Looks Like a Lucky Break for Bordeaux

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

There was an extra buzz in the room at the 10th annual Heart's Delight Bordeaux tasting May 9 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Northwest. Not only were more than two dozen winemakers and chateau owners in town to present their newly released 2006 vintage, but Robert Parker, who has been called the most influential wine critic in the world, returned to emcee the event he helped launch.

Given Parker's stature in the wine industry, it seemed fitting that the winemakers were arrayed on either side of him at a long table facing the audience. The dais rather resembled a tableau of the Last Supper, with Parker in the messianic middle.

"I want you to know that I did not pay for my seat next to Bob," quipped John Kolasa, who presented the wines of Chateau Canon in Saint-Emilion and Chateau Rauzan-Segla in Margaux. Kolasa was seated at Parker's left , which presumably makes him Doubting Thomas.

Heart's Delight is a three-day bacchanal and auction sponsored for the past decade by MacArthur Beverages in memory of Bruce Bassin, son of store founders Addy and Ruth Bassin, who died in 1998 at age 40 of a heart attack. The event has raised more than $8 million for the American Heart Association and its fight against coronary disease, said Heidi Arnold, director of the auction. (Disclosure: For the past three years, I have served on the event's auction committee.)

Just a week before this year's event, Parker performed a miracle of sorts for Bordeaux by proclaiming 2008 "a totally unexpected and excellent vintage," with many wines on a par with the outstanding 2000s and 2005s. The quality was a surprise because August had been rainy, which would have doomed a harvest a few decades ago, before vineyard practices improved. Producers were extra gloomy because the world's economic woes raised concerns that the fine-wine market might shrivel like a bunch of rotten grapes.

Top Bordeaux are sold "en primeur," as futures, the spring following the vintage and are "released" to the market two years before they are actually delivered. Several top chateaux, sensitive to criticism of exorbitant price increases in recent vintages, had slashed their prices for 2008. Many buyers in Britain and the United States decided to hold off on ordering 2008 futures, citing the world economy.

Once Parker released his ratings, however, prices on some high-scoring wines soared. Almost as important as a sunny September, praise from Parker can save a vintage.

Some of the winery representatives expressed sensitivity to price pressures in the market. "When you open a bottle, you should not feel as though you are swallowing your children's inheritance," said Alfred-Alexandre Bonnie, owner of Chateau Malartic-Lagraviere.

In his remarks on the wines, Parker sounded upbeat about Bordeaux and its future.

"Bordeaux remains hallowed ground and is the leading high-quality wine region in the world," he said. He described a great wine as one "that appeals to both our hedonistic senses and our intellect, shows an intensity of flavor without being heavy, reflects its place of origin and shows individuality."

The 31 wines from 2006 on display at Heart's Delight shared those characteristics. The vintage also allowed the different appellations within Bordeaux to express their personalities, from the accessible friendliness of Saint-Emilion to the elegance of Margaux and the power of Pauillac.

There may be good news for wine consumers and collectors. The 2006 vintage always has lived in the shadow of the picture-perfect 2005, which means reduced expectations and demand. And the economic uncertainties that plagued the recent launch of the 2008s is having a retro-ripple effect on the 2006 vintage, now reaching retail shelves. When initial prices were set for the 2006, the Dow Jones industrial average was hovering around 14,000. Retailers that bought the wines at those prices but must sell them in today's market, with the Dow below 9,000, are feeling the squeeze, to the buyers' advantage.

"Frankly, I got scared, knowing the 2008s would be out at significantly lower prices and hearing the rumors that Parker would give some good reviews," said Mark Wessels, manager of MacArthur Beverages. "I decided I should sell some 2006s before the 2008s came out." Wessels slashed prices by 50 percent and sold 250 cases in the last two weeks of April at prices lower than what he paid for them. He still has more than 200 assorted cases of 2006 Bordeaux.

With rare exceptions, these wines are not cheap even at deep discounts. But the economic pinch on producers and retailers has produced a value-rich opportunity for collectors who haven't yet bought the 2006 and adventurous wine lovers who want to experience the magic of Bordeaux at prices lower than we've seen in recent years.

Dave McIntyre can be reached through his Web site, http://www.dmwineline.com, or at food@washpost.com.

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