For the first time in years, we devoted an entire evening to red Bordeaux from the 1855 classification, and the results were eye-opening.
When I opened The Wine Country nearly 22 years ago, I quickly learned, much to my chagrin, that classified-growth red Bordeaux would be the easiest of wines to understand (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot blends), but the hardest to navigate commercially. Instead of employing exclusive importers to bring their products to the U.S., the top Bordeaux chateaux were sold as commodities, in futures tranches.
By the 1990s, Bordeaux was so popular in the world, if a wine store like ours was going to purchase, say, Chateau Latour or Chateau Lynch Bages and offer them at competitive prices, we would have to pay for it a year-and-a-half before receiving the wine, tying up valuable capital. To make matters worse, since these purchases were speculative, often based on when we bought the wine, prices would vary dramatically, running the risk of losing money to compete with wealthier stores who had timed the market better. Further complicating matters, the competition was so fierce, many wine stores would offer futures at a mere 10% profit margin, making the trade in classified-growth Bordeaux even more treacherous.
So we never participated in the Bordeaux futures game, and were probably wise not to have, since many very wealthy distributors have been stung in wine speculation. (I recommend watching the documentary Red Obsession to see the Byzantine road big-time Bordeaux has travelled.)
The downside to not playing the game is, if we wanted to offer classified growth Bordeaux, we'd have to buy it on the secondary market, often at higher prices. Since this was obviously problematic, we changed our focus to the many petite chateaus who were making outstanding wine at much lower prices.
And that's been the story at The Wine Country for the past 22 years.
But there is still the pull of historic estates rated in the famous 1855 classification that I can't shake. Every once in awhile I try and find some wines from venerable estates in Bordeaux, buy them untasted (which I hate to do) and place them on our shelves so they can at least have a presence in The Wine Country.
A few months ago our French wine buyer Samantha Dugan hosted a tasting dedicated to Classified-Growth Bordeaux from the Medoc (minus the first-growths which would have put the tasting financially out of reach for many of our customers), the same estates ranked in the 1855 classification. Luckily, for me, there were some leftovers in the store when I arrived the next morning, and for the first time in years, had an opportunity to sample a bunch of them all at once.
Because our event was so successful, we only have a few bottles of these wines, and even if we can get more, there is no guarantee the pricing will be the same.
Here are my most impressive that remain in stock:
2014 Chateau Haut-Batailley, Pauillac
Prepare to be charmed by the attractive aroma and the easy drinkability of this wine. Firm and well-structured for cellaring, but able to provide pleasure now.
$49.99 per bottle
2012 Chateau D'Armailhac, Pauillac
This is a wine I might want to cellar for awhile. It is tightly structured at this time, focused and firm, but it is not an expansive wine at this time. Firm tannins at the finish.
$63.99 per bottle
2014 Chateau Lynch-Bages, Pauillac
This fifth-growth chateaux has been so popular for so long for its richness and breed, it really should be upgraded in the classification. Except no classified chateau in the Medoc, with the exception of Mouton-Rothschild in 1973, has ever been upgraded. So that's that. The 2014 continues to impress. Opaque and darkly colored, full-bodied and viscous in texture, flavorful with some licorice notes and beautifully structured.
$116.99 per bottle
2012 Chateau Beychevelle, Saint Julien
This chateau has seen its ups and downs during the past forty years, but it is definitely on the upswing now, and probably for good. As is typical for traditional Saint Julien, there is a berry-like character that is absolutely delicious. The structure is focused, indicating that this wine, while tasty now, will be able to develop nicely in the cellar.
$89.99 per bottle
2014 Chateau Kirwan, Margaux
A big wine, dark, ripe and intense, with a plush mouthfeel, and pleasant perfume. Full bodied, with some drying tannins in the finish. This is my first encounter with Kirwan, I'm sad to day, and I'm very impressed.
$49.99 per bottle
2013 Gruaude Larose, Saint Julien
This wine is already developing, perhaps a little more quickly than it ought to, so I would drink it sooner rather than later. This is made in a juicier style, banded together with firm tannins.
$72.99 per bottle