Q: I recently attended a tasting you led on the 1996 Bordeaux First Growths.They didn't do much for me. Am I missing something? I thought I would be more overwhelmed and less underwhelmed. Am I nuts or was there just something uniformly uninspiring about the group? I was just wondering what you thought. --Amy S., Washington
A: You mean just because a wine costs $300 a bottle, you think it should taste great? How gauche. But don't feel bad. Even after two decades of serious wine tasting, I too occasionally find the same silly thought intruding into my mind. Crazy, isn't it?
Seriously though, you are certainly not nuts. Just because everyone says a wine is supposed to be great, that doesn't mean you have to like it. As the saying goes, de gustibus non est disputandum ("there is no disputing about taste"). Instead of mind-numbing health warnings, maybe the government should mandate that evergreen Latinism on every expensive bottle.
But maybe that answer is a bit too facile. After all, the stars of this tasting, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Haut Brion are among the most famous wines of the world. All were classified as Premiers Grands Crus Classes (First Great Growths) in Napoleon III's still influential 1855 classification of the chateaux of the Medoc. (Actually, Mouton was elevated in 1973, correcting a historic injustice.) They routinely command prices two to three times higher than other top Bordeaux and have done so since the 1700s. Perhaps what you are really asking is, shouldn't the quality of such wines be utterly unmistakable? Or is this a matter of the emperor having no clothes? These are great questions, and exactly the ones that the tasting was meant to raise, and hopefully, to answer. We need to take a closer look.
The key to this tasting is that it was conducted "blind." In addition to the First Growths, eight other 1996 Bordeaux were tasted. While we knew the names of all 13 wines in the tasting, none of us, myself included, knew which of the glasses held the $300-range First Growths and which held the ringers. The ringers were wines deviously chosen by me to confound and confuse. With the exception of Chateau Gloria, a respected $30 cru bourgeoise, all were highly regarded Bordeaux classified growths ranging in price from about $45 to $100 per bottle. The challenge of the tasting was whether, without seeing the labels, we could reliably pick out the First Growths.
Before revealing the identities of the wines, I asked the approximately 100 tasters to vote on which wines they thought were First Growths. Here's how the votes came out (asterisks indicate the wines that got my votes): Chateau Lafite-Rothschild (75 votes), * Chateau Rausan-Segla 1996 (70 votes), * Chateau Leoville-Poyferre (65 votes), * Chateau Pichon-Lalande (60), Chateau Latour (50), * Chateau Mouton Rothschild (40), Chateau Lagrange (35), Chateau Leoville-Barton (30), Chateau Montrose (15), * Chateau Margaux (10), Chateau Haut Brion (10), Chateau Pichon Baron (5), Chateau Gloria (corked; eliminated).
As one can see, you (and I) weren't the only one who had trouble picking out the First Growths. While Lafite finished first, the other Firsts were almost randomly scattered.
But does this prove the First Growths are largely overrated? Not really. Great Bordeaux takes years of cellaring to show all its stuff. The First Growths' chief claim to fame is not necessarily that they taste better young, but that they age the best of all and have the track record to prove it. If we wait to taste the same wines a decade from now, the results may be quite different.
Nonetheless, I do believe there is way too much label buying nowadays. There is no question that in recent years the quality difference between the First Growths and other top wines has narrowed dramatically, if not entirely disappeared. This is not because the First Growths have declined, but because the other top chateaux have vastly improved as a result of stricter winemaking and better viticulture. With one or two exceptions, there wasn't a wine in this tasting I wouldn't love to have in my cellar.
So here's the good news. Our tasting showed that whether you can afford to spend $300 or $45, there is truly great Bordeaux to be had. What it didn't tell us is how much one should spend. Some may say the track record of the First Growths justifies the premium, while others would disagree. I say it's your money. Have some fun.
Chateau La Cardonne 1996 ($16; France): Okay, this little Medoc isn't Lafite, but it was once owned by the Rothschilds, and the new owners have made it even better. A tannic blockbuster, with gobs of cassis fruit and great balance, this beauty has all the right stuff. (Imported by Seagram)