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Crazy at the Top

July 29, 1998|JANCIS ROBINSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's ironic that at a time when the gap in quality between the cheapest and the most expensive wines in the world is narrower than it ever has been, thanks to dramatic improvements in winemaking skills practically everywhere, the difference between what we are asked to pay for wines at the top and bottom ends of the market has reached an all-time, breathtaking high.

We can buy more delicious wines at less than $10 a bottle than ever before, while at the top end of the market we watch, mouths agape, as the price of trophy wines such as First Growth Bordeaux heads into the stratosphere. It seems as though Cha^teaux Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Margaux and Haut-Brion, for example, will be reserved for the mega-rich alone.

The stolid 1994s seemed expensive enough when they were released at about $550 a case (about $46 a bottle). Then came the really rather appealing 1995s--but they seemed a bit less appealing once they'd been released at $780. I couldn't justify that amount of money, so I started writing about how good other wines were, such as Alain Brumont's 1995 Madiran, made 100 miles or so south of Bordeaux and going for a fifth of that price.

And then came the 1996 red Bordeaux vintage--which is, I must admit, extremely good: dense, well-constructed, lots of acid, tannin and glamour--but we were asked to pay more than $950 a case for it. Surely some mistake? But no.

The Bordeaux trade, rather than having to solicit for business, loftily parceled out its allocations of the 1996. (The son of the owner of Cha^teau Petrus, no less, worked for a grand British wine merchant during the 1995 sales campaign, liaising anonymously with the Bordeaux merchants. He couldn't believe how arrogant his countrymen were.)

In May we Bordeaux watchers saw the less-than-glorious 1997s launched. The First Growth owners, perhaps because they realized it was wine merchants and not they themselves who had made so much money from the 1996 campaign, launched their 1997s at such a price that, in Britain, at least, we are being asked to pay around 900, or $1,485 a case ($124 a bottle), for wines that are palpably not long-term investments. Were the prices not so absurd, 1997 is the sort of flattering, early maturing vintage we'd consider useful for airlines.

And the real joke is that, despite this chutzpah on the part of the best-established blue-chip wine investments, the world-famous first growths of the Medoc are no longer the most expensive wines in the world (setting aside, as most of us must, the Burgundies of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti; La Romanee '95 is currently listed by a London wine trader at 13,400, or $22,110, a case).

Although the Burgundies of Domaine Leroy, certain vintages of Guigal single vineyard Co^te Ro^tie, Penfolds Grange from Australia, the odd Catalan Priorat and Tuscan Sassicaia are candidates for the title of most expensive current wines, that dubious honor must go to the rash of micro-cha^teaux now sprouting up in St-Emilion and Pomerol. These properties, beginning with Le Pin and followed by the likes of Valendraud, La Mondotte, Le Do^me, La Gomerie, L'Hermitage and Rol Valentin, now joined by Cha^teau Ausone (the old-time St.-Emilion First Growth, which has turned on a dime and made an extremely flashy, quintessentially modern 1997), have been selling for well over $3,000 a case, even as futures. Imagine what they will cost once they are bottled and seriously traded!

And now, since Christie's groundbreaking all-California sale in Los Angeles in June, we have a new category of wine challenging Bordeaux's "garage wines" (so called because the production of some is so limited they could be made in a garage). This hot new category, already being labeled California cult wines, includes Araujo, Bryant Family, Caymus Special Select, Colgin, Dalla Valle Maya, Diamond Creek, Dominus, Dunn Howell Mountain, Grace Family, Harlan, Screaming Eagle and Vineyard 29. American bidders have vied for the chance to pay $1,000 a bottle even for young vintages.

Most of these tiny California properties are so new that only young vintages are available, but it is characteristic of this crazy development at the top end of the wine market that bidders value young wines more highly than mature wines, even those of Bordeaux cha^teaux with two centuries of history to prove they really are good.

Is this because the wine buyers with money genuinely don't like older wines? Or do they think they cannot be as good as those made nowadays with heaps of new oak, malolactic fermentation in barrel and, sometimes, concentration techniques? Is it really that they genuinely prefer the simple, brash flavors of a young wine? Or is it because they feel that if something is outrageously expensive and in short supply it must be better--or (perhaps this is the key) simply a better investment--than, say, a Medoc first growth, which is very expensive but made in tens of thousands of cases?

I do not know the answers to any of these questions, as I have feebly backed out of the race to buy wine at the top end of the market. (I want my cellar full of bottles I can uncork without consulting a stockbroker.) I have been lucky enough to taste a fair portion of these super-deluxe trophy wines, however, and I do know that when I think about the bottles that have given me the most pleasure, they bear little relation to these intense, turbo-charged, frenetic wine essences. But that, alas, is a story to be told another time.

Robinson lives in London and is editor of "The Oxford Companion to Wine." Her most recent book is the memoir "Tasting Pleasures" (Viking, 1997).

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