The price of pricelessness

  • Friday 16 February 2007

The price of pricelessness

First of all, Bordeaux. 2005 is unquestionably a very good vintage and, apart from a few aberrations, uniformly so. Following hard on the heels of so much hype, it is surely no surprise prices are high. Exorbitant? Yes, but mainly for a relatively limited range of châteaux – the first growths, top Pomerols, ‘super-seconds’ and some small-production cult wines.

With the world currently awash with money, the very newly rich limiting themselves to trophy wines, and ‘investors’ in for a quick buck, I do not blame château proprietors for giving themselves a hefty slice of the action. Why let the speculators reap all the profit?

Historically, and merely to make a point, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Lafite and a handful of other top châteaux were the prerogative of the aristocracy, whose taste and wealth created – as Bordeaux historians concede – a deluxe market. Significantly ‘Lafete’ [sic] and ‘Chateau Margeaux’ [sic] were the first wine estates to be mentioned by name in an auction catalogue: 8 February 1788, at Christie’s.

Not just the aristocracy, the rich and privileged, but royalty too. In the Windsor Castle cellar book of 1874/75 it is interesting to note that at Queen Victoria’s State Banquets, Lafite 1864 – the wine of the century – was served. When this ran out, Latour of the same vintage.

There is nothing new about first growths and high prices. I think it is probably correct to say that many, if not most, wine buffs believe that ‘first growths’ were the creation of the famous 1855 Classification of the Médoc and Graves. Not so. The top châteaux of Bordeaux were already classified long before the end of the 18th century.

Somewhat surprisingly, we are indebted to the copious correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, America’s first connoisseur of wine, for the earliest and most precise information on the subject. While serving as his fledgling country’s ambassador to France, he took the opportunity to visit major wine districts, the first, in May 1787, being Bordeaux. He reported that ‘of Red Wines, there are four vineyards of first growths, viz 1. Chateau Margau [sic], 2. La Tour de Segur [Latour], 3. Houtbrion [sic] and 4. Chateau de La Fite’, naming the proprietors, cost of production, style of wine etc. ‘Red wines of the 2d. quality’ were headed by ‘Rosan’ [Rauzan]; ‘the 3d. class’ included Mouton which, shortly after the Rothschild purchase, crept up to 2ème cru in the 1855 classification. (It took Baron Philippe from the early 1920s to 1973 finally to attain 1er cru classé status.)

A friend, who shared one of Jefferson’s purchases, queried the price, to which the ambassador replied: ‘This is indeed dear, being three Livres a bottle, but it is Château Margau of the year 1784 [the top vintage of the period], bought by myself on the spot and therefore genuine.’

The following year, in April 1788, the indefatigable Jefferson left Paris to explore the wine districts of Germany. Of the vineyards between Trier and Koblenz he rated Brownberg (Brauneberg) best, specifically the 1783 vintage. Staying in Mayence (Mainz) he crossed to the Rheingau, noting, in particular, the ‘small and delicate Rhysslin (Riesling), which grows only from Hochheim to Rudesheim’, adding that the wine of the ‘Abbaye of Johnsberg [sic] is the best made on the Rhine without comparison, and is about double the price of the oldest Hoch. That of the year 1775 is the best.’

Two hundred and thirty years later, little has changed. The 2005 Rheingau vintage is superb. Coincidentally, I recently received a sample of wine from a vineyard almost next door to Schloss Johannisberg. No ordinary wine: a Geisenheimer Rothenberg Riesling (of course) Trockenbeerenauslese, harvested at 209? Oechsle, the highest must weight recorded in Germany in 2005; with 400 g/l residual sugar, acidity 9 g/l. Tom Drieseberg of the Weingut Wegeler told me that as only 20 litres of this incredible TBA were made, he had decided not to sell it but to send small sample bottles to friends, keeping some back to mature in his winery’s schatzkammer (treasure chamber).

How can one possibly describe priceless nectar? At 10 months of age it still had a comparatively youthful colour, medium-pale straw-gold which will deepen with age; floral, honeyed, ambrosial. In the mouth, its dominant impression was richness of texture, not quite as viscous as golden syrup but, if anything, sweeter. ‘Fat’ is too crude; fleshy certainly, great length and, of course, delectable acidity to prevent it from cloying. It was the most elevated ‘elevenses’ Daphne and I will ever experience.

At every level, the 2005s of the Rhine and Mosel are superb. If not exactly cheap, they are extremely good value, the price being based on quality, undistorted by secondary speculative demand. Try them. Buy them.

Michael Broadbent, a director of Christie’s, has more than 50 years’ experience in the wine world. He has written numerous award-winning books on wine

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