By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor
The other day I argued with a friend. "I tell you, pal," I said, "Burgundy is cheap."
His eyes widened. He shook his head as you might when a feebleminded relative totally loses it. My buddy is a Bordeaux fan. Not by choice, but by necessity: Burgundy had priced itself out of his reach. So over the years he has enjoyed this fascination about Burgundy, but kept it in perspective, at arm's length. He enjoyed the relationship as long as it stayed that way -- long-distance. Getting intimate, he figured, could prove costly. So when he shops for topflight French reds, he picks Bordeaux.
"Think again, pal," I told him, knowing he was gearing up for his yearly shopping spree, now that the shops will soon receive the highly touted '95 Bordeaux. He felt excited about the opportunity; I felt sorry for him not putting his limited resources into Burgundy's fine back-to-back vintages, 1995 and 1996.
I paused before driving home my point, amended slightly from my first salvo: "Burgundy is cheap compared to Bordeaux," I said.
The proverbial hell proceeded to break loose. We marshaled our arguments and our evidence. Out came several recent Wine Spectator tasting reports, newsletters, ad supplements from retailers listing prices of Burgundies and Bordeaux, "The Zachys Gazette," you name it: We stacked the table with material and filled our glasses with a delicious, outstanding 1996 Macon-Villages from Domaine Corsin (rated 91 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale).
"Not bad," he said, taking a second sip.
"$13 a bottle," I replied, cool as a cucumber.
"Big deal," he said. "I'll show you loads of wines in Bordeaux between $10 and $20. And highly rated, too."
We went down the list of the new prices that Zachys had just faxed us from Scarsdale, N.Y. Current prices on 169 Bordeaux, all from the '95 vintage and most from the region's leading chateaus, the so-called classified growths.
We counted the number of wines in the below-$20 range, and found 15. But not a single wine in this price category had received an outstanding rating as a barrel sample. James Suckling, our Bordeaux expert, had rated 12 of the wines very good (85-89) and three good (80-84).
Still, my friend's eyes flickered with excitement as he pointed to a well-known Haut-Medoc cru bourgeois, rated 85-89. "Look at that: Chateau Citran; $16 a bottle. And here is Chateau Coufran for $17, also 85-89. And here," his voice sounded triumphant now, "Chateau Greysac, for just over $10. Also rated very good." And Chateau Meyney (85-89 points) in St.-Estephe was under $19.
Nice try, I thought. I leafed through a couple of Burgundy tasting reports I had written for Wine Spectator in the past year. I showed him that in the '95 and '96 vintages, "my" region had produced loads of very good wines in the below-$20 price category -- and also several outstanding ones.
People forget how huge Burgundy is. It takes almost three hours of freeway driving to go from its southern point in Macon via the central Cote d'Or near Beaune to the northern limit in Chablis. No wonder that one of these places often produces something outstanding even if the other two fail.
In 1996, it's Chablis, for instance, that has sprung a "vintage of the century." Lots of wines are very good, and if you pick carefully, you unearth an outstanding one such as Thierry Hamelin's Chablis 1996 (90, $17) or Jean-Marc Brocard's Petit Chablis 1996 (90, $18). For the '95 reds, it's Cote d'Or's northern half, Cote de Nuits, handsdown over the southern half, Cote de Beaune. The flip side is that you must work to find these wines because often they're made in tiny quantities, not the 20,000 cases that's normal for a Bordeaux chateau. That's a big amount of great wine if the bottle is outstanding.
Next we moved to the top-end wines. From my friend's smug look, I saw he was still a believer in the old cliche about Burgundy. You know, the one about how Burgundy's best vineyards, the grands crus, are so much more expensive than Bordeaux. Everyone knows that Montrachet, Chambertin, Musigny, Romanee St.-Vivant are priced out of this world. Right?
Not any longer.
With the meticulous precision of a trial lawyer about to break down his witness, I took my friend through the new evidence that would, I was sure, upset his orderly view of the wine world as he had come to know it.
Again, we looked at Zachys' price list of the '95 Bordeaux, searching for the five first growths, with their respective scores and prices: Haut-Brion (90-94, $245), Latour (90-94, $310), Lafite Rothschild (95-100, $279), Margaux (95-100, $310) and Mouton-Rothschild (95-100, $325).
My friend was silent, a bit dazed. "You're sure these are prices per bottle?" he asked. I could feel the fighting spirit seep out of him as we began to study the supposedly "unapproachable" prices of Burgundy's most famous whites and reds, all from the '95 vintage.
Right there in front of us, in Wine Spectator's November 15 issue, was a full-page ad from New York's Sherry-Lehmann listing Jacques Prieur Montrachet, one of Burgundy's greatest (at 99 points) and rarest (at 150 cases). Price: $165, or about half the cost of one bottle of Mouton.
We continued our search, and found the Louis Latour grand cru Corton-Charlemagne (rated 93 points, about 3,000 cases) selling for $56 at Sherry-Lehmann. I could sense the wheels in my friend's mind turning, comparing the two wines, both rated outstanding. He could buy six bottles of Latour's Corton-Charlemagne for one bottle of Chateau Latour.
At Calvert Woodley in Washington, D.C., we spotted one of my favorite red Burgundies, the exotic 1995 Echezeaux du Dessus (95, $125) from talented Robert Jayer of Domaine Jayer-Gilles. I pointed out to my friend he could buy two cases plus two bottles of this rare gem for the price of one case of Lafite ($3,300).
A few years ago, the prices of top Burgundies seemed insane. Back then, these rare Burgundies cost much more than even Bordeaux's most famous estates, such as the first growths. This is no longer the case, except for a few wines such as Domaine Leroy's 1995 Romanee St.-Vivant (98, $600). But Bordeaux has its share of superexpensive wines, too: 1995 Petrus (90-94, $935), 1995 Chateau de Valandraud (90-94, $375) and '95 Le Pin, which, if you can find it, sold in London for $779 a bottle recently.
What has changed, of course, is the galloping inflation of the prices for all Bordeaux during the past year. Lafite 1995 costs two and a half times more than the '94 (93, $115); it's the same multiple of a 2.4 increase (or 130 percent) for the other '94 first growths as well as Petrus (up from $375 for the '94, which is rated 93 points). Valandraud goes a step further, with the '95 three times more expensive than the '94 (91, $100).
By comparison, the Burgundians raised their prices 10 to 20 percent from '93 to '95. (Though I confess some white Burgundies jumped 40 percent.) Many growers plan to keep their prices stable for their '96s.
Now check out what occurred with the '96 Bordeaux futures. Many of the leading chateaus raised their prices, to more than double those of their '95s. The prices more than double at Le Pin (plus 125 percent), Leoville Las Cases (120 percent) and Ducru-Beaucaillou (113 percent). They almost doubled at Cos-d'Estournel (plus 98 percent), Pichon-Longueville-Lalande (94 percent) and Figeac (88 percent).
As for Lafite, Latour and Margaux, they raised their '96 futures prices 80 percent over those of their '95s. For the consumer, this means that in a two-year period the prices of these first growths have more than tripled.
No wonder many Burgundies look inexpensive. Even my friend was convinced.
So what do you think? Is Burgundy a better bet than Bordeaux? Cast your vote in the current Weekly Poll.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.