When Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine the drinking of Bordeaux Clairet became even more popular in England and the practice of shipping barrels from the Châteaux continued well into the 1950s, when Château-bottling became the norm amongst the Crus Classés of the Médoc and the top wines of St Emilion and Pomerol.
The Bordeaux trade system was established at that time with a courtier who managed the relationship with the Châteaux owners and the négociants or merchants on the Bordeaux market place. The négociants then sold the wine on to the English and European merchants and, as time went on, to importers in the United States and more recently, Asia. The quality hierarchy was established formally with the 1855 classification, which was agreed by the most powerful négociants of the time and based on the market prices but there was an earlier classification made by Thomas Jefferson while he held the position of U.S. Ambassador to France, in 1787, when he graded a small number of prominent Châteaux of the time into three quality levels. Interestingly, even then Châteaux Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion and Lafite were all recognised as being of “first quality”.
The links between Bordeaux and London remained strong for over eight centuries and, indeed, London was the centre of the global wine trade and undoubtedly the place where you could buy and drink the widest selection of the greatest wines made in the world until very recently. I suspect that Hong Kong holds that position now.
Today, the top wines of the region command high prices and Bordeaux exports in the 12 months up to 31st July 2012 reached a record £2.29 billion. When I started my career in the 1980s working with John Armit and managing portfolios of Bordeaux for major collectors I remember we sold Château La Lagune 1982 at £55 per case ex cellars, the 1986 vintage sold at £90 per case and the 1989 vintage at £125 per case. Twenty years later the opening price for the 2009 was £395 per case In Bond London. La Lagune was for many a reliable every-day drinking Bordeaux and a favourite with our clients. The First Growths always had a smaller market but the upward trajectory of their prices is even steeper. 1982 Château Lafite sold at £275 per case ex cellars and 1986 at £350. 1989 sold at £550 and twenty years later, 2009 opened at £11,500 per case In Bond. Certainly only an “every-day” wine for the very few!
Private Cellar customers are looking to different appellations and new stars for their “£12 a bottle or thereabouts Bordeaux” and we devote a lot of time seeking out wines, which offer an extra dimension of taste and complexity yet are under-valued. This means that our list is full of second wines (wines which are made from fruit from younger vines
or lesser terroirs but have the benefit of being made by the same technical teams as their grander siblings). I have listed a few of our favourites, which are worth looking out for.
Private Cellar’s favourite Second wines:
• Château Burgrave, Pomerwol
(second wine of Bonalgue)
• Château Guillot Clauzel
(not strictly a second wine but the portion of vineyard that the family kept back when they sold the rest of the vineyard to Le Pin)
• Réserve de la Comtesse, Pauillac
(second wine of Super Second Pichon Longueville Comtesse)
• Château Lacoste Borie
(second wine of rising Pauillac star, Grand Puy Lacoste)
• Echo de Lynch Bages, Pauillac
(made by the Château Lynch Bages team)
• Petit Cantenac, St Emilion
(second wine of Clos Cantenac, a superb Grand Cru Classé)
• Domaine de Cambes, Côtes de Bourg
(second wine of François Mitjavile’s star wine Roc de Cambes)
It seems likely that prices will continue to rise. There has been a stalling of the
inexorable rise in prices for the top wines as the demand from the Far East petered out at the end of 2011 and we’ve seen prices drop by around 25% during 2012. I was in HK a couple of weeks ago (at time of writing), just after Zacchy’s had had a very successful auction of a private collection.
Prices were all at upper estimate and they sold the whole collection but I don’t think
that that can necessarily be taken as a signal that the market has recovered as it was a
very special parcel of rare and mature wines and the provenance was perfect, but it is
encouraging that there is still demand for the finest and rarest and that collectors are
starting to take the question of provenance and quality of storage seriously and attach a
premium to wines in perfect condition. In the face of the likelihood that prices will rise for the well-known wines, our efforts will be re-doubled to find wines from areas which
share the same soil profile as their more illustrious neighbours and so punch above their weight and their label.
I have picked out four excellent wines which enjoy the fantastic terroir of their more famous neighbours, but not the price tags:
• Château Cap de Haut 2007, Haut-Médoc £179.40 per case inc VAT
The vineyards lie just outside the Margaux appellation and are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Rich, yet leafy cassis fruit with some classic cigar box notes behind, this is perfectly à point.
• Château Haut Roc Blanquant 2005, Grand Cru Classé St Emilion £287.40 per case inc VAT
Second wine of 1er Grand Cru Classé Belair and neighbour of Ausone, this is a seriously classy wine and its heritage is obvious from the first sniff. Intense, dense and delicious from the fabulous 2005 vintage.
For the future…
• Château Pique Caillou 2010, Pessac-Léognan £120 per case In Bond London
Just a stone’s throw from Château Haut Brion, its very special terroir shows through in this gorgeous wine. Sweet fruits on the nose, cool black fruits on the palate and ripe tannins behind. Great wine.
• Château Bernadotte 2009, Haut-Médoc £196 per case In Bond London
Bought by Pichon Lalande in the 1990s, tended, picked and vinified by the Pichon team, this immaculate terroir just outside Pauillac produces a classic wine with lovely pencil-lead notes and distant hints of spice.