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Older Bottles Uncovered After Months of Searching : Inexpensive and Popular Mouton Cadet Performs Well After Cellar Aging

February 05, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills.

More than 50 vintages have passed since Baron Philippe de Rothschild, proprietor of premiere-ranked Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, introduced Mouton Cadet, a wine that remains America's most popular claret, even though it is unclassified, uncredentialed and unloved by snooty, big-name Bordeaux wine drinkers. Inexpensively tabbed at about $5, its lack of pristine status has not prevented it from becoming a kind of people's claret with annual sales in excess of 500,000 cases.

Even in the face of current white wine popularity, mushrooming sales of white Zinfandels and wine coolers, Cadet still stands as a solid, decently made, low-cost French red for daily drinking, which delivers flavorful Bordeaux style more often than not.

That has been Baron Philippe's goal ever since its debut after three ruinous vintages of 1930, 1931 and 1932, perhaps the worst three consecutive Bordeaux harvests ever, when no one produced wines worthy of bottling for his world-acclaimed Mouton-Rothschild. And so a new claret was conceived, blended from regional wines with a simple generic appellation and a down-to-earth price.

An Instant Success

Never intended as a junior version of Mouton-Rothschild, it was fashioned to be popularly priced good value and not to be confused with Mouton-Rothschild, which depending on the value of the dollar is often selling from 10 to 15 times as much. For Baron Philippe, then as a fledgling vintner (hence the name of Cadet), it was an instant success and marketing coup, which virtually every major Bordeaux claret negociant has tried to emulate. Every time claret wine prices escalate, a new competing simple generic label comes out of Bordeaux, and whereas some have been moderately successful, none have come close to Cadet in overall popular appeal.

As a quick-to-mature, generally ready-to-drink red, Mouton Cadet never has been widely viewed as a popular wine for cellar aging. As an everyday simple wine, it never espoused the grandiose goals of complex aging benefits. Drink now and gone tomorrow was the apparent creed, for immediately another bottle would surface without concern for availability or vintage vicissitudes. Moreover, Cadet buyers never expected anything more, so the practice of aging cheap claret was seldom, if ever, done.

Whereas cellar-aging Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux has been a time-honored tradition, most American wine lovers prefer a soft-textured, appealing, quick-to-mature or ready-to-drink red rather than to patiently wait for a decade's worth of aging drinkability. They are reluctant to establish space-consuming wine cellars and to tie up hard-earned dollars for expensive, immature wines they may never drink. Inexpensive, unclassified Bordeaux wine, Cadet included, were never serious aging candidates simply because there was no confidence that cellaring would help.

A recent vertical tasting of 16 Cadet vintages proved otherwise. Frankly, I had trepidations since all of my earlier verticals had been reserved for such big names as chateaux Mouton-Rothschild, Lafite, Petrus, Latour, Haut-Brion and Margaux. A major concern was the fear that the wines had not aged well because of inadequate tannin and fruit.

However, if a sufficient number benefited from cellaring, conceivably Cadet could prove to be a viable aging alternative for those unable to afford the bigger names. Besides Cadet, other similarly priced clarets might also be aged. The possibilities would be enormous.

Difficult to Find

The biggest problem was to locate aged Cadets. For such tastings, individual wine collectors usually provide a bottle here or a bottle there, but few are able to supply decades of old vintages. This would be especially true of Cadet. After months of searching through Baron Philippe's and a host of French and American cellars and shops, a number of older bottles turned up, such as 1961, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979. Interestingly, the first vintage offered in the United States was 1959, then selling for $2.69.

An incredible revelation was that several of the so-called off vintages like '77, '73, '72 and '71 performed beautifully. The '73 was light and lean in style. It showed some drying but nonetheless had excellent flavor and charm, representing a generous, ready-to-drink, complex wine. The '71 suggested big chateau -style nose violets and a taste worthy of drinking but a lack of further aging ability, as was the '72, although it still had charm and nicely surviving flavor from its blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot. A very decent bottle for today's drinking.

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