Recently, on the day after a freak snowstorm, I set out on a two-embassy tour to sample wine futures. My first stop was the French Embassy, where the preview of the soon-to-be- released 1986 bordeaux was held. As members of the Union des Grands Crus spread their white tablecloths in a sunny banquet room, I detected a tonal shift away from the confidence of previous years: The Bordelais were troubled, if you can imagine that, about the ionospheric price of bordeaux. Some were almost contrite.
Proprietors and negoc iants in Bordeaux have been mercilessly marking up their wares since the '82 vintage. The corresponding collapse of the dollar has put Cha~teau Pe'trus and even the pokier little "crus bourgeois" -- Bordeaux's reputed second-string cha~teaux -- out of most Americans' reach. You will be happy to hear that prices quoted to me for the excellent '86 bordeaux were between 5 and 15 percent below those for the '85s when they were released.
And you will be dismayed to hear that they are still extremely expensive. A bottle of the '86 Cha~teau Giscours, for instance -- a third-growth from Margaux and one of the best of the wines presented -- was quoted at almost $40 a bottle. The Giscours had great color and concentrated fruit, with a peppery finish and big tannins; it will last for decades, but $40 is a ridiculously high price.
The '86 Cha~teau Chasse-Spleen, a "grand bourgeois exceptionnel" from Moulis, was deeply colored and intensely flavorful, showing magnificent fruit and subtlety despite its youth. It had sufficient tannin for the long haul. I recommend it highly -- if you can afford the $20 quoted as its price.
"Twenty dollars is not so much," said a representative of one of the other cha~teaux, referring to the financial stamina of some wealthy professionals. This may be true. But remember that many of these people cut their enological teeth on $2 bottles of the better bordeaux -- back in the 1960s. Two dollars then was probably the equivalent of about $10 today -- or half the amount now required for a memorable bordeaux.
Wealthy professionals, like everyone else, tend to die and stop buying wine. Meanwhile there is a generation of wine drinkers that may come to maturity ignorant of -- or uninterested in -- bordeaux. They are mindful of price and aware that improved wine-making procedures worldwide have narrowed the quality gap between countries.
Next, I slogged through the snow until I reached the portals of the Spanish Embassy. Les Amis du Vin had arranged a broad tasting there of widely available Spanish wines -- sherries, sparklers, whites and reds -- and some not so available. These wines -- accompanied by tapas, the succulent finger food that serves as fine ballast at such events -- were quite impressive.
Not long ago, Spanish wines tended to be overly "oaked" -- they spent too much time in barrels, often moldy ones -- and lacking in depth and subtlety. The whites in those days were often oxidized, and the reds were clumsy compared with their counterparts from across the Pyrenees. That has changed.
Overall, the Spanish wines were well made and clean. The whites had gained a freshness and complexity from being fermented in stainless-steel tanks; the best reds were tremendously flavorful. All were relatively inexpensive.
The riojas -- those classic Spanish reds that occasionally resemble bordeaux -- still are among the best buys anywhere. The other reds bore no resemblance to bordeaux but elicited strong responses from a palate still resounding with the cabernet sauvignon and merlot tasted earlier. After a few sips, a point came strongly home: Fine wine creates its own reputation. It may start in the mouth, but the really good wines build a lasting frame of reference.
Several of the Spanish reds, if bought and put away, would provide increasingly pleasant memory jogs over the years. One example was the '84 Pesquera, from the Duero region in central Spain. A huge, inky wine with loads of flavor and tannin, the Pesquera bears a label that many may consider too parochial. Well, parochialism, if by that we mean strong character, is part of its charm.
Pesquera's frame of reference is stout but subtle. It is made almost entirely from the tempranillo grape -- a heftier clone of pinot noir. The 1984 harvest was a light vintage, so the heavier 1985 Pesquera should be an even bigger mnemonic inspiration. Listed at $14 at the tasting, Pesquera can probably be had for less.
I finished the day convinced that the prices for the '86 bordeaux had to come down a lot more than 15 percent, and that the prices of quality Spanish wine are bound to rise. Meanwhile, the gap between Francophilic inflation and Iberian reserve is being filled by California and Australian wines, which are enjoying a huge, well-deserved popularity, based upon that age-old synergy: low cost, high quality. ::