Reminiscences of a Wine Collector (Part Two) On Bordeaux...

Geoffrey Luce
January 2020

This is the second chapter of my monograph: Stories, experiences, and advice that I hope you will find entertaining, compelling, and useful. You can find me on Instagram @winebarter. I encourage you to go back and read the first installment if you haven't yet.

Robert M. Parker Jr's book Bordeaux was first published in 1985. It was meant as a reference book, but I read it from cover-to-cover when it was released. It is essentially Parker’s tasting notes, along with summary information for perspective. There were many earlier authors on Bordeaux, many of whom I've read: Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, and others. I buy books on wine wherever and whenever I find them. I love reading tasting notes like those from Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book, or better yet stories about epic tastings: Jancis Robinson’s 1997 book Tasting Pleasure: Confessions of a Wine Lover and Jay McInerney’s compilations of his wine essays. Alec Waugh's 1959 book In Praise of Wine is out of print but a lovely read if you can find a copy.

So, what's so great about Bordeaux? Color: Dark ruby to purple; Structure: Medium-plus body, dry, obvious tannins that mellow/resolve with age, moderate acidity, moderate to moderate-plus alcohol; Flavor Profile: Black currant, cassis, blackberry, ripe plum, black cherry, coffee, sage, pencil shavings, green peppercorn, anise, clove, iron, iodine, tobacco, cedar, cigar box, vanilla, baking spices, dried savory herbs, leather, gamey, damp soil, mushroom. It's versatile for pairing with food (especially grilled meats), ages well, and the flavor profile becomes more varied over time. It has a wonderful long history and as such, is an important benchmark.

Bordeaux is relatively simple to understand and information is readily available. The region makes a lot of wine so it is generally plentiful as well. Each year the left bank First Growths of Bordeaux- Lafite, Mouton (elevated in 1973), Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion) each make roughly 15k to 20k cases of their Grand Vin. Compare that production to Grand Cru Burgundy, where only 300 to 1000 cases are made from individual Climats by esteemed producers. So, for me Bordeaux was a great place to start my wine journey. Some of my favorite producers are: Ducru-Beaucaillou, all three Leovilles, Montrose, both Pichon-Longuevilles, Lynch-Bages, and La Conseillante.

Bordeaux has become less popular of late, but overall the quality continues to rise. The general move around the world to biodynamic farming and the garagiste movement in St-Emilion in the 1990s helped to lift all boats. I believe Bordeaux has a very good Quality to Price Ratio (QPR). These wines have become much more affordable than many of the high-priced California Cabernets.

I have been buying Bordeaux as futures (En-Primeur), and at auctions for decades. The first wine future I bought was one of the super Second Growths- 1994 Leoville-Las Cases. My daughter was born in 1994 and there had not been a good vintage since the back-to-back successes of 1989 and 1990. There was a lot of hype and hope that the 1994 vintage would be good (1994 didn’t turn out to be such a great vintage in the Medoc, but it is pretty good on the Right Bank). I bought one future, so 12 bottles in OWC, paying $33 per bottle. When I received the bottles three years later, they were worth $100 each and are now worth $200! Tripling my money was positive feedback which encouraged me in my wine pursuits. That experience inspired me to start buying older vintages at auction. [Side note: The reason for the price increase was that Bordeaux prices started rising in general after declining in 1991, 1992, 1993 because of the challenging (read: poor) vintages. 1995 was a very good vintage and 1996 was very good in the Medoc. Bordeaux prices rose 3x to 4x from 1994 to 1996. I did very well financially on my Bordeaux purchases from auctions too].

One big advantage to buying Bordeaux as futures is that you have the option to choose large format bottles at little to no markup. Futures are 6- bottle and 12-bottle cases in "Original Wooden Case" (indicated as OWC). The base price is for the least expensive format which is the standard 750ml bottle, but you can request large formats: magnums (1.5 liters = 2 bottles,) double-magnums (3 liters = 4 bottles,) and imperials (6 liters = 8 bottles) for little or no markup. Large formats typically trade at price premiums at auction. For young bottles this can be small 10% or so. But as the wine ages, there are benefits to large bottles because they age slower (think about the volume of wine relative to the surface area of the cork which protects it from exposure to oxygen). Over time, a 20-year old wine in magnum can cost 3x the 750ml bottle even though it’s only twice as much wine.

I bought a lot of 2000 Bordeaux as futures because it happened to be my son’s birth year. This also worked out well. For example, I bought 2000 Chateau Palmer futures for $125. It’s now priced at about $350 per bottle. 2000 was a heralded vintage and prices rose partially due to this, but there was also a currency effect. At the time the euro (€) was worth about $.90 (90 cents). The US$ was strong, so the Bordelais didn’t increase prices too much because the strong US$ was giving them more euros. However, the US$ declined from 2001 until 2007 (more $ were required to buy one euro with the exchange rate rising from $.90 per euro to $1.50 per euro by 2008). So, the 2000 vintage prices in US$ increased over the next several years as the US$ declined.

The 2008 vintage futures worked out well for a different reason. 2006 and 2007 were not great vintages. 2008 was not considered great either, but certainly better than 2006/07. 2008 Bordeaux futures were offered at discounted prices to sell since there was so much Bordeaux wine in the pipeline, but by the time the wine was delivered the ratings for the 2008 Bordeaux had improved. I remember buying 2008 Pichon-Lalande futures for $55 which were worth $80 when the wine was delivered. Now it costs $150. But it’s not always a good idea to buy Bordeaux as futures. The reason for this was alluded to before – there is just so much of it.

To close, I recommend buying vintages that are important to you such as birth vintages, wedding vintages, years that you went on wine related trips, etc. As always, my advice is to drink what you like, as often as you like. All wines are best shared. Be your own guide. Drink aged wines when you can. Take the time to reflect. Expand your palate. Be open to trying new wines. And it’s worth saying again, taste with others!

By Geoffrey Luce
January 2020