WINE Pulling Rank

Sure, some Bordeaux are better than others, but you don’t need an expert to tell you which ones.

Wine drinkers seem to be preoccupied with rankings: A wine can’t just be enjoyed for what it is; one wine must be judged better or worse than another. This fixation with order is especially common in discussions of the red wines of Bordeaux, arguably the most fascinating wines of all.

Why Bordeaux? Aside from their overall high quality, the wines from this western region of France have developed distinct personalities. Their singularity makes them easy to recognize and fun to compare. Furthermore, the great red wines of Bordeaux have a formal classification system intended to resolve the question of rank. Part of the fun of comparing red Bordeaux is in discovering that the system is sometimes wrong.

In 1855, a committee of merchants and wine experts met to bring order to the Bordeaux wine market and to establish a guideline for prices. They selected 62 red wines, from about 2000 possibilities, to be called grand crus, or “great growths.” Their selection was based on price, soil conditions, and reputation. This elite group was further divided into five classes. The first-growth wines were then and still are hallowed names: Chateaux Lafite, Margaux, Latour, and Haut-Brion. But the chateaux of the remaining four growths are not second-rate wines; they are merely the lesser creams of the crop.

Not surprisingly, controversy has shadowed the 1855 classification since it first appeared. The most serious complaint is that the panel selected all but one of its red wines from the Medoc, a sub-region of Bordeaux. The wines of Pomerol and Saint Emilion were ignored, and Graves was represented only by Chateau Haut-Brion. Among the classified growths, many chateaux of lower rank consistently produced wine deserving of higher status, while some second and third growths no longer merit their lofty positions. Chateau Beychevelle, a fourth growth, regularly makes wine equal to those of the second growth. The same can be said of Chateau Lynch-Bages, absurdly placed in the fifth growth. And Chateau Palmer, a third growth, has often equaled even the regal wines of the first. Chateaux Talbot, Pon-tet-Canet, La Lagune, and Calon-Segur have also been underrated. Among the first growths, only Chateau Latour has continued to provide the drama one expects from a great wine. The same is true of Chateau Petrus, a Pomerol not included in the 1855 classification.

There are many reasons to account for these inconsistencies. Properties change hands. A new wine maker might alter the vinification techniques, thus changing the style of the wine. The 1855 committee anticipated these variations, but it relied on the notion that the topsoil would remain constant, thereby stabilizing a chateau’s long-range potential. Recent studies have revealed, however, that drainage of the subsoil by underground streams is a more important determinant of quality. The better the drainage, the deeper the vines’ roots will grow, thus providing a more constant environment and better protection against the vagaries of weather. According to Francois Chandou, owner of La Cave and a native of Bordeaux, these underground streams shift course over the years. One vineyard’s drainage might move to a neighboring chateau across the road, causing a mysterious exchange in the quality of their wines.

Despite its shortcomings, the system has held firm. The only change in the original document occurred in 1973, when Chateau Mouton-Roth-schild was elevated to first-growth status. As a guide for the consumer, the 1855 classification is nearly useless, but it continues to govern wine prices. You’ll likely pay more for a first growth than for a lesser growth, irrespective of quality. The buyer who knows when to ignore the classification system can find some bargains.

We arranged a tasting to compare two first-growth wines, Margaux and Haut-Brion, with their respective neighbors, Palmer and La Mission Haut Brion. These pairs were chosen because they are the best examples of elite chateaux being challenged by less famous competitors across the road. Chateau Margaux produced a fabulous 1961, but its wines have been pedestrian since then, possibly because of the turmoil surrounding the sale of the estate. Chateau Palmer, on the other hand, has been consistently excellent since World War II.

Chateau Haut-Brion has also experienced management and quality problems lately. It is rumored to have sold one of its best parcels of land to its rival, Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, which currently enjoys a better reputation.

The panel judged the wines in groups of four, two vintages of the first-growth versus the same vintages of its challenger. Each panelist described his or her impression of the wine and then assigned a ranking to it. Following are the rankings, the prices, and a summary of the panel’s observations for each group:

1. Ch. Palmer 1967, about $17

2. Ch. Margaux 1973, $22

3. Ch. Margaux 1967, $22

3. Ch. Palmer 1973, $7

The 1967 Palmer was the richest and most distinctive. The others were all light and unexciting. The Margaux are certainly overpriced.

1. Ch. Haut-Brion 1967, about $23

2. Ch. La Mission Haut Brion 1971, $15

3. Ch. Haut-Brion 1971, $22

4. Ch. La Mission Haut Brion 1967, $14

These wines from the Graves region were huge, inky monsters compared to the lightweights from Margaux. The 1967 Haut-Brion was smooth and ready to drink, while its neighbor from the same year was still in the rough stages of youth. The 1971 La Mission showed the most promise.

The results weren’t decisive, but they did show that the challengers deserve to play in the same ballpark with the legends. They also showed that you don’t have to rely on a classification system or on the opinions of experts for your wine judgments: Three of the panelists were wine merchants, but the remaining four had little previous exposure to fine wines. Regardless of tasting experience, the panelists detected the same attributes in the wines, and the novices ranked the wines about the same as the experts. Judgment of quality is a vague pursuit, and no confusing rating system will ever replace simple good taste.

Vintage years are crucial in Bordeaux, so while we’re on the subject, perhaps an update would be helpful. Remember that Bordeaux of a good year mature in seven to ten years. The better the year, the longer it takes. Wines from St. Emilion and Pomerol are ready the soonest.

1964: Beautiful summer, spoiled by heavy rains during the harvest. Grapes that were picked early made great wine. Many big names harvested in the rain, including Lafite and Mouton, but they still fetch high prices.

1966: Great year, many still maturing.

1967: Above average and probably the best for current drinking. St. Emilion and Pomerol excelled.

1969: Worst September rains in memory ruined a good crop. These wines came out at ridiculous prices, but tasted acidic and unbalanced. Avoid.

1970: Double blessing – huge harvest, great quality. Consistently fine in all areas. Best buy.

1971: Many excellent wines, but some disappointments. Look for St. Emilion and Pomerol.

1972: Good wine doesn’t come from unripe grapes. Dismiss.

1973: Largest harvest in history diluted good quality. Light wines, but very pleasant for current drinking.

1974: Similar in quality to 1973, but not as consistent. Best to avoid.

1975: Classic year, possibly the best since 1961 or 1945. Already expensive, and they won’t be ready to drink for some time.

1976: Another great year, but not as ethereal as ’75. Just now coming on the market.

1977: Bad weather, bad wine.

1978: An unexpectedly fine autumn saved this vintage from disaster. Too soon to tell, but maybe some great bottles.


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