

Due to the higher level of acidity and its overall structure, Red Bordeaux keeps better than most any Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot based wine from most anywhere else in the world. Why is that important? Wine develops as it ages in the bottle. If you keep it properly (laying down in a dark place without a lot of vibration at 55°F), red Bordeaux will lose some of it primary aromas and replace them with secondary aromas in the form of a bottle bouquet. When most wine lovers taste a properly cellared Bordeaux with 10-15 years of development, the want to have a quiet moment with just them and their wine. It can be and often is just that good. It is a relatively rare thing to find this bottle bouquet and longer term age-worthiness in even some of the more expensive California Cabernets and virtually unheard of in most other parts of the world. Truly age-worthy (wines that pay back years of keeping with improved, developed flavors) new world Cabernets that come to mind include Opus 1, Quintessa, Dunn Howell Mountain, Ridge Montebello, Araujo, and not too many more. The list of age-worthy Bordeaux wines includes just about all the red Bordeaux that Spec’s sells from as little as $15.00 per bottle to as much as you want to spend.

Those differences in the reflection of terroir, the orientation toward red fruit, the lower alcohol and higher acidity, and the age-worthiness and the development that comes with it are also part of the appeal. The combination of all of that (especially the lower alcohol and higher acidity) allows Bordeaux to go better with food than many other Cabernet or Merlot-based wines from elsewhere in the world. And that is one of the biggest parts of the appeal of Bordeaux.

If you are not a Bordeaux drinker, do yourself a favor and give it a try. Every time I serve a developed red Bordeaux to a California-focused trophy hunter, they are blown away. Men (and it is mostly men) who spend hundreds of dollars on the Harlans and Bonds, the Tusks, the Lakoyas, the Kapschandy’s and Scarecrows, the Hundred Acres and the Colgins, etc. chasing the rarities are blown away by a properly aged $50 to $100 bottle of red Bordeaux. They are blown away by the complexity and development and perfume and elegant balance of the wine. Why don’t they switch to Bordeaux? Some do and others begin buying some Bordeaux. This is not to say that there aren’t expensive Bordeaux wines. The top wines of Bordeaux in the luxury and super luxury tiers out strip almost any thing from California on price. Current releases priced over $500 per bottle are not rare and a very few young wines can top $2,000 per bottle. Nevertheless, there is a lot of excellent Bordeaux priced below $50 per bottle and even a few priced below $20.

Red Bordeaux is one of the great food wines of the world. If a food is at all red wine friendly, chances are it can go with Bordeaux. Roast fowl, whether chicken, turkey, duck or game birds is perfect with Bordeaux of all ages. A robust young red Bordeaux can pair perfectly with a grilled steak and an older more developed red can go beautifully with roast beef. Nothing goes better with grilled or roast lamb. Basic red Bordeaux is good with burgers or pizza or even fried chicken. Medium-weight and lighter red Bordeaux can even pair well with salmon and especially tuna. The lower alcohol and higher acidity are the keys to all this food friendliness.

So lets say that I’ve convinced you that Bordeaux is worth a try. How do you go about buying Bordeaux? Well, there are two ways. You can buy “futures” paying now and waiting for delivery or you can buy wines that are currently in stock either to drink now (or soon) or to lay down in your cellar (or your temperature controlled wine cave or off-site storage locker).

Buying Bordeaux off the shelf is the best way to start. This way you are buying Bordeaux the same way you buy any other wine and the same rules apply. When you come in to buy Bordeaux, let the wine salesman know what your tastes are and how much you want to spend per bottle. You might say “I prefer Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. I’d like two bottles in the $50-100 range, 4 bottles in the $30-50 range, and 6 bottles in the under $20 range.” Now that we know what you want, we ask a few more questions so we can zero in on your tastes and then we can recommend with confidence wines we’re sure you’ll like. Let us know how we did and we can keep homing in on what you like best. (A tip: photocopy your receipt onto a piece of paper and note what you liked best next to the wines on the receipt.)

Another scenario is that you may want to taste a variety of wines to learn what you like in Bordeaux. If you tell us this, we can recommend a flight of 3 or 4 under $20 reds from different Bordeaux sub-regions and likewise on up the ladder in to what-ever price range is your imit. If you come in and tell us you’d like an older bottle to go with some grilled quail or a piece of roast tenderloin, the wine staff can hook you up with good 2004 or even a 2001

Buying wines in stock in the store allows you “kick the tires” a bit more and also talk with the wine staff who have tasted many of the wines available. It also allows you to buy both younger and older wines that will show this sort of development. With all the Bordeaux Spec’s has in stock, we have lots of different wines to fit every taste and need.

If you’ve been around wine very long, you’ve heard talk about “Bordeaux Futures” and you may have wondered what the deal is. Is this like the commodities exchange where contracts are repeatedly traded without the actual goods they represent even moving or being ready to move? Or do people really buy these wines and drink them? The answer is yes … to both. At one level, there can be a fair amount of trading of Bordeaux futures contracts as the market for the wines gets stronger and the release dates approach. At the same time, educated consumers use the futures market to insure they are able to get the wines they most want and get them at the best prices. Here’s how it works.

During the April and May following a vintage, most Bordeaux chateaux offer a portion of their production to the wine brokers (negoçiants) in Bordeaux at what is usually their lowest price. This first offer is called the premiere tranche, or first slice. These wines are then offered to the importers and exporters around the world who then offer them to the local trade – the wine stores and restaurants. Some restaurants will buy a few cases of rare wines but most restaurants don’t have the sort of wine programs where they invest in young Bordeaux to serve years later. At Spec’s, we buy as heavily as possible during this time for two reasons. One is to buy good quantities of wines in every price range so we’ll have the inventory to sell off our racks when the vintage is shipped. The other is to offer the best possible prices on rare and expensive wines to our Bordeaux-loving customers. As we get confirmations on our orders, we offer the wines out for sale as futures, a way to buy wines that haven’t even been bottled yet. On the wines we’ve tasted and like and on wines with great track records, we buy as much as we are allocated, often at several different prices. If our customers get hot on a particular wine and we run short or sell out, we go back and buy more, usually at a higher price. We then make another offering reflecting that higher price.

In order to open the futures opportunity to as many customers as possible, Spec’s offers Bordeaux futures sales on bottles as well as cases. Some of the more expensive and rarer wines are offered in six-pack cases and even in three-pack cases. While the price advantage is not as substantial bottles, there is still a significant edge over what the wines will sell for on arrival. But far and away the main benefit here is the guarantee of availability.

For those who want Bordeaux wines in sizes other than 750ml, buying your wine early (usually before the end of the following August – so by September 1, 2012 for the 2011s) allows you to specify half bottles or magnums or even larger sizes.

So what’s all the fuss about? Just that the futures market insures the savvy Bordeaux lover a way to buy his favorite wines at the best prices they’ll likely ever sell for, and a way to insure himself that he will actually get some of the rarer wines that may never make it onto a rack or shelf in the store.

Bordeaux is one of the great wines of the world and Spec’s offers one of the best Bordeaux selections in the world and all at great prices. What are you waiting for?

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