From the very good 2001 Bordeaux vintage, last night I enjoyed a Chateau Montrose from Bordeaux. The wine was in perfect form, exhibiting scrumptious red fruits, compelling notes of tobacco leaf and cedar, smooth tannins and a long satisfying finish — all markers worthy of Chateau Montrose’s second growth status of the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, a ranking of the top 61 Chateau into 5 levels of quality. I paid $40 a bottle for the 2001 Montrose seven years ago, a great bargain considering the quality of the wine. Robert Parker rates it 91 points on his 100-point scale.
Bordeaux is one of the very few regions that price their wines differently every year, and they do so not only prior to release but based on critic’s ratings. The most influential critic is Robert Parker who annually tastes a vintage in barrel (“en primeur”) the spring following harvest, rating the vintage and the wines two years before they are released. Almost all of the 61 Chateaux rated in the 1855 Classification wait until Parker’s scores before announcing their price of their wine from a new vintage.
The 2009 Montrose, which you can buy on futures (pay now, get two years from now), sells for $225 was rated 96-100 points by Robert Parker on his now-ubiquitous 100-point scale. The same wine from Chateau Montrose from the acclaimed 2005 and 2000 vintages sells for $169 (RP 95) and $225 (RP 95+) respectively. Every few years or so, Bordeaux has a “vintage of the century,” a vintage that the press fawns over before release, pumping up the hype and resulting in collectors lining up to pay a premium – a phenomenon well-documented with these the three vintages of 2000, 2005 and 2009. Even with struggling economies, prices have continued to escalate.
Though I will happily drink wines from the most acclaimed vintages when offered, I prefer buying and keeping wines from the shoulder vintages. On the heals of the much-ballyhooed 2000 Bordeaux vintage, 2001 suffered in it’s shadow. Yet, the 2001 Bordeaux wines are very fine indeed, representing excellent value in comparison. The same is true for the very good 2004 Bordeaux wines in comparison to 2005 and the 2008s in comparison to the 2009s. Are wines from the acclaimed, no-doubt excellent, vintages worth three to six times the price for the same wines from the very good vintages that precede or follow? Not for my pocket book, which I recently opened for six 2004 Montrose (RP 91) at $49 a bottle.
Sometimes a shoulder vintage is the better vintage in quality as well as price. The 1995 vintage in Bordeaux was very hyped, largely due to the fact that it was the first decent vintage in the region since 1990, the vintage of the 90s. On it’s heals, the 1996 wines were at least the equal or better than 1995s, but since it was hard for the press and the Bordeaux producers to hype the 1996s after hyping the 1995s so high, the 96s have represented better value over time. The same happened with the truly excellent 1990s that today show better, and are slightly less expensive than the very sought-after 1989s, the best vintage alongside 1982 from the 80s.
Which phenomenon will hold true with 2010? Early reports say 2010 is a vintage as good or better than 2009. Will the 2010s sell for less and represent better value than 2009? Or can the Bordelais get yet even higher prices for the 2010s after convincing consumers to pony up for the 2009s at unprecedented levels? It didn’t seem possible they could get more for the 2009s than they did for the 2005s, but they did.
Indeed, even after calling 2009 a five-star vintage following his en primeur tasting in the spring of 2010, Robert Parker cautioned it would be impossible for Bordeaux to price their 2009s higher than they did their 2005s, but with his glowing reviews, overprice they did and most markets responded affirmatively by buying into the hype. Could it be possible that the reviews of the 2010s will match those of the 2009s and the prices will equal or exceed the previous year’s all-time high? The next few months will tell.
While prices for current releases from Bordeaux continue to excel, wines from older, equally good vintages start to look like relative “bargains” given that they have been stored properly and are ready to drink. 2009, 2005 and 2000 have their equal in rating and quality in 1990, 1989, 1982, 1961 and 1959. Together these are the eight greatest (five-star) vintages of the past 50 years.
Wine-Searcher.com shows average price of Chateau Montrose from 1990 selling for $647 (RP 100), 1989 for $330 (RP 96), 1982 for $243 (RP 92), 1961 for $618 (RP 95) and 1959 for $982 (RP 95).
While there are eight five-star vintages from the past 50 years in Bordeaux, four-star vintages would be 2004, 2001, 1996, 1995, 1988, 1986, 1985, 1966, 1964, 1962 and perhaps 1970 (that lousy decade needs at least one recommendation). Three-star vintages are 2006, 2003, 2002, 1999, 1997, 1983, 1978, 1975 and 1971. The rest would be two to one-star — best to avoid unless you are being complimentary to your host.
Perhaps my favorite vintage of Bordeaux (and Burgundy) is from my birth year, 1959. Since the time of their release, the 1961 Bordeaux have been loudly trumpeted as the best ever. Yet, recently in side-by-side comparisons, 1959s have shown better longevity and garner greater reviews then the same wines from 1961. I recall my epiphany wine was a 1959 Montrose, a wine that I paid $100 for twenty years ago (a small fortune at the time), cellared for 10 years and then drank with a small group of friends on my 40th birthday. It was a profound wine, very compelling and on point that night. An eye-opener, it was my first experience of a wine so old tasting so complex, vibrant and youthful.
While one can pay $225 now for 2009 Montrose and receive the wine in another year, I will keep my eye on Costco’s every-revolving bins and be prepared to pounce on the 2008 Montrose (RP 95-97) for $75.