The thickest cream is at the farm. The freshest fish is at the wharf. And the most authentic wine is bottled at the winery. "The closer to the source, the better the product" must be the consumer philosophy of our time. We feel happier knowing that there's no danger of a foreign element's finding its way into the product. Like a little southern Italian wine being blended into a French red? Bordeaux seems safe enough, doesn't it? We take the chateau bottling of the better wines for granted. Yet, before the '50s, only the largest, wealthiest chateaux could afford their own bottling equipment. And even then, bottling was done when the time could be spared, rather than when the wine was ready. Rainy days were bottling days. For the lesser ranks, whose title of "chateau" often hides a humble home, not a castle, production was too small to justify a bottling line.
Their wine would be sold in barrel to negociants in Bordeaux. If intended for export, it would then be shipped, again in barrel, to Brussels, or London, or Bristol. At the other end, there were firms whose business was to bottle the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, Jerez and Oporto. And their expertise counted for more among their customers in Belgium or Britain than that of many chateaux.
That's all changed. Vintage ports are bottled in Oporto, and chateau bottling has been compulsory for the classed growths of the M,edoc since 1969. More of the crus bourgeois are also bottling their own wines since the introduction of mobile bottling in the mid-'60s. It's also more efficient and less expensive to ship wine in bottles--packed in cases and sealed in large containers--than in barrels.
The subject of bottling was prompted by a tasting of the wines of a private cellar from Brussels. Some was bottled in Bordeaux, some in Belgium. The collection includes the best vintages from 1955 to 1970, with a weighting toward Pomerol and St.-Emilion. They, the growers and negociants near Libourne, were not involved in the 1969 chateau bottling agreement of the M,edoc. To this day, firms such as Mouiex age and bottle the wines of many small properties, including most of their own, at their cellars in Libourne, not at the chateaux.
Back to the tasting and the question of most interest: How would the Belgian bottlings stand up to the chateau bottlings of the same vintage? Would there be obvious differences, presumably to the advantage of the chateau wine? There were three pairs of wines: '66 Trotanoy, '59 Lafleur and '59 La Conseillante.
Differences there were. However, the Belgian bottlings did not come out as the losers. It was a question of style. I found the chateau bottling was the more fragrant in bouquet, softer and rounder in finish. The Belgian wine was firmer, sterner. Both were in fine condition, and I can only speculate that the Belgians may have had longer in wood. Anyway, the Belgian bottler, whoever it was, did a good job.
To be fair to the proponents of chateau bottling, I have tasted a London bottling of the '70 Pape-Clement that bore little resemblance to the well-made chateau bottling. Negociant and shipper bottlings can be risky.
The wines of the Brussels cellars are going through local wholesale channels into our shops and restaurants. Prices will vary, depending on the buyers' markups, but the wholesaler's list price seems fair. We've been promised more cellars of fine, mature wines. If they arrive in similar condition, they'll be welcome.