On a recent Sunday evening in La Jolla, Calif, while the guest at a dinner organized by the San Diego chapter of the Commanderie de Bordeaux, I learned the conditions for Bordeaux in America are not as dismal as I had feared. They are worse.
Bordeaux, for those with a short memory, was once the benchmark for American wine, particularly in California. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and blends of the two were all the rage when the California wine boom got underway in the 1970s. Bordeaux, the historical home of cab and merlot (also malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc), was the model.
Sophisticated wine shops from that era specialized in French wine, for the most part, and the most important French wine was Bordeaux. My earliest years as a collector of fine wine were nurtured by the great vintages of Bordeaux from the 1960s and '70s. Wonder of wonders, even on a journalist's salary I could afford wines from the greatest chateaux in Bordeaux, fabled wines such as Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion and Cheval Blanc.
They were expensive for their time, but hardly beyond the reach of anyone with a decent income and a passion for wine. In the spring of 1983, for example, I purchased first-growths from the spectacular 1982 vintage for $39 a bottle as "futures," meaning I paid in advance for wines that would be delivered after maturing in bottle for approximately two years.
A few years later, when the greatness of the vintage had been established beyond any doubt and hyped by the then-emerging Robert Parker, I added many of the same 1982 first-growths to my cellar at the stunning cost of $59 a bottle.
A quick glance at WineSearcher.com reveals the average bottle price of 2010 Chateau Lafite Rothschild to be $1525. Chateau Latour 2010 fetches $1779 on average, and 2010 Haut-Brion comes in at $1288. The 2010 Chateau Cheval Blanc, my favorite wine from the Right Bank commune of Saint-Emilion, would set me back $1498. Even Chateau Palmer, a third-growth Margaux, has shot up from about $100 a bottle the last time I bought a case to an average of $401 for the 2010 vintage; and the fifth-growth Chateau Lynch-Bages, once among the greatest values in wine, now gets $195 for the 2010 vintage.
It's no wonder that members of the Commanderie de Bordeaux, an organization dedicated to the worship of Bordeaux, are focused on price. I was surrounded by successful doctors and lawyers who can afford expensive wine, but even they were choking on the cost of a top-notch bottle of Bordeaux.
To its credit, the Commanderie sponsors a competition each year to identify excellence in Bordeaux at $40 or less. Those wines do exist, and due to advances in viticulture and technology in Bordeaux, they have the potential to redefine value in quality Bordeaux.
There's one problem: demand. There is no demand for these wines. They are obscure, poorly marketed and poorly distributed. You won't find them on most restaurant wine lists, and even if you do stumble across one of these relatively inexpensive Bordeaux in a retail wine shop, they aren't likely to be accompanied by ratings, reviews or wine competition awards.
Who would plunk down $40 on an unknown wine when there is so much wonderful domestic and even foreign swill (think Italy, Spain, Argentina, Chile or France's Rhone Valley) that is familiar and safe?
Earth to Bordeaux — we have a problem.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Starborough 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($15) — A solid kiwi sauvignon made in the distinctive, pungent style of New Zealand's Marlborough district, this vintage of Starborough is crisp, clean and refreshing. It exhibits notes of gooseberry and green citrus, with mouth-watering acidity. You can almost hear the freshly shucked oysters calling! Rating: 88.
Duckhorn Vineyards 2010 Merlot, Three Palms Vineyard, Napa Valley ($90) — Three Palms Vineyard, at the northern (warmer) end of the Napa Vallley, near Calistoga, is the vineyard that put Duckhorn, and Napa Valley merlot for that matter, on the map. This vintage is the 28th consecutive Three Palms merlot from Duckhorn, which obtained exclusive rights to the vineyard in 2011. The 2010 is deeply colored, scented with red fruits and violets. On the palate the wine is richly layered, with fine, supple tannins and a complex palate of red- and blue-fruit flavors. It is an exquisite wine that can be drunk now, although it would benefit from an additional five to seven years in the cellar. Rating: 96.
Merry Edwards 2011 Chardonnay, Olivet Lane Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($60) — Merry Edwards is less well-known for her white wines, though no less accomplished. This chardonnay from the Olivet Lane Vineyard is a classic example of her deft hand with Burgundian grape varieties. Beautifully structured, this is a chardonnay with backbone, or mouth-watering acidity, that comes through despite impressive richness on the palate. It shows aromas of lemon creme, brioche and pear, with accents of baking spice. Considering the challenges of the 2011 vintage, a positively brilliant achievement. Rating: 93.
Souverain 2011 Chardonnay, Winemaker's Reserve, Russian River Valley ($35) — Though the 2011 vintage was cooler than normal and complicated by rainfall at harvest, Chardonnay was largely spared. "Chardonnay likes cool weather," winemaker Ed Killian noted, "and most of it was already picked before the wet weather." Souverain's Winemaker's Reserve Chardonnay was fermented in French oak cooperage, about 12 percent new, and then aged in barrel for 15 months. The result is a layered chardonnay that offers complex notes of toast and spice, tropical fruit and lemon oil, with firm acidity and exceptional length. One of the more dazzling California chardonnays I've tasted this year. Rating: 91.
Long Meadow Ranch 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($18) — Long Meadow Ranch is clear evidence that organic farming in the vineyards has advanced beyond the days of flawed, insipid "organic" wines that slowed the march toward organic farming over the past decade. This vintage of LMR sauvignon is bright, fresh and clean (fermented 100 percent in stainless steel tanks) and, most of all, crisp and refreshing. It delivers a floral note on the nose, with citrus aromas on the palate. Rating: 89.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.