Date: 11-Oct-2005 17:47
Author: Bob Ross, New Jersey Email
Subject: Are the First Growths Over-rated?
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I've been thinking about this question since attending the reprise of the 1976 Paris Tasting (see my notes below). The Wall Street Journal had an interesting tasting challenging their preemince as well.
September 2, 2005
In Bordeaux, The Price May Not Be Right
Do France's Big-Ticket Reds
Merit Their High Costs?
Opening a $200 Shocker
By WILLIAM ECHIKSON
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
September 2, 2005; Page W5
Bordeaux is holding a 150th birthday bash this year for one of the wine world's most famed marketing creations -- the 1855 classification that ranked the region's top wines. Other wine ratings were published before this, and others followed, but this one alone continues to influence buyers around the world to pay premiums for the select 61 leading red-wine estates, from fifth growths all the way up to the region's ne plus ultra, the first growths from such famed names as Château Margaux and Château Latour.
Is the reverence for these wines rational -- or is it a ripoff? Do these divisions cause mediocre wines to sell for too much, thanks to a high classification, and good wines for too little, due to a lower ranking? When I lived in Bordeaux for six months researching a book, I came away skeptical. After all, 150 years is a long time and many, if not most, of the châteaux rated in 1855 have since changed hands or expanded, so that their wines no longer resemble those on which the classification was based.
With that in mind, I decided to test my intuition by holding a blind tasting. Chef Lionel Rigolet and sommelier William Wouters from Comme Chez Soi in Brussels, a haute-cuisine restaurant that has held the top Michelin rating of three stars for more than 25 years, signed on as hosts. Mr. Wouters, who has been named Best Sommelier in Belgium, presides over Comme Chez Soi's 40,000-bottle cellar. More than 90% of those bottles are French, with 800 Bordeaux references. "Our customers love the big names from the classification," he says. In particular, they love the first growths, which he compared to Lance Armstrong. "You always remember that he was first in the Tour de France, but you don't remember who was second, third, fourth or fifth."
A Wide-Ranging Sample
I purchased six red wines, one from each of the 1855 classifications' five categories -- and one unrated wine -- from one of the restaurant's main wine suppliers, Jean-Pierre Van Geyseghem. He attended the tasting. To broaden the field, I also bought three other classified wines at a local wine shop. The complete sample ranged in price from €163 ($200) for a bottle of the famed first-growth Château Latour to €22 ($27) for a fourth-growth Château Marquis-de-Terme. To keep the field even, all the wines were from the 2001 vintage, all came from the Médoc Peninsula and were blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
TALE OF THE TASTE
See a list of the wines tasted in order of their finish, along with selected comments from the tasters.Two other experts were added to complete the panel: Spanish wine importer Wim Vanleuven, along with his colleague Olivier Fonteyne, who previously worked as a sommelier in another three-star Michelin restaurant, Karmeliet in the medieval city of Bruges. The six of us sat down in Comme Chez Soi's wood-paneled upstairs salon, its 19th-century Art Nouveau decor appropriate for judging such historic wines.
That history kicked off when France hosted 1855's Universal Exposition and French leader Napoléon III asked Bordeaux's Chamber of Commerce to organize a display of the region's wines in Paris. The chamber set up a rating committee consisting of wine brokers who went about rating wines by price, not the result of a tasting. "They only made a transcript of the commercial state of affairs," says Dewey Markham Jr., author of the book "1855: A History of the Bordeaux Classification."
The final classification concerned only sweet white wines from Sauternes south of the city and red wines on the so-called Left Bank, the Médoc Peninsula. It divided the wines into five growths, or in French "crus." At the top of the red-wine pyramid stood four first growths, Châteaux Margaux, Latour, Lafite-Rothschild and Haut-Brion.
Prestige and Prices
Although the classification didn't have much of an immediate impact, the rankings eventually took hold and became set almost in stone. The grades defined prestige and set prices. Year after year, first growths enjoy the impact of that designation, most fetching more than more than two times the price of second growths. (In our tasting, Chateau Latour, the one first growth, cost more than twice as much as either of the two second growths we sampled.) Subsequent attempts have been made to supplement the 1855 classification, with limited success. Lists have been compiled of Bourgeois Growths, Artisan Growths and even Peasant Growths. None have gained much legitimacy, either because they weren't based on objective criteria such as price or were clouded by alleged conflicts of interest.
In 1961, the French government prepared to revise the 1855 classification. When a proposal was leaked showing that 17 châteaux would be struck from the honors list, the outcry from the losers was so strong that the project was shelved. Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Mouton, kept pushing. In 1973, he finally succeeded in persuading the Ministry of Agriculture, which regulates almost everything about French wine, to back his demand. Château Mouton-Rothschild was elevated to first-growth status. No other change was made.
In our tasting, an assistant sommelier arranged the wines randomly and covered them with a napkin when serving. The first wine was light pink, with a light fruity taste. To me, it tasted like a Beaujolais -- a wine made from the Gamay grape, meant to be drunk young and often costing less than $10 a bottle. Not surprisingly, it got negative reviews. "Lacks complexity," judged Mr. Fonteyne. "If this was Latour, I'd be shocked," added the Comme Chez Soi sommelier Mr. Wouters.
A sense of deception settled over the table, as the second, third and fourth wines were poured and tasted. These, too, suffered from a faded pink color in the glass, and while some tasters said they enjoyed a little more concentration and complexity than the first wine, they seem flawed, either with too much wood flavor from oak barrels, or sharp tannins, the bitter, astringent taste from grape skins. "These are all sad wines -- they all lack skeletons," said Mr. Fonteyne.
Fortunately, Bordeaux's reputation began to be restored with the fifth wine. It had a full, fresh red color and full fresh flavors, raspberries, cherries, with hints of licorice and tobacco. "Kim Clijsters in a wine glass," said Mr. Wouters, delighting in the Belgian woman tennis champion's position as a favorite in the U.S. Open. No. 6 was judged to be equally good -- "a Justine Henin," said chef Rigolet, talking about another great Belgian women's tennis player.
Nos. 7 and 8 both were deep, dark, berry-filled, and produced generous oohs and ahs, though there were no other top-ranked Belgian tennis players left for comparisons. The final wine elicited the only deep divergence of opinion in the entire tasting. Mr. Fonteyne judged it a winner, "dense, deep berries, with two-star complexity," while his colleague Mr. Vanleuven found it "rustic, with harsh edges."
Overall, the tasters took a deep breath and concluded that the wines were disappointing. "Bordeaux has become quite expensive and after a tasting like this, you must say, it just isn't worth it," added Mr. Rigolet. Some at the table wondered if the problem was the 2001 vintage, widely considered not of the same caliber as the 2000 vintage. Since Bordeaux are known to age well, Mr. Van Geyseghem, the wine distributor, suggested the 2001 perhaps needed a little more time in the bottle to become more balanced.
After reflection, however, the tasting group rejected this line of reasoning. None of the wines sampled had obvious faults such as a bad cork. These days, Mr. Wouters notes that most restaurants -- or customers -- don't want to or cannot wait 10 years before opening a bottle. "Plus, it is hard to predict how the bottle will age, so the argument that you need to wait for aging strikes me as misleading," he said. Indeed, if a wine is dull and dry in its youth, it is bound to be the same in its "mature" years.
The biggest shock was still to come. When the names of the wine were revealed to the tasters, the winner was third-growth Château Kirwan. Even a fifth-growth Château Lynch-Bages finished near the top of the tasting, equal or above the two second growths, Château Pichon-Longueville or Château Ducru Beaucaillou. Most shocking of all, the disappointing wine No. 1, judged little better than a plebeian Beaujolais, turned out to be... the esteemed Château Latour. It finished second-to-last in the tasting, surpassing only an unclassified wine.
"Oh, my god," gasped two of the surprised tasters, almost in unison. There were no dissenters. Nobody had a kind word about the Latour. Everybody re-tasted and continued to judge the wine mediocre. I re-tasted it again later in the day, hoping against hope that it would improve with a little time. It didn't. The fruit was as thin as before. The next day, the final drops in the bottle tasted better, but remained far from transcendent.
Later, Mr. Van Geyseghem was puzzled by the results. Six months earlier, he had tasted a bottle of the 2001 Latour and found it "fantastic." After the tasting, he opened another bottle and found it again "fantastic," though he said it remained a "little hard and needed a few more years to reach its full potential." While he agreed that the bottle we tasted wasn't "spoiled," he suggested the cork may have dilated, leading to a mild case of oxygenization. The estate's president, Frédéric Engerer said he was "stupefied" by the results and could only imagine a problem with the bottle, since the same vintage wine received raves from other critics. He also said the 2001 was being drunk at the worst possible moment, in middle age. "You either should taste it young or wait a little more," he said.
It would be nice to say the classification system is a fail-proof way to buy good wine. Sadly, it isn't. The good news, the tasters concluded, is that good wine, from France and elsewhere, is available for less money than big names charge. "For half the price, I can get twice as good red wine from the 2001 vintage in the Loire Valley," said Mr. Wouters. Bordeaux may be celebrating its classification this year; instead, it should be updating an out-of-date relic.
• William Echikson is the Brussels bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires.