March 10, 2014
On a recent Sunday evening in La Jolla, California, while the guest at a dinner organized by the San Diego chapter of the Commanderie de Bordeaux, I learned the conditions for Bordeaux in America are not as dismal as I had feared. They are worse.
Bordeaux, for those with a short memory, was once the benchmark for American wine, particularly in California. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and blends of the two were all the rage when the California wine boom got underway in the 1970s. Bordeaux, the historical home of Cab and Merlot (also Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc), was the model.
Sophisticated wine shops from that era specialized in French wine, for the most part, and the most important French wine was Bordeaux. My earliest years as a collector of fine wine were nurtured by the great vintages of Bordeaux from the 1960s and ‘70s. Wonder of wonders, even on a journalist’s salary I could afford wines from the greatest chateaux in Bordeaux, fabled wines such as Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion and Cheval Blanc.
They were expensive for their time, but hardly beyond the reach of anyone with a decent income and a passion for wine. In the spring of 1983, for example, I purchased first-growths from the spectacular 1982 vintage for $39 a bottle as “futures,” meaning I paid in advance for wines that would be delivered after maturing in bottle for approximately two years.
A few years later, when the greatness of the vintage had been established beyond any doubt and hyped by the then-emerging Robert Parker, I added many of the same 1982 first-growths to my cellar at the stunning cost of $59 a bottle.
A quick glance at WineSearcher.com reveals the average bottle price of 2010 Chateau Lafite Rothschild to be $1525. Chateau Latour 2010 fetches $1779 on average, and 2010 Haut-Brion comes in at $1288. The 2010 Chateau Cheval Blanc, my favorite wine from the Right Bank commune of Saint-Emilion, would set me back $1498. Even Chateau Palmer, a third-growth Margaux, has shot up from about $100 a bottle the last time I bought a case to an average of $401 for the 2010 vintage; and the fifth-growth Chateau Lynch-Bages, once among the greatest values in wine, now gets $195 for the 2010 vintage.
It’s no wonder that members of the Commanderie de Bordeaux, an organization dedicated to the worship of Bordeaux, are focused on price. I was surrounded by successful doctors and lawyers who can afford expensive wine, but even they were choking on the cost of a top-notch bottle of Bordeaux.
To its credit, the Commanderie sponsors a competition each year to identify excellence in Bordeaux at $40 or less. Those wines do exist, and due to advances in viticulture and technology in Bordeaux, they have the potential to redefine value in quality Bordeaux.
There’s one problem: demand. There is no demand for these wines. They are obscure, poorly marketed and poorly distributed. You won’t find them on most restaurant wine lists, and even if you do stumble across one of these relatively inexpensive Bordeaux in a retail wine shop, they aren’t likely to be accompanied by ratings, reviews or wine competition awards.
Who would plunk down $40 on an unknown wine when there is so much wonderful domestic and even foreign swill (think Italy, Spain, Argentina, Chile or France’s Rhone Valley) that is familiar and safe?
Earth to Bordeaux, we have a problem.
Read more Robert Whitley columns at Creators.com.
March 5, 2014
It is one thing to have a thirst for fine wine, quite another to support the habit.
If money were no object, a top-notch Barolo, or perhaps a grand cru Burgundy, would do nicely as my house wine. That’s not very realistic, however, because I, like most everyone else, have a limited budget for wine. Thus my never-ending search for value wines that deliver outstanding quality at a modest price.
Value is relative, of course. I was recently impressed with the 2010 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, which took a platinum award at the 2014 Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition. At $27 retail, it compares favorably with Cabs that cost twice as much. That’s value in one sense, but even at a modest $27 it would be difficult to open a bottle every night.
For most of us, a great everyday wine shouldn’t cost more than $15 a bottle. With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised at a recent tasting of Souverain, which you may remember as Chateau Souverain.
“Chateau” was dropped from the name after the parent company sold the winery’s beautiful digs in the Alexander Valley to Francis Ford Coppola. The wines are now produced at a production facility in Asti, not too far from the old chateau.
Souverain has been off the radar for several years, but is once again asserting itself with a new label and an effort to regain some of the visibility that was lost with the sale of the chateau and its attractive tasting room.
The old Chateau Souverain was renowned for value. The new Souverain is maintaining that legacy, largely due to the skill and dedication of winemaker Ed Killian, whose career spans both iterations of the winery.
I tasted six wines with Killian, four of them priced at $15 retail or less.
The Winemaker’s Reserve Chardonnay ($35) and Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) are superior Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley appellation wines that are competitive in their price range, but the four that carried the “North Coast” appellation – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – were very solid wines that displayed exceptional quality for the price points.
Given that the suggested retail prices – $15 for the reds and $13 for the whites – are just that, suggestions, it stands to reason that clever wine consumers will find all four wines for even less if they shop around.
And remember this: The more you save, the more you will have left over in the budget to spring for that occasional Barolo or Burgundy.
Other Robert Whitley columns at Creators.com.