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Questioning Bordeaux

A few weeks ago, I opened a bottle I had been cellaring for more than 10 years. The second-growth Bordeaux, a 1995 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, was scored 97 points by Wine Spectator and was the Wine of the Year in 1998. It was a $70 bottle of wine when I bought it and it sells at auction now for about $175. And it was good, but after paying that much for a bottle and holding for 10 years, I can't help but think it should be something special, and it wasn't. Linda and I mused at the time... how many bottles of young Bordeaux-style blends have we had in the last few months that were superior to the Ducru? The answer was plenty! The Columbia Crest Walter Clore 2005, the 2005 Hidden Ridge Cabernet, the 2006 Cuvée Los Andes Grand Vin, the 2005 Girard Artistry…they all outclassed it with more fruit, more complexity and more weight. And we didn't have to wait 10 years and pay anything close to $70. Granted, none of them has the staying power of the Ducru, but you have to ask... what's the point?

I was once lured to a trade tasting by one of our distributors because they were going to be tasting the 1993 Petrus Pomerol, one of Bordeaux's most famous estates whose bottles routinely fetch thousands of dollars. Hundreds of people attended and I was amazed at the number of them who oohed and ahhed over it... I thought it was overly tannic and lacked fruit. But it has the wow factor...I can only assume they are thinking "gosh, if it costs that much, maybe this is what a great wine is supposed to taste like!"

I know I am going to hear about questioning the mystique of Bordeaux. But why are we all supposed to believe that particular patch of land on the two sides of the Garonne river in southwestern France produces the best of the six sacred varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère? Even the French will admit that Argentina has proven that they have a climate that produces better Malbec, and Chile has done the same with Carmenère. And I am convinced that Northern California and the Columbia Valley in Washington have done the same with the others. Just because a grape was first planted in Bordeaux doesn't mean that that has to be the perfect site for it to be grown. I think the British invented the myth of Bordeaux and continue to promote it because they have been drinking underripe Cabernet blends for the last 200 years, and are convinced that that's the way it's supposed to taste.

I admit that I have had some wonderful bottles of Bordeaux over the years, but I am convinced that absurd reverence devoted to the five classified growths of Bordeaux and a handful of other Châteaus, and the more absurd prices they command, has almost no basis in quality. There are simply too many wines, many under $20, that are equal or superior to wines selling for hundreds of dollars a bottle because of their perceived pedigree. Think about the Classification of 1855: Imagine a wine quality classification system based upon a group of wine merchants in 1855 who were asked to classify the Medoc wine châteaus into a hierarchy of quality groups for the Paris Exposition. As a result, the products of winemakers who have been dead for over 150 years still influence the pricing and prestige of the wineries in the region today.

Terroir: {tair-WAHR} French word meaning "my dirt is better than your dirt."