The '95 Bordeauxs: Don't Believe the Hype

The 1994 Bordeaux are now in the wine stores, the 1995s are being offered as futures, and the new 1996s are gently maturing in the cellars of the cha^teaux. Meanwhile prices are rising. Which, if any, of these vintages offer real value for money?

Beware: Hype is in the air. With a dearth of really good vintages that goes back to the beginning of the decade, the whole of the wine business--from cha^teau owner to retail store, plus most of the wine press as well--has seized on 1995, calling it the greatest vintage since 1990.

As a consequence, prices in the United States are the highest ever when measured in real terms, taking into account inflation and the fluctuating dollar. Yet demand--at least at the wholesale level--has been unprecedentedly high. The excitement generated among Bordeaux fanciers and collectors has verged on the hysterical.

There is a danger here that unsuspecting customers are being panicked into buying something they don't really need at a price they cannot afford--and which, furthermore, will be seen in retrospect as seriously inflated.

Are these 1995s really that good? Are the high prices justified? Should you be buying something else instead? Another Bordeaux vintage, for example, or Californian Cabernets, or Burgundy? Or even nothing at all?

Many of us who have examined the wines thoroughly in cask and talked to those who made them are skeptical of the 1995s; indeed of buying futures in principle. We can now see that most wines of most vintages (except for 1982 and 1990) could have been bought cheaper a few years after the first offerings.

Those of us who have tasted the vintages of the glorious 1980s in cask can compare our memories of them--and the mature wines that resulted--with our impressions of the 1995s.

By that standard, 1995 is a good vintage, but not brilliant. First, it was a very large crop (9% higher than the very rain-diluted 1992 vintage). Second, after a dry summer--which, if anything, delayed the progress toward maturity (wine producers are not allowed to irrigate the vineyards in Bordeaux)--there was rain late in the season. Between 3 and 5 1/2 inches of rain, depending on the locality, fell during the 10 days after Sept. 9. And though the weather improved, it was not entirely dry thereafter.

Late rain inevitably loosens the flavor definition of a wine. Moreover, in 1995, that final push from ripe to properly concentrated did not come. Though there are plenty of good red wines (mainly in Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estephe, where the harvest was latest and was picked in the best conditions), there is nothing truly outstanding. Beyond that, only a handful of wines are better than "very good."

And prices are high. The $1,000-per-case barrier has been well and truly breached. First growths that in 1990 were $60 to $70 per bottle are now $100 to $120. Wines that were a nicely affordable $15 to $18 are now harder on the pocket at $25 to $30. If the vintage had been really fine, these levels might have been justified. For a vintage not even as good as 1985, let alone the best of 1982, 1986, 1989 and 1990, they seem excessive.

But if you feel you must buy '95s, which are the best wines?

The wine of the vintage: Cheval Blanc.

Very fine indeed: Latour, Leoville-Las Cases, Petrus, Trotanoy.

Very fine: Certan de May, Ducru-Beaucaillou, L'Evangile, La Fleur Petrus, Haut-Brion, Lafite, Leoville-Barton, Pichon-Lalande, Margaux, Vieux Cha^teau Certan.

Fine: L'Arrosee, Domaine de Chevalier, La Conseillante, Cos d'Estournel, L'Eglise-Clinet, Ferriere, Figeac, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Lafleur, Malescot Saint-Exupery, La Mission-Haut-Brion, Montrose, Mouton-Rothschild, Palmer, Pape-Clement, Pavie-Macquin, Rausan-Segla, Le Tertre-Roteboeuf.

Good wines at reasonable prices:

Saint-Estephe: Lilian Ladouys, Lafon-Rochet.

Pauillac: Pontet-Canet, Batailley, Clerc-Milon.

Saint-Julien: Langoa-Barton, St.-Pierre.

Margaux: D'Angludet, Dauzac, Ferriere (see above also), Giscours.

Moulis: Chasse-Spleen, Poujeaux.

Graves: La Louviere.

Saint-Emilion: Bellefond-Belcier, Chauvin, Clos Fourtet, La Clotte, Dassault, Laroze, Soutard, Tertre-Daugay, Troplong-Mondot.

Pomerol: Beauregard, Gazin, La Grave, Plince.

Fronsac: Charlemagne, Mayne-Vieil "Cuvee Alienor."

Meanwhile, what of 1994, now arriving on the shelves? 1994 is the sort of vintage professionals call "useful." This convenient damning-with-faint-praise expression means good, cheerful, unpretentious, reasonably early maturing wines that can conveniently be sold to restaurants and consumed while we wait for better vintages to mature.

The wines are much better than the very wishy-washy 1992s, better than the 1993s--also a "useful" stop-gap vintage--but not as good as the 1995s. In all these years, to a greater or lesser degree, whatever hopes growers might have had for the vintage late in August were dashed by September rain. Bordeaux is a region of large vineyards with several different grape varieties maturing at different times. If it rains for any sort of long period in any sort of quantity, the quality of fruit can't avoid being affected.

In 1994 it started raining on Sept. 7 and, apart from a brief respite between Sept. 17 and 22, rained more or less continually, if never torrentially, until the end of the month. Techniques of vinification today can salvage, if not a silk purse, at least a pleasant nylon pouch out of a sow's ear, so the results are not as bad as this weather report might indicate, especially as June, July and August had been quite splendid, resulting in grape-skins that were thick and more resistant to rot. But inevitably, there is a lack of dimension in most 1994s, an absence of excitement: pleasant is about as good as you will get.

The best 1994s:

The wines of the vintage: Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc.

Fine: Certan de May, Cos D'Estournel, Ducru-Beaucaillou, L'Evangile, Haut-Bailly, Lafleur, Latour, Leoville-Barton, Leoville-Las Cases, Malescot St.-Exupery, Margaux, Palmer, Rausan-Segla, Vieux Cha^teau Certan.

Very good wines at reasonable prices:

Saint-Estephe: Haut-Marbuzet, Lilian Ladouys.

Pauillac: Batailley, Pontet-Canet.

Saint-Julien: Langoa-Barton, St.-Pierre, Talbot.

Margaux: Ferriere, Labegorce-Zede.

Moulis: Chasse-Spleen, Poujeaux.

Medoc: Sociando-Mallet.

Graves: La Garde.

Pomerol: L'Enclos.

Saint-Emilion: Dassault, Troplong-Mondot.

Fronsac: Moulin-Pey-Labrie.

As for the infant 1996s, September followed the same pattern, but on the whole it was better than 1995, though it seems to have been more humid in Saint-Emilion and Pomerol than in the Medoc.

Reports indicate that wines at the top level, where the size of the harvest has been curtailed, have high sugars and high acidities. This means wines for keeping. It seems likely that there will be a considerable variation in quality both hierarchically and geographically, with the best proportionately much more successful than the worst. But, at least in the Medoc, the vintage seems to be superior--perhaps a lot superior--to 1995.

It remains to be seen quite how good the 1996 vintage is, as well as at what price it will be offered. Traditionally, it has been difficult to sell two high-priced vintages in a row.

My guess is that prices will be similar to those of 1995, and with the ratio of exchange currently moving in favor of the American consumer (though how long this will last is anybody's guess), it may actually be marginally cheaper. This is what happened when the 1990s, a very fine vintage, followed the over-hyped and less consistent 1989s. Those who ignored the pressure to purchase the former gained by waiting.

Meanwhile there will be the very fine 1995 Rho^ne vintage and equally splendid 1995 Burgundian reds and whites being sold over the next few months. These are wines that--because of the minuscule quantities available--must be bought at the outset. There will be no second helping later.

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