Canary in the Coal Mine

By Robert Whitley

April 19, 2016 7 min read

Michel Rolland is perhaps the world's most famous winemaker. From his home base in Bordeaux, the winemaking guru's influence reaches across the globe, from France to Argentina to California.

His style of wine is robust and full-bodied, much like the man himself. Rolland has strong opinions on everything wine-related and is never at a loss for words. So it was hardly a surprise that on the eve of the annual Bordeaux En Primeurs tastings hosted by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, he would have his own thoughts on the 2015 vintage that was about to be evaluated by both the wine trade and wine press.

During an interview with a French magazine, Rolland declared the 2015 a great vintage and, in advance of the evaluations, criticized any journalists who didn't see it his way, suggesting they lacked whatever the French word is for that part of the anatomy that is associated with being male. He also observed — correctly — that wine journalism no longer possesses a single voice so influential, a la Robert Parker Jr. in his heyday, that it can create a stampede to purchase the latest vintage of Bordeaux with just a few words of praise.

The outburst was the talk of the tastings throughout the week. The big question among journalists was what to make of it, and whether or not to take offense.

First, let me say I personally took no offense. Robert Parker Jr.'s decades-long sway over the Bordeaux wine trade was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. But even if another wine critic were to emerge with Parkeresque clout, I'm afraid he or she wouldn't be able to save Bordeaux from itself.

The world's most expensive wine is closing fast on its day of reckoning: when demand weakens and prices inevitably must fall. I believe Rolland knows this and senses that the forces of economic reality are closing in. For example, strong demand in the Asian market has previously propped up the insane prices of Bordeaux wines from the top chateaux, which often exceed $1,000 per bottle. The momentum from these price spikes had the effect of pushing up the prices of less attractive wines across the Bordeaux region. But now, the Asian market seems to have lost its appetite for expensive Bordeaux.

In my humble opinion, Rolland's outburst prior to the En Primeurs was a cry of anguish over a changing price dynamic. The customers just aren't there, at least not enough of them, for over-priced Bordeaux. Rolland is the canary in the coal mine. Bordeaux's date with reality has arrived.

Best Value

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.

Banfi 2013 Centine Rosso ($11) — If Centine Rosso isn't the finest $11 red wine in the world, it's close. On the nose, it shows a floral note with a hint of dried herbs and spice. On the palate, it is juicy and delicious. The tannins are sweet and supple, making it a delicious wine to sip as well as serve at a meal. I attribute its success to the bounty of the Banfi vineyards in Tuscany. Rating: 95.

Jacob's Creek 2013 Two Lands Shiraz, Australia ($14) — The Two Lands Shiraz delivers the sort of value that was a huge reason Aussie wines first gained a toehold in America. This vintage shows ripe blackberry fruit with good balance and firm tannins. Rating: 91.

Tasting Notes

Moet & Chandon 2006 Grand Vintage Brut Rose Champagne, France ($90) — Moet's Grand Vintage Brut Rose is an inspired bubbly, showing a note of cola and strawberry with a touch of spice and citrus. Serve this superb 2006 vintage with roast duck breast meat or white meat. This Champagne is literally getting better with age, winning a platinum award at both the 2015 and 2016 Critics Challenge International Wine and Spirits Competition. Rating: 95.

Luca Bosio 2010 Barolo DOCG, Italy ($44) — On the nose, the 2010 Luca Bosio shows notes of saddle leather and spice. On the palate, it delivers aromas of dark cherry, dried herbs and a subtle floral note. The tannins are firm but integrated, suggesting a long life for this excellent Barolo. It is drinkable now but will be even better in another five years. Rating: 95.

Wakefield 2015 St. Andrews Riesling, Clare Valley, Australia ($50) — It's too bad on some level that the St. Andrews single-vineyard riesling from Taylors Wines is so inviting now, for in another 10 to 15 years it will be positively astounding. That's the typical path for the finer dry rieslings from Australia's Clare Valley, and it's one St. Andrews is apt to follow. For the near term, however, this St. Andrews shows notes of lime and stony minerals, with a firm texture that will become more oily and rounded with age. Even at this early juncture it's a stunning riesling. Rating: 95.

Ventana Vineyards 2014 Pinot Noir, Arroyo Seco Estate ($32) — Ventana is one of the best-kept secrets in California vineyards, consistently producing high-quality wines from its Monterey County estate vineyards with little or no fanfare. The 2014 estate pinot is a beauty, showing a floral and spice nose, with vibrant red fruits on the palate and supple tannins. Rating: 94.

Pavillon La Tourelle 2013 Bordeaux AOC, France ($30) — The market for Bordeaux in the United States has been shrinking in recent years as prices for the classified-growth chateaux have soared. To recapture the market, or even carve out a niche, U.S. consumers need more access to producers, like Pavillon La Tourelle. And, Bordeaux of this ilk need more exposure through medal-winning triumphs, such as its platinum award in the 2016 Critics Challenge International Wine and Spirits Competition. This vintage exhibits a note of pepper and spice, with notes of blackberry and currant, firm but accessible tannins and beautiful balance with a long finish. Rating: 92.

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.

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