Bordeaux lovers, be careful Wine: In recent years, prices have gone up, and in some cases, quality has gone down.

January 18, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

For the most part, wine is a joy, but occasionally you encounter a bottle that is profoundly depressing.

Such a wine was the 1994 Chateau Moulin de Tricot. It was a red Bordeaux from the famous village of Margaux. The vintage was a very good one. The price tag suggested that this would be a fine bottle of wine.

It was repulsive.

The 1994 Moulin de Tricot was a harsh, skunky, greenish, tannic wine -- devoid of fruit or any other pleasure. It was the kind of wine that made you want to apologize to the sink you poured it down.

And it cost $25.

Is this really what the Bordeaux market has come to? Bad wine from no-name chateaux at prices that as recently as 1992 would have bought you such great 1990 wines as Leoville-Barton, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Troplong-Mondot and Pontet-Canet?

Unfortunately, the answer is a qualified yes. There are many Moulin de Tricots out there these days, though most hide their modest quality behind more modest price tags.

Despite a run of good vintages in the mid-1990s, the Bordeaux market today is more treacherous than ever before for the frugal consumer. Demand has escalated dramatically as new markets have developed a taste for Bordeaux. The world's wine connoisseurs were thirsty for a fine Bordeaux vintage after a run of mediocrity in 1991-'93.

This is not the first time Bordeaux prices have jumped. Many of us Bordeaux old-timers (that is, those of us of legal age before the founding of the Wine Advocate) recall the sticker shock that set in when the price of First Growths such as Lafite-Rothschild and Latour jumped past $50. (Of course, that $50 1982 Chateaux Margaux looks like a good investment now that it's listed at $799.)

Best buys in the past

Before, there was always a new batch of stars waiting to be discovered. When "super-Seconds" such as Chateau Cos d'Estournel became too dear, we unearthed great wines from lower down on the 1855 classification (that famous ranking of Bordeaux chateaux by their perceived quality). When prices of those wines escalated, we started finding the great wines the 1855 crew had missed -- Sociando-Mallet, Chasse-Spleen and Meyney, to name three.

But now the 1994 Meyney -- a chateau frugal oenophiles had come to love -- is selling for $29.99 in the Brown Derby catalog. Prices of the excellent 1995s, the best vintage since 1990, will be even higher.

It would be wrong to look back on a previous era as some kind of Golden Age of Bordeaux. The market has always been flush with poorly made wines at excessive prices.

In the past, however, the main problem was that good ground was yielding poor wines because of neglect and incompetence. Now, with an increasingly well-informed public demanding better wine, nobody can afford to coast on a decades-old reputation.

Today's problem appears to be different. Many of the Bordeaux reds coming to the market now have the taste and feel of wines from marginal vineyard sites -- wines that exporters wouldn't have touched when demand was not as great.

Let us not dwell at length on bad wine. Suffice it to say that consumers should be wary of unfamiliar names lest they get stuck with wines such as the 1995 Chateau Laudey (Margaux, $17.49), 1993 Chateau du Grand Moueys (Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux, $10) or 1995 Chateau Graves du Privera (Medoc, $11.50).

(The 1995 Chateau Lapelletrie, a St. Emilion, doesn't deserve to be classified with such losers, but neither does it justify a $19 price tag.)

There are a few bright lights in the $25-and-under group:

* Chateau Vieux Robin, a Medoc cru bourgeois, doesn't dazzle )) for $10 anymore, but the 1995 is still a good value at at $15.

* The 1995 Chateau Monichot ($11), from the "wrong" side of the Gironde in the Cotes de Bourg, is a delicious Bordeaux that can be drunk now or held for five years. It would certainly be welcome if more producers in Bourg and its neighbor Blaye made a commitment to develop the potential of this region.

* Chateau La Pointe, a Pomerol that was a laggard in quality during the late 1980s and 1990, produced a wonderful 1995, with concentrated black cherry fruit, classic structure and the

potential to improve for 10 years or more. The price tag of $25 is only a few dollars more than in the early 1990s.

* The 1995 La Chenade ($23) is unusually tannic and structured for a wine from Lalande-de-Pomerol. Right now the fruit seems a bit diffuse, perhaps a result of filtration, but there's good raw material here. Time will tell if it justifies its price.

If Bordeaux is your passion, you can still take heart from plunging Asian stock markets. Strong demand from the Pacific Rim is one of the reasons Bordeaux prices have soared in recent years, and economic turmoil there could cut into disposable income.

Recent reports suggest the 1997 Bordeaux harvest could be the fourth in a row to produce high-quality wines. By the time consumers have stopped spending on the 1995s, demand could be a bit squishy.

This confluence of events won't necessarily lead to a price collapse, but we wine ghouls can always hope.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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