It was only a short time ago that we associated the grand auction houses exclusively with the artwork of old masters (and matching price tags) and would have been incredulous had we been told that we could source good wine there cheaper than Majestic. The reality is you can, but it's worth knowing a few things about how wine auctions operate before you take part, just so you get the best out of the event.
Our usual auction house of choice is Sotheby's on New Bond Street though most will follow a similar format. What's more, you don't even have to be present to bid, you can do it by telephone or even live on-line, and with a monthly event, there's always another auction just round the corner if you lose out on lots or are on holiday and miss it.
Before we consider the mechanism of how to buy, it is worth considering two questions: why buy at auction and who exactly are the sellers?
There are two reasons for buying at auction. First, through careful buying you can get things cheaper, it's a simple as that, and second, you can get some rare and/or wine with a decent bottle age. We often find that in shops, even with good wine retailers, there's few vintages available for sale before 2003/04 so if you like wine with a bit of bottle age, auctions are a good place to buy.
As for sellers, they tend to be high net worth wine collectors (Andrew Lloyd Webber recently sold a large part of his collection at auction) as well as sales from the estates of the deceased when the offspring prefer assets that are even more liquid than wine. There's a certain reliance of the auction house to check the provenance of items they sell and while one or two mistakes have been made and publicised in the past, the big name auction houses do have reputations to maintain and offer as much protection as you reasonably expect from any wine retailer.
So, armed with the desire to take part, the first thing to do is see what they're selling and to know what you want. At Sotheby's, it is largely Bordeaux, red and white Burgundy and some champagne and Port. There's some Spanish, some Italian and a few cases of new world wines but here at least, it is predominantly old world with a bias to France. Most wine is also sold by the case so the usual lot size is a case of 12 bottles. Some lots are 6 bottles while in a few instances, they will sell individual bottles so pay attention to what you're buying. There's also a range of prices from £100 a case, up to (in a few instances) £50,000 a case for rare vintage top Burgundy with any one auction offering the full spectrum.
To find out what's on sale, you can look at a catalogue on line (which can be downloaded as a pdf) or walk through the door of their Bond Street premises and buy a glossy colour catalogue for £10 which is also handy for making notes in on prices etc.
So what will the catalogue tell you? We show a sample lot to the right from today's auction - lot 325. First, obviously the name of the wine and the vintage, here, Chateau Margaux 1994. We can also see that the lot is for 12 bottles (bts), worth checking for both quantity and type for they also sell magnum formats and more. The (owc) means original wooden case suggesting this case has been stored intact since bottling.
There's also a description of the wine's appearance: excellent levels means high fill levels with wine well into the neck of the bottle, one label has a small stain but otherwise the bottles are of pristine appearance. This is important because low fill levels might mean the wine has evaporated or leaked, and damaged labels might suggest the wine has had a rough life, clearly not the case here. There has also been some tasting notes added and signed SS - Serena Sutcliffe MW, Head of Wine at Sotheby's.
Finally, we have the all important price. What they provide here is a range of where this lot might reasonably sell. In their own words, 'any bid between the high and the low pre-sale estimates would in our opinion offer a chance for success. However, all lots can realise prices above or below pre-sale estimates'. Through the auction, the auctioneer will tell you what the current bid price is and where the next increment is, and it is this price that forms your bid. What the lot finally goes for is the 'hammer price' and this is the price that forms the basis for what comes next.
This is where things get a little tricky because the price you bid is not the price you pay (sorry). You'll need to think about the buyer's premium and taxation and this is the most complex part of the transaction; let's consider both. The buyers premium is simple, this is a commission paid to the auction house on sale. At Sotheby's, it runs at 15% and therefore if you buy a case of wine for £500, you need to add on £75 commission. Next you have taxes which generally means alcohol duty and VAT. Which needs to be applied? It depends on what has already been levied during the wine's lifetime. Wine can be stored 'in bond' with no tax paid on them - duty is currently £20.25 a case. VAT tends to be the painful part because that could add more than 20% to the hammer price. There are three scenarios:
- 'In bond' means no taxes will have been paid so you will need to add duty and VAT to the hammer price and buyers premium
- 'Duty paid but VAT on hammer' means that you will need to add VAT to the hammer price and buyers premium
- 'Offered duty paid' means VAT on buyer's premium only
It sounds complex but let's look at that in practice. The catalogue tells me that lot 325 above is 'offered duty paid' so no duty and VAT on the buyers premium only. If you secure this lot at the minimum bid, £1,900, what's the price you pay?
The buyer's premium is 15% of £1,900 which is £285, and VAT on the buyer's premium is 20% of that so £57. The total cost is therefore £2,242 or £187 a bottle. So did you get a bargain?
To compare, I use wine-searcher
. Putting Margaux 1994 into wine-searcher tells me that the cheapest vendor in the UK on their database retails Margaux 1994 at £237 before VAT and £285 after VAT. In other words, if you bought the wine at auction for the minimum bid price, you have saved £100 a bottle, or a stunning £1,200 on a case! For those that like percentages, it's a 34% discount. What's more, wine-searcher shows other places charging up to £350 a bottle so revealing even bigger savings.
What if you won at the top end of the bid, £2,400 a case? Now you're paying £2,976 a case or £248 a bottle, in other words, you're paying a price at the level of the keenest retail price.
This demonstrates the bargains to be had. So what should your wine buying strategy be? First, decide what you want from the catalogue. Second, see what the best retail price is for the wine. Third, knowing what tax is due, work backwards to translate the best retail price into a 'hammer price'; I use an excel spreadsheet to do the sums for me and then I make a note of this in the catalogue. Then it's simple, simply decide what price, up to the this you are prepared to pay. I usually look for at least a 10% discount to make it worthwhile (if I really want the wine) or a 30% discount if I'm more ambivalent.
Three things though are worth remembering. First, discipline is important. If you go over the 'keenest retail hammer price' you haven't got a bargain and would be better off buying it on-line. Second, be prepared to lose. There's often over 800 lots, so 800 cases of wine on sale per auction, something of what you fancy will be available at a bargain and you should be prepared to walk away from that which is not. Third, even if you end up with nothing by the end of the auction, there's another auction next month, and another the month after. Be patient and know that those that did win the lots overpaid. Who knows what bargains the next auction will bring. Don't get carried away and don't buy for the sake of it.
And that's it! Almost. While clearly I can't cover every point in this one blog post, hopefully this will be enough to show the value available at auctions and how to extract that value. With that said, next month, please don't bid against me and drive prices higher. Enjoy! Return to homepage
This is a guest post written by friend and wine professional Very Top Shoulder. VTS has over a decade of experience in the wine trade and is currently studying for his Master of Wine qualification.
What’s the difference between a good and a great wine? While the enjoyment of wine is in many ways a subjective experience, there are nevertheless firm criteria used by MWs to establish greatness in a wine. The institute of Masters of Wine is a qualification that dates back to 1955 and is universally recognised as the ‘highest achievement in the global wine community’ with currently 289 members in total. This article will discuss those criteria as a meaningful way of assessing wine.
The world of wine is a fascinating place and part of that fascination is the diversity: the multiple styles that exist, the constant changing of vintages – perhaps more important in the Old world where wine is made in a marginal climate – and the various philosophies that are espoused as part of the recipe to make great wine. In this piece I will look at whether it is possible to be objective about what is essentially a subjective experience: tasting and enjoying wine.
The tasting experience is a subjective one. We all have preferences and prejudices and we all taste differently. We all have different thresholds with some of us are more sensitive to component parts of wine than others such as tannin and acidity. How then can we really separate great wine from really good wine? Is it possible to make objective statements in analysing a wine whether it is great or merely just good? In the Master of Wine qualification the way of assessing the quality of a wine is based on four factors that when combine, determine a wine’s quality. These are balance, length, concentration and complexity.
Balance this is perhaps hardest to quantify and difficult to explain without actually tasting a wine. Essentially though, the structure of the wine, that is to say the acids, alcohol, tannin and fruit of the wine, should have no rough edges – it should be seamless in its composition. When you taste the wine, the overriding feeling that you should be with is one of harmony with no alcohol, acid, oak or any other part of the wine ‘sticking out’. A truly balanced wine is effortless. Balance is an important indicator in determining whether a wine can age; a wine that is balanced to start with will always be balanced over time, but if a wine is not balanced to start with it never becomes balanced over time. In my early days in the wine trade this is what I was taught and I stand by it now having tasted thousands of wines.
Length is simply how long the flavour lasts when you taste it. In a simple wine it is over in an instant, in a great wine it is said to be “long” if the flavour lingers on the palate and stays there for a period of time rather than just being simple and one dimensional. Length is strictly speaking a measurement of time in how long the flavour lasts to the taster, but it often overlaps with complexity; complex wines are often long, whereas simple wines are never are. If you compare a simple pinot grigio with that of a grand cru white Burgundy, length should be one of the key differences between the two.
Complexity implies that the wine changes in the glass and that there are levels and layers of flavour changing and improving positively over time. If every time you go back and smell the wine and you pick up different nuances then you know you are tasting a complex wine. Often a wine that changes in the glass over time is a good indication of the wines ability to age – and improve with age. With practice this is something that is easy to detect and with the really great wines it is instantly obvious the moment you smell it. Complexity too can be detected on the palate as there is a panoply of flavours confirming what you have already sniffed.
Concentrated wines have a significant depth of flavour. Concentration is often an indication of the ripeness of the grapes, wines from great vintages are often extremely concentrated, but this should be seen as an overall part of the wine rather than a stated aim. One of the reasons this occurs is that grapes from old vines give less juice, but the juice is more concentrated than that from a young vine. Concentration is an important part of a wines ability to age, as if it is too dilute then it simply falls apart over time whereas wines from ripe grapes have enough stuffing to last for long periods of time and also demonstrate their layers and nuances from year to year.
Invariably great wines have the capacity to age, in fact one could argue this should be another criteria in determining the great from the good. That said, the question of how long to keep the wine for and when best to drink it is a very subjective choice. Young wines can be enjoyed for their upfront fruit, brightness and immediacy of flavour and freshness. Old wines are a completely different experience, tasting and smelling completely different; tertiary aromas such as mushrooms , cigar box, cedar, and leather that appear emphasise more subtle intricacy and delicacy than size, volume and immediacy. These can often be lost to the untuned palate, and more often than not the flavour profile is one that takes time to get used to and even enjoy.
To quote one of the doyens of Napa Valley winemakers Andre Tchelistcheff “tasting old wine is like making love to an old lady; it is possible, it can even be enjoyable, but it requires a little bit of imagination.” Thus the question of when shall I drink X or Y really depends on the individual and how you like them. The best advice I was ever given is to buy a case of something you like when you taste it young, and drink a bottle a year. When it is perfect for you then you know you can enjoy the rest, otherwise wait! It is better to enjoy a wine on the way up then past its best.
The methodology I have just suggested then is hopefully a tool to help us decide the great from the good. When Masters of Wine describe a wine as great they will be judging it on the criteria of concentration, complexity, length and balance. As you become more experienced with tasting wine you will be able to identify these traits and be able to judge a wine more competently. You will know that you are some way to judge objectively when you can appreciate a wines innate quality even whilst not liking the said grape variety or the style. Who said wine tasting was easy?Return to homepage
Bruce, Bruce and Bruce, all professors in the Philosophy Department of the University of Woolloomooloo Australia, were the genius comic creation of Monty Python and in their live shows would, cork hats on head, sing, 'The Philosopher's Song’ which included such great lines as:
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
'I drink, therefore I am.'
so introducing the classic line ‘I drink therefore I am’ to a new generation who might not have known that the original is attributed to the great WC Fields (1880-1946).
The line has now moved so conspicuously into the public domain that it borders on cliché and most authors would be foolhardy to even contemplate using it as a title for book on wine. Roger Scruton though is not most authors and the subtitle of the book ‘A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine’ provides the bridge to reclaiming the comment, for as we’ll learn in due course, Scruton sees Descartes as ‘the most overrated philosopher in history’ and he suggests drinking ‘a deep dark Rhône wine’ when you read Descartes since ‘such a wine will compensate for the thinness of the Meditations and give you rather more to talk about’.
While most authors and publishers seek to take the low road – consider The Dummy's Guide to Whatever – Scruton moves in the opposite direction, even calling one of his books An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy where he states in the introduction that he ‘presupposes no knowledge other than that which an intelligent person is likely to possess already,’ simple things we gather like the complete works of Shakespeare, Beethoven and Wagner’s ring cycle. I can only imagine what horror a tutorial with him must have been like.
His guide to wine is more approachable than this but will still leave the average reader lost at times I suspect – I know I was. What to make of sentences like ‘as Kant brilliantly showed, the person who is acquainted with the self, who refers to himself as ‘I’, is inescapably trapped into freedom’? Yet at other times, we can just share the joy of his learning (we’re told that the Ancient Egyptians for example would classify and label wines by their social function e.g. ‘wine for tax collection day’) or sometimes, just warm to a touching story of his own humanity (yes indeed, Scruton is in fact human).
All of these aspects give the book, like a good wine, layers of complexity leaving a lasting impression on the reader long after you’ve put the book down even if you struggle with the form this lasting impression takes.
Before we finally get to the structure of the book itself, it must be pointed out that Scruton equates wine with culture and civilisation, and intoxication is different to drunkenness noting that wine intoxicates like poetry when drunk correctly through ‘measured desire’. He believes that all the problems of the world could be solved by sitting down and talking them through over a glass of good claret. Against this background he has harsh words on Islamic abstinence and notes that in surah xvi verse 7 of the Koran wine is unreservedly praised as one of God’s gifts, but following the prophet’s Medina exile, surah v verses 90-91 are less complimentary and later revelations cancel the earlier.
But nor does the Western culture of drinking to get drunk escape his critical pen as he notes:
The drink problem that we witness in British cities stems from our inability to pay Bacchus his due. Thanks to cultural impoverishment, young people no longer have a repertoire of songs, poems and arguments or ideas with which to entertain one another in their cups. They drink to fill the moral vacuum generated by their culture, and while we are familiar with the adverse effect a drink has on an empty stomach, we are now witnessing the far worse effect of drink on an empty mind.
The book itself can be subdivided in discrete themes. It starts with a youthful Scruton ‘discovering’ good wine during his Cambridge university days as he is introduced by successive mentors to the best of red and white Burgundy and acknowledges Napoleon’s quip that ‘nothing makes life so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin’.
We then go on a tour of the wine regions of the world, though for Scruton, the world of wine is divided into France and everywhere else. We get a tour of both balanced in those proportions and enjoy both a history lesson and comic sketch book and giggle along the way. Sometimes, Scruton has a humorous anecdote to help on the journey (in America there is a journal called The Modern Drunkard which offers ‘useful advice on the forgotten art of staggering’) while at other times the humour is entirely accidental such as when he claims that ‘reading the literature of New Zealand feminists, animal rights activists and multi-culturalists, I long ago decided I could have no place in the intellectual life of Canterbury’.
When the world tour is over (the ‘I Drink’ part), we move to the ‘Therefore I am’ part as he discusses what ‘I’ means. This is by far and away the most difficult chapter and full absorption is not entirely required for the book to be enjoyed as a whole. After that, it’s the meaning of wine – how for example is great wine different from great art or great music and how can we understand taste? Can we describe it? Then we have ‘the meaning of whine’ where he takes a pot shot at prohibitionists and ‘mad mullahs’ who he feels are as addicted to anger as drunks are to alcohol. The last chapter sees Sartre’s Being and Nothingness become Being and Bingeing as he discusses the misuse of pleasure.
At the end of the book, we get a section on what to drink with what and here Scruton is not going anywhere near ‘pinot with lamb’, rather, one should drink Tuscan wine with Hegel and a New Zealand Chardonnay with Schopenhauer, philosophy’s unrelenting pessimist. Most philosophers you could name and many you couldn’t are briefly discussed here in the contexts of their work and the corresponding pairing.
However, a special mention goes to Sam the Horse with whom Scruton clearly enjoyed a close relationship. We learn by the middle of the book that ‘in my duties as a wine critic, I try out a full bottle on Sam the Horse, stirring a glass-full into his oats and studying his reaction, I can make no distinction between his relishing the wine and his merely enjoying it’. By the back though we learn that despite what has just been said, ‘Sam has his preferences’. We are told that Sam the Horse most eagerly gobbles his oats when laced with rosé, with Scruton suggesting that Sam’s firm favourite is Amethystos from Greece, ‘available at Oddbins’; I can only wonder to know how the producers of the wine and Oddbins feel about that fact.
Overall, this is a satisfying and challenging read and a book that should appeal to wine lovers and wine thinkers. One feels from the book that Scruton himself is a fascinating individual though not without his own issues, painting a picture of a man nursing a bottle of Bordeaux alone in a backwater French farm with only Sam the Horse for company. His sheer intelligence though and scope of learning together with an often brilliant turn of phrase and a gentle but tickling wit ensure a good read. One can only smile at his ‘first principle’ of drinking that despite his rants against spirits, beer and cocktails (i.e. anything that’s not wine) states that ‘you should drink what you like, in the quantities you like. It may hasten your death, but this small cost will be offset by the benefits to everyone around you’. That is most certainly my kind of philosophy.
Wine is often an adventure in time travel and we recently acquired a magnum of 1949 Chateau Lagrange, a vintage that pre-dates both of us by a wide margin and brought a new order of romance to the mystical ceremony that is the opening a grand bottle. While a new breed of disgruntled wine hacks like Malcolm Gluck demand that even your Mouton be equipped with a screw top, the ever entertaining Cambridge philosopher and errant wine buff Roger Scruton in his book 'I drink therefore I am' notes:
To the naive observer the cork is there to keep the wine in the bottle and the air out of it, with the result that a small - actually a very small - proportion of vintage wines are 'corked', meaning spoiled by a defective stopper. To such an observer, the screw cap is the answer. I would respectfully retort that the risk of corking is essential to the ritual. Drinking precious wine is preceded by an elaborate process of preparation, which has much in common with the ablutions that preceded ancient religious sacrifices. The bottle is retrieved from some secret place where the gods have guarded it; it is brought reverentially to the table, dusted off and uncorked with a slow and graceful movement while the guests watch in awed silence. The sudden 'pop' that then occurs is like a sacramental bell, marking a great division in the scheme of things, between a still life bottle, and the same still life with wine.
1949 is certainly the oldest-furthest we've travelled back thus far and is considered one of the three great post war vintages (1945 and 1947 being the other two). It was also the year that George Orwell published 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' while more obliquely, clothes rationing ended in Britain.
As for Lagrange itself (Bordeaux of course), we had the St Julien variety (for there is also a Lagrange within Pomerol) with the chateau classified as a third growth in the 1855 classifications. Parker, who now rates Lagrange as second growth quality, nevertheless says that 'prior to 1983, Lagrange has suffered numerous blows to its reputation as a result of a pathetic track record of quality in the sixties and seventies'. Fortunately we can dismiss such youthful pretenders (the wines that is, not Parker) but with Parker's ratings for Lagrange going back no further than 1961, we're sailing blind but in the spirit of adventure, we little care.
How though should we approach such a wine? One hears of old wines 'collapsing' within minutes of the bottle being opened and decanting seems a no-no. A friend though pointed out a Wine Reader article by French wine collector Francois Audouze where he describes the 'slow oxygenation method' for very old wine. Under this method, one opens the wine four to five hours before the intended drinking time and checks whether it is alive (in which case an inert stopper is placed in the bottle and left till drinking time) or if the wine is feared dead, in which case the cork remains out in the hope that 'slow oxygenation' will bring it back to life.This therefore would be our plan and the countdown began. I must confess that I was a little nervous since the fill level in the bottle was middle-low shoulder. That said, as Sotheby's point out in their wine catalogues, top shoulder is the 'usual level for wines over 15 years old' so while I would like a higher fill, at 61 years old I can broadly accept that it might reasonably be at this level without undue concern.
As I use the corkscrew knife to cut through the capsule, the first observation is that the bottle is filthy around the cork top though this again is not unduly worrying since I've experienced enough bottles even 30 years old in this condition where the wine has been just perfect - after all, if you didn't wash for 61 years, it wouldn't make you a bad person, just a dirty-smelly one right? There is worse to come though, and try not to squirm here, but on closer examination there are near on microscopic creatures partying on top of the cork. This is surely not a good sign.
Wiping over the top of the cork to scrub off the worst of the dirt, I attempt to push the cork screw tip into the top of the cork but this being rock hard, the corkscrew makes no impression but rather pushes the cork deeper into the neck of the bottle. I then try every trick I know (which admittedly is not many) to get the tip of the corkscrew into the already dislodged cork so I can avoid pushing this dirt ridden cork completely into the bottle but all to no avail. Facing up to the inevitable, I know the cork is going in and now need a back up plan.
While the aforementioned Francois Audouze will walk hot coals rather than decant, there are never hot coals around when you need them and here, decanting was now the only option. Using an old trick I vaguely remember once hearing about, I take a couple of coffee filters from the kitchen and place one in the open top of the decanter and pour. The wine dribbles through nicely to the decanter below while the filter is visibly coated in muck giving us much relief that that's not now in our glass.
Three very dirty filters later but with the dregs still in the bottom of the magnum, the wine does look attractively pale in the decanter with a nice red brick rim. For the first time I feel a pang of hope - always a portent of disaster. I stick my nose to the decanter and while there is little aroma, there was not the 'wet cardboard' smell of a corked wine. Hope rises further; fool.
By now I want to believe and go get a tasting glass. Pouring a small drop into the bottom, I undertake an obligatory swirl, a sniff and then raise the glass to my lips to go 'face to face' with the wine as Scrutton would have it. It's not corked but it's not right either. Someone once said that the story of wine is a journey of a grape from fruit juice to vinegar with something magical called wine in between. Sadly, most of the magic had now gone from this bottle and while there was a modest front note of fruit, this was rapidly overcome by the acidity of the vinegar that this wine had now mostly become.
My spirits of course sank but I'm not defeated yet. Francois has more to say on the matter,
even if a wine stinks awfully, the probability that the wine comes back to life without any bad aspect is largely greater than what one thinks. I have saved wines that people wanted to throw away. Just because oxygen is able to cure many many wounds. And if the stinking signs show that the wine is dead, why would we kill the wine now ? We have time until the dinner to see if a miracle happens. And many miracles happen.
Maybe five hours of oxygenation will provide the miracle I'm looking for. Sadly, it was not to be, no weeping madonnas, no water to wine and for that matter, no vinegar to wine; this was not to be a day of miracles. I knew we were taking a chance buying the wine in the first place and as Michael Broadbent recently commented of the 1949 vintage, 'the best are still superb but living precariously; storage and provenance are vital'. Hoping for the best but anticipating the worst, earlier that day I had already pulled two bottles of Pichon Lalande 1990 from the Eurocave so all was not lost and an embarrassment of dry glasses was avoided.
Nevertheless, it was a shame in our first (but assuredly not last) time travelling adventure to the world of the 1940s that we encountered such disappontment. While bought from a reputable supplier, I don't know how the first 61 years of this wine's life were but I'm guessing somewhere along the way it was perhaps all too much for it, the low shoulder hinted as much. That said, when we're 61, I don't think that we're going to be 'all that' either given the gastronomic life we're leading, so who am I to quibble?
But I'm not upset we tried. In life generally, when you have the objects, the car, the flat screen TV and the other toys, what's left is experience and while enjoying an unblemished Lagrange '49 would have been an experience indeed, the anticipation, the ritual and the sorrowful sink pour that followed was without doubt an appropriately worthy experience in itself. Undeterred therefore, our next real time travelling adventure will be from the greatest of the post war vintages, a 1945 Talbot in a half bottle format. We look forward to reporting back.
Second wines continue to be where it’s at in the CC household with a 1990 Carruades de Lafite representing the Rothschilds yesterday and a 1996 Pavillon Rouge fronting for Chateau Margaux today. Both I should say up front were great drinking, but while it was the Carruades de Lafite that was the better wine of the two, that's not the same as being the best value. Like the grand vin, even the Carruades de Lafite is now stratospherically expensive making the idea of value a vexing question. Let’s taste first before we attempt to answer.
First to the Carruades de Lafite, it was exquisite. In the first place, 1990 was a good vintage overall with Michael Broadbent rating the year as a 5 star vintage – a promising start then. With 20 years of bottle age, the wine is now ripe for drinking with the tannins having mellowed into the background allowing the fruit flavours to fully come through. A good nose of blackcurrant, mocha and a touch of pepper follow through on the palate but what is most impressive is the complexity and the depth of flavour. The wine keeps on giving in the mouth and the finish too and really points to the idea that this, despite being a second wine, outclasses almost anything else bottled helping the amateur drinker (like us) understand what quality really means and helps demonstrate what a truly great claret should taste like. Certainly this wine is better than other rated growths (including we think the super seconds) and gives many first growths a good run for the money.
Therein of course lies the problem, quality always costs and the Lafite name is now the benchmark for quality and price of the 1855 classifications. We were lucky to pick up the Carruades de Lafite during the recession giving us a relatively ‘cheap’ case. With the market having now recovered, the 1990 is currently retailing at over £300 a bottle! By comparison, the Lafite grand vin is now a budget busting £700+ a bottle but get this, Mouton Rothschild 1990 retails at around £250. In other words, the Carruades is now trading at first growth prices and is more expensive than cousin Mouton on a like for like basis. The conclusion then is the quality is undeniably there but this is no bargain (but damn it’s good).
With the Pavillon Rouge (1996), you just have to get excited. Of the grand vin Chateau Margaux, Robert Parker describes it as ‘a modern day legend’ and goes on to say that the 1996 vintage of Margaux ‘continues to give every indication of being one of the all time great clarets’. Rated 98-100 Parker points, Chateau Margaux carries a price tag of £500+ so is out the range of most. But in the year when the grand vin is so good, the second wine must surely follow n’est-ce-pas? What’s more, the Pavillon Rouge retails at around £80 a bottle so is somewhat more affordable. Writing this, I still have a glass of it in front of me and it is delightful. A couple of hours after opening the nose is still quite closed and being 6 years younger than the Lafite, modest tannins are still present but the overwhelming sensation that you’ll get on this wine is the big fruit flavours in the mouth, the blackcurrants, blackberries and raspberries. Parker describes the grand vin as ‘massive, but not heavy’, and so it is with the Pavillon - massive. It’s an utter joy to drink.
So which is it, the Carruades de Lafite 1990 or the Pavillon Rouge 1996? As always it depends (and not least on your budget). The Lafite is out of the range of most and perhaps needs to be rated versus the other first growth wines given its price point which is quite remarkable. As for the Pavillon Rouge, it’s not as complex as the Lafite and the finish is good but not as extensive (in this sense it is typical of a second wine), but this is a serious fun wine or a fun serious wine whichever way you like. The Lafite meanwhile is a serious serious wine. Both are great but money has to be a consideration. We might if a good deal comes along stock up on Pavillon Rouge and anticipate the joy of drinking but sadly, when the current case of Carruades de Lafite is exhausted, we’ll have to move on and merely relish the memories. But oh happy memories, oh happy drinking.
Mouton Rothschild is of course a legend amongst clarets and is perhaps our very favourite of Bordeaux’s first growth wines. Sadly, with the legend comes a price tag to match and unless you’re the Duke of Westminster or Roman Abramovich, it’s not for everyday drinking. With our view that second wines rather than the grand vins can offer tremendous value without losing too much in the process, this week, after some waiting, we finally took delivery of a half case of Le Petit Mouton, the second wine of Mouton Rothschild. On this occasion though, we were somewhat underwhelmed.
In the case of Le Petit Mouton, the total output is, according to Parker’s Bordeaux: A Comprehensive Guide just 10% of total production at the estate. With so little to go around, it’s actually quite hard to get your hands on and when you do, limited supply and the Mouton name means it’s not really that cheap. We sourced 2004 Le Petit Mouton for around £70 per bottle (so still not everyday drinking wine) though for the grand vin itself, you’d be looking closer to £250. Definitely a saving then but can it compare?
While second wines drink younger than their grand vin brothers, it still seems a little early to drink the 2004 Petit Mouton and the tannins were present though not harsh with two more years of cellaring perhaps needed. The chateau’s own tasting notes describe it as follows:
The wine, a deep and concentrated ruby red, has a nicely open, expansive and varied nose on which jammy cherry fruit, liquorice and spice mingle with the toast and vanilla of elegant oak.
Lush on the palate, it combines a stylish structure of well-rounded tannins with fresh, juicy red fruit, vine peach and caramel and a discreet but refined and agreeable touch of pepper in a rich and harmonious balance.
In our view, the nose was indeed big, the fruit flavours bold and there was a nice balance to the wine but ultimately there was no wow factor and little by way of complexity. Each time we drink the Mouton grand vin, we literally feel in awe of the wine and know that we are in the presence of greatness. We felt though with Le Petit Mouton, if served at a dinner party for example, few guests would be commenting on it – it’s a nice but, at the end of the day, unremarkable claret.
We’re still a huge fan of second wines but something like Chateau Palmer’s Alter Ego (2001) can be obtained for under £40 a bottle and drinks just as well in our view. However, some of the best value we feel is in the grand vin of the lower rated growths such as second growth Pichon-Longueville Baron. A Pauillac wine like Mouton, situated adjacent to Latour, we recently acquired at auction the 1997 Pichon Baron at just £43 per bottle. Scoring 87-90 Parker points, we loved this wine; the bottle age is now coming through wonderfully on both the colour and the taste and the balance is just lovely. Accordingly, the '97 is an easy drinking medium weight wine with a satisfying finish that we love to revisit again and again. Each and every time, we would choose the Pichon Baron over Le Petit Mouton and for that we get up to a decade or more of bottle age and £30 spare change in our pocket. We love the Mouton Rothschild grand vin (of course) and we’ll certainly be happy to finish up Le Petit Mouton we now have in store but we wont be refreshing our order when we run dry.
Premier ne puis
Second ne daigne
First I cannot be. Second I do not choose to be, Mouton I am – Mouton’s slogan until elevated to first growth status.
Most of us, the criticalcouple included, don’t own a single vineyard/chateaux. We might therefore be excused for being a little miffed that the Rothschild family own so many. And included in that of course most famously are Lafite-Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild, two first rated growths in the 1855 Bordeaux classification (though Mouton was at the time rated a mere second growth and was only later elevated to first; more of that later). But how come it’s the Rothschilds rather than your family that own these properties? Hold on for a whirlwind tour.
The origins of the dynasty are with a patriarch Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1743-1812), a successful money changer who had five sons (Amschel Mayer, Salomon Mayer, Nathan Mayer, Carl Mayer and James Mayer) as well as five daughters – clearly a busy man. Strangely true but reading somewhat like a fairytale, he sent each of those sons to a European capital to manage what effectively was a multinational business, with postings as follows: Amschel (Frankfurt), Salomon (Vienna), Nathan Mayer (London), Carl (Naples) and James (Paris).
By the time of the Napoleonic wars, the Rothschild were already a wealthy family and perhaps the most influential family in Europe but it was the financing of his particular war that would cast them unequivocally as European King-maker. Indeed, Nat Rothschild and his four brothers lent the UK government a total of £9.8mn in 1815 alone; putting this in context, the Louisiana purchase of 1803 which included 14 US states (including Arkansas, Iowa and Kansas) and two Canadian provinces cost a net $15mn.
But the genius for the Rothschilds was to know the value of information; critically, a victory for Wellington would mean that UK stock markets and debt were undervalued while a victory for Napoleon would spell disaster. Accordingly, the Rothschilds used carrier pigeons to relay news of Wellington’s victory and it is said that the speed of Nathan Rothschild’s pigeon ensured he knew the news of Napoleon’s defeat a full day before even the British government. Accordingly, he had a full day to buy the financial markets at discounted rates before the world caught up and markets surged; while it is not known exactly how much money he made in those 24 hours, it was undoubtedly huge.
The family though was beginning to splinter. James’ son Alphonse became a French citizen and began to despise ‘all things English’ while as Derek Wilson notes in his book Rothschild: A Story of Wealth and Power, in 1853 Nathan (Nat):
took a step calculated to irritate his French relatives even further and, in doing so, laid the foundation for still greater rivalry in the future: he bought one of the most cherished of all French institutions, a leading French vineyard. It was not Chateau Lafite, which James had tried in vain to acquire, but it was the next best. In fact, it was next door. Chateau Brane Mouton, now renamed Mouton Rothschild, bordered Lafite and shared with it that indefinable combination of soil, situation, and drainage which enabled both vineyards to produce year after year, the finest clarets. Rivalry between the two establishments of Pauillac parish had raged for decades.
Two years later of course when the famous 1855 classification came into being based on price of wines sold, despite Lafite and Mouton selling at similar levels, Mouton was designated a deuxieme cru which has been attributed to the fact that the Chateau had recently been sold to an Englishman; Nat of course was incensed.
James meanwhile had to wait till 1868 to fulfil his life ambition to get his hands on Lafite. Baron James de Rothschild agent easily saw off a coalition of local merchants and for the price of Ffr 4,440,000 became the owner of what would then be known as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. James would die shortly thereafter in 1868 and Alphonse inherited the estate and when Nat died in 1870, his sons took over Mouton.
There’s a substantial gap thereafter in the ‘bitter rivalry’ of the vineyards with Wilson reporting that:
Until Baron Philippe took a personal interest in Mouton no proprietor resided in Pauillac. The 1855 classification rankled with Nat, the first Rothschild owner of Mouton, but was a matter of indifference to his son and grandson. However, once all that has been said, it remains true that after the second world war what had been a good-natured competition over the annual selling price escalated into a bitter controversy between the Lafite Rothschilds and the Mouton Rothschilds – or, more accurately, between Elie (great grandson of James) and Philippe (great great grandson of Nat).
In the 1950s, Philippe organised growers to support abolishment of the 1855 classification dividing the Medoc with the battle lasting 20 years; the cousins were barely on speaking terms. In 1973, at a meeting of the Association of Four (Lafite, Margaux, Latour and Haut Brion), Baron Elie who in any case was resigning to hand over power to his nephew was persuaded to end his opposition to Mouton being included amongst the premier crus.
Thereafter, the jingle changed to
Premier je puis,
Second je fus,
Mouton ne change
First I am/Second I was/Mouton does not change.
On a final amusing note, when a bottle of 1787 Lafite sold for £105,000 at a Christie’s auction in December 1985, Eric Rothschild buying for Lafite’s Vinotheque ‘library’ ducked out the bidding as the price moved beyond even what the Rothschild’s were prepared to pay it.
Clos du Marquis is (or more correctly was) the second wine of Leoville-Las-Cases from the St Julien region of Bordeaux. Such has been the success of Clos du Marquis that it has now become a wine 'in its own right' with the second wine having morphed into Le Petit Lion du Marquis de Las Cases. Increasingly we think there's real advanatges to the second wine over the grand vin. First of all is of course price. While we were able to pick up a case of the Clos du Marquis 2000 at a price of around £46 a bottle, the Leoville-Las-Cases grand vin is retailing at a staggering £250 per bottle.
Indeed, not only is the grand vin simply not five time better, we think the second wine gives it a real run its money in a straight comparison. If St Julien's are known for the balance between power and poise, the Marquis really does achieve this well with big rounded fruit flavours in the mouth and a satisfying drink on its own or with food. At the same time you never feel like you're breaking the bank. The Marquis 2000 scores a hugely resepctable 91 Parker points making it excellent value in a sky rocket vintage.
What's more of course, second wines are generally made to drink a little earlier than the grand vin so you can save on cellaring but the Marquis will still age well and a 1989 recently drank was simply fantastic with many more years left in it if so desired.
We've also drank this wine across a number of vintages and found good consistency and always satisfying drink. In a time where the grand vins are becomeing stratospherically expensive, great second wines like Marquis and Palmer's Alter Ego are a great place to rediscover Bordeaux value.