Friday, February 23, 2007

Bordeaux Step 6: Hitting the Books

Once upon a time, before there were wine magazines, people used to see advertisements like this one and trot down to their wine merchant to order up some Bordeaux. All research was done in the shop. Now, the trade magazines tell us "time to buy!" and we hit the internet for more information. Modern bordeaux buying typically involves a lot of research, and the wine buyers and critics are happy to put their oar in the water to help out. I just got my March 31 Wine Spectator, for example, complete with their list of the 50 best Bordeaux under $50 and notes for the 2004 vintage (which kind of got lost between the 2003 and 2005).

Every year, lots of ink is spilled on giving consumers like you and me advice on how to spend money on Bordeaux wines. And if you want to make savvy choices, and spend wisely, you need to read barrel reports, early bottling reports, and later tastings once the wine has developed a bit. Even if you don't read Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Decanter, or any of the other magazines regularly, if you're going to buy Bordeaux futures on the basis of barrel samples, or pre-arrivals on the basis of early tastes from bottles coming soon to a retailer near you, researching your options is imperative.

But this research can be confusing. Early responses to Bordeaux wines are typically prognostications about how a buyer or critic thinks a wine will develop and taste when it is at its peak. As a result, leading critics and wine buyers at big retailers like K&L Wines often give point ranges ("89-91," for example) because it's just not possible to exactly predict how a wine will perform. Often, you will see indications that a wine might be a "sleeper of the vintage." This term is used to describe wines that might be from lesser-known producers but show early indications of maturing into interesting, complex, and highly-drinkable wines.

Some of the best values in Bordeaux are among wines given an "89-91" rating in the initial barrel tastes, and among so-called "sleepers." Among K&L's 2005 Bordeaux and Sauternes Pre-Arrivals available now, for example, there are more than half a dozen wines under $20 that fit into one--or both--of these two categories. But it's absolutely vital that you buy for flavors not just points. I like currants, licorice, flowers, and a silky texture in my Bordeaux, so I gravitate towards those wines regardless of the scores.

My advice is to find a critic, a blogger, or a buyer whose palate more or less coincides with yours and follow their lead. I find Clyde Beffa, the Bordeaux buyer at K&L, likes the same kinds of wines that I do and tastes pretty much what I do when I drink the wines. Another person whose recommendations I like is Chris Kissack, aka the Wine Doctor, who has great tasting notes for Bordeaux, all available right here on the web. I think his palate is fantastic, and his notes are really detailed and informative so check him out if you haven't already. Most of these resources will also be able to give you a sense of when the particular wine is likely to reach its optimal drinkability--something that can help you to plan your storage.

In general, I find that the best value Bordeaux are lurking among cru bourgeois wines. Bordeaux wines are divided among a dizzying array of classifications, beginning with the 1855 classification of Medoc wines and Sauternes and Barsac into crus. These wines tend to be very, very expensive. More classifications followed when the wines from Graves were classified in 1959, the wines of St Emilion in 1996, and the Medoc's cru bourgeois in 2003. A lot has changed since 1855, and this newest classification of cru bourgeois wines began as a way to recognize the excellent wines being made by chateaux not included in the original 1855 classification.

Bordeaux prices tend to rise steadily as the wine progresses from barrel, to bottle, to retailer shelves, to retailer storage facilities. Your best bet is to buy as early as you feel comfortable doing so. So if in your research you trip across a barrel tasting that describes a wine that sounds just perfect for you, the buyer or critic predicts it will develop into a very good or excellent wine, and it's under $20 you probably want to order it then. Next time you see it on offer, it's likely to be $25, and the next time $30, and so on.

Bargain hunting among merchant websites and magazines can be a lot of fun but it's easy to get carried away and end up forgetting what you've already ordered and have stashed in the closet. Don't forget to sign up with CellarTracker or keep a good list of your futures and pre-arrival orders so that your budgetary limits and your storage constraints won't be forgotten in all the excitement.

Next week: a few final recommendations regarding how to twiddle your thumbs productively while you wait for your Bordeaux to enter its ideal drinking window.


Joe said...

The funny thing with Bordeaux is how you really have to rely on others for that early taste (i.e. before you place the futures order). Unfortunately, my phone is not "ringing off the hook" with First Growth producers requesting I fly in and do a barrel sample...
For our recent "merlot redux" night, I found it interesting that a "famous taster" initially rated the 1990 Chateau Clinet 88-90, then 92, then 95 points (nearly 10 years later). You never can tell with that early taste, yet so much Bordeaux is bought that way (I've got a few 2005 orders in...). Cheers!

David said...

I'm enjoying these Bordeuax articles, and will refer to them as I try more Bordeaux. I've been hearing hype about 2005 in both Bordeaux and Burgundy--any opinions on that? I'm tempted to buy some burgundy in particular from 2005.

Dr. Debs said...

Hi Joe! It's true, even if you don't pay a whole lot of attention to the critics in the general course of things, you still need them when it comes to barrel tastings and early reactions. I don't get many calls to attend barrel nights, either! And that increase in Chateau Clinet is not unusual. It's why I think buying 88-91 wines is such a good plan. Most barrel tastes are a bit conservative, for the obvious reasons. And congrats on the 2005 orders--I'm still dithering. David, I'm glad you are enjoying the articles. I'm not the one to talk to about Burgundy--head over to Brooklynguy's site--but the 2005 is definitely a good vintage for cru bourgeois wines that are affordable--under $15 in many cases. And don't forget the neglected 2004 vintage. The prices are really low relative to 2003 and 2005, and there are still very good wines despite the fact it wasn't a comparatively blockbuster year.

Brooklynguy said...

Hey Doc - thanks for the plug re: Burgundy advice. I am still putting together a $25 and under list, and 2005 will feature prominently, I expect.

I bought a half case of 2004 Bordeaux futures, and because it's not considered to be a star vintage, I was able to buy wines like Leoville Barton and Calon Segur at prices I can afford. Turns out that people like the Wine Doctor are starting to say that 2004 was actually a good year, a "classic" year. Not a star, but not too hot or too wet or anything like that. Then I went and bought a case of 05 futures, and I already feel like an idiot, because the wines get a point or two higher in the rating range, but are literally double the price. for example, Calon Segur 04 (89-93 pts Tanzer), $40. Calon Segur 05 (90-93 pts Tanzer), $81. This is the worst example of my mistake, and I did score some great 05s at decent prices. But I still feel that I should have focused on 04 and left 05 for those who actually know what they're doing in Bordeaux... My favorite over achiever in Bordeaux is Sociando Mallet. I should have bought a few 05s and left well enough alone.

Dr. Debs said...

Hi, Neil! Good to see you over here, and hope that fatherhood is agreeing with you! It's always the way, isn't it, that we caught up in the hype of the "century's vintage" and then inevitably there are good wines available no matter what year it is. I like classic Bordeaux style, so as soon as they skipped the 2004 vintage coverage, I figured it had to be because it was more Old World and therefore will not be quickly drinkable. Because I'm so limited in storage space, I'm only buying 6-9 bottles a year. We're all looking forward to you Burgundy list!