WSJ: When First Growths Place Last

WSJ wine editors Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher conducted a blind tasting of the 2006 Bordeaux First Growth vintage, and came away with distressing conclusions. Heh, and that’s why I won’t taste my 2008 vintages of Lafite, Margaux, and Cos d’Estournels. I can’t imagine that it would be that worth its price. So long as someone else (with paychecks 10x or more than mine) can. 😉

When First Growths Place Last
Combination of high prices, so-so Bordeaux makes ’06 special—and not in a good way
AUGUST 14, 2009, 9:48 A.M. ET
By DOROTHY J. GAITER AND JOHN BRECHER

The famous first-growth Bordeaux from the 2006 vintage are arriving in stores now with prices that look reasonable only in comparison to the ridiculous prices of their immediate predecessors.

Ah, yes, remember those 2005 first growths? They hit the market just before the entire economic system teetered last year. While these five wines—Châteaux Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild—are always pricey, the 2005s were outrageous. We paid an average of $1,329 a bottle for them. By comparison, in the 10 previous years, including well-regarded vintages such as 2000, we had paid an average of $250 a bottle.

Inevitably, the prices on the 2005s have fallen since then. Each one of the 2005 first growths is now available at reputable stores for anywhere from 20% to almost 50% less than we paid last year. For instance, we paid $1,295 for the 2005 Haut-Brion last year; we recently saw it advertised for $696. For all of those people who really believed that investing in Bordeaux was the way to riches: Wow.

Despite this, the 2005s seem to have set a higher floor than ever for first-growth prices, so the 2006 wines have arrived with startling prices, especially for a year that no one is claiming to be the vintage of the century. We paid an average of $579 a bottle. We have been buying these five to taste since the 1995 vintage (and have been drinking them for far longer in our private lives, of course) and that is the highest average by far except for the 2005s—and, interestingly, almost exactly the same price that the wines were being offered as futures (put your money up now, get the wine later) more than two years ago, which helps upend the notion of futures being wise investments.

But price alone—high or low—is never a good reason to dismiss any wine. After all, consistently high prices was one of the reasons these wines were rated tops in the famous Bordeaux Classification of 1855 (Mouton was added in 1973). It’s all about value and, as we’ve often said, sometimes very expensive wines are worth every penny because they give us a glimpse of heaven, while very inexpensive wines can be overpriced because they’re a chore to drink. So we picked up the five first growths from 2006—just released and still very young—for a tasting.

As always, we did not taste these wines blind but drank each one over several hours, both with and without food. We tasted them when we opened them, then decanted them and tried them over several hours. In each case we also left some wine in the bottle and tried it the next day. Because these wines are so young, we wanted to give them every opportunity to show their stuff—and, frankly, we enjoy sipping and talking about wines like these as they change in the glass.

So, having done all of that, let’s get right to the point: These wines, as a group, are the worst values in first growth Bordeaux we’ve ever seen. Ever. We weren’t crazy about the 1997s or 2001s either, but they only cost an average of $133 and $173, respectively. Sure, 1968 was a bad year, but the wines cost about $8 at the time. The 2005 wines were ridiculously expensive, but were very good and age-worthy. The combination of high prices and so-so wines in 2006 makes this a special case, and not in a good way.

We were once again disappointed with our old friend Margaux. The first bottle we tasted was so unpleasant—thin and simple—that we tried a second (from a different store), which was better. So we tried a third as a tie-breaker, and it was different still, with pleasant, simple, raspberry fruit. This is the third time in five years we’ve had to buy a second or third bottle of Margaux because we thought the first must be an unpleasant aberration. Lafite was also unimpressive, and also tasted twice. Mouton was friendly and fun, but not a first growth experience. We found the Haut-Brion elegant and interesting. Latour, once again, was our best of tasting, the only complete wine of the tasting and the only one that truly had the class, character and structure of a fine Bordeaux.

What all of the wines, including the Latour, had in common, though, was that the fruit didn’t seem fully ripe. We don’t mean that the wines were young, though they are, but that the underlying fruit tasted, in various cases, under-ripe, green and-or watery. The harvest clearly presented more of a challenge than the prices would indicate. That lack of ripeness is not going away. As Dottie said about the Lafite: “It’s a young green wine and it’s going to be an old green wine.”

This is painful for us. The first growths are an important standard and, to us, they bring back warm memories going back many years. Just last year, the 2005 Latour was the only wine all year that rated a rare Delicious! in our tastings. We want these wines to be wonderful. Unfortunately, these are not. So our advice is simple: Skip the 2006 first growths. As we wrote just last week, the midrange Bordeaux from 2005 are available now at bargain prices and are better wines both for current consumption and to lay down. And if you simply must have a first growth, the 2005 first growths now are also available at prices not much higher than the far-less-impressive 2006s.

Keep this in mind: When you buy a young first growth, you are truly on your own. If you drink it now and don’t like it, the wine’s supporters, not to mention the people who sold it to you, will say that you simply drank the wine too young and you don’t understand young wines (your fault); if you drink it in five years and don’t like it, they’ll tell you it’s going through a dumb period (your fault for drinking it in its awkward adolescence); if you drink it in 10 years and don’t like it, they’ll tell you that you must have stored it badly (yep, it’s your fault). So let’s be clear: These wines aren’t great. They aren’t worth the money. It’s not that they are young and it’s not that they will be in a dumb period when you open them years from now and it’s not that you will have stored them badly. They’re just not worth buying.

We are often told that the prices of first growths are high because they are snapped up by moneyed people in emerging nations, especially in Asia, who care more about the prestige than the taste. Maybe that was true at some point. Is it still? We guess we’ll find out.

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