Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Swing and a Miss

Don't you hate it when, full of anticipation, you open an expensive bottle of wine, only to find that is just nothing special? Corked, cooked, oxidized, or otherwise damaged - that's another ballgame. Here I'm talking about simply mediocre wine. Normally I wouldn't mind because most wine aspires to mediocrity. But there are some regions where you're just going to have to suck it up and shell out the bucks if you want a bottle, and I get really indignant when this wine is mediocre.

This happens to me most often with Burgundy wines, as I have not yet had enough Champagne to be badly burned. And I'm not a big Bordeaux drinker, although the futures that I paid through the nose for two years ago arrived and I feel like a jerk, but that's another story.

In Burgundy, even in a "classic" (meaning not exceptional, but not bad either) vintage, a solid producer can sell wine, even village level wine, for over $50 a bottle. Some of the real big names can get away with charging that much for a Bourgogne - think Roumier, Leflaive, Meo-Camuzet, and others.

But Burgundy is hit or miss, and everybody knows it. But what does hit or miss really mean? Not the obvious idea that if you select randomly you will probably get burned, because that is true with most wine regions. I take it to mean that you can't ever really be certain of how good a wine is until you open and taste it yourself, and usually over a few hours with a meal. And furthermore, a great producer with decades and decades of excellent wines behind them will usually sell their entire lineup each year, regardless of whether or not hail damaged the grapes, there was too much rot, or whatever. In Burgundy there are a million micro-climates and up or down a hill can mean a world of difference in the final quality of the grapes. You can do your research, think about things carefully, spend wisely, and still get mediocre wine in Burgundy.

So what's a producer to do if the wine is not up to their standards - eat the losses and not sell the wine? Uh uh, not likely. Hopefully they might downgrade, if possible, and lower the price correspondingly. For example, in 2001 hail damaged the 1er Cru Clos du Château des Ducs, a monopole in Volnay held by Domaine Michel Lafarge. I wish they had downgraded the wine to village level Volnay and sold the wine for about $35 instead of the $80 or so it went for, because it was completely uninspiring and plain old mediocre.

I think it's just part of the game, and I'm a happy player. But I still get burned every now and then. For example, I'm sort of scared to open my Roumier just in case it turns out to be mediocre, in which case I will have to smash it over my head.

My most recent case of charring by an established Burgundy producer came at the hands of Francois et Antoine Jobard or Meursault. I opened a bottle of 2002 Meursault en la Barre, a wine that retailed for about $50 back then, and man, did I feel unsyatisfied, as John Malkovich said in Rounders. It was pleasant enough, with a very reticent nose, but a nice oily texture and some roast nuts and cream on the palate. But that's it. Nada mas. No character at all, nothing to sink my teeth into.

So I used the other half of the Jobard to make fish stock and opened a bottle of 2005 Texier Mâcon-Bussières Très Vieilles Vignes. Now that is some delicious and exciting juice, vibrant and alive, many layers and nuances of flavor, from nuts to minerals, to something herbal and bitter, to sweet ripe and noble fruit. And it cost me all of $21. So take that Francois and Antoine.

It's all part of the game, I guess.


Anonymous said...

Oh, great. I have three bottles of '02 En la Barre. And nine more of the Genevrieres. AND I recently shelled out for three bottles of the '05 on pre-arrival. (Why, you might ask. I tasted at Jobard's cellar a few years back and he poured some wine that was just astounding.)

Depending on how you approach it buying wine can be a big crap shoot. Have you ever read a wine shop's newsletter where they admit "this year's bottling is nothing to write home about"? Perhaps we should envy people who are happy buying wine at the grocery store--all they'll ever be out is about $12, at most, assuming they're disappointed in the first place.

As you can tell, I've opened my share of bottles and experienced the deflation you describe. For these and other reasons I'm swearing off wines over $40. I keep telling myself to buy only what I have tasted, but so far I'm a failure at that. I shudder to think how many bottles remaining in my moderate-sized collection will ultimately prove disappointing.

As in the case of a number of other hobbies, we let ourselves get caught up in the cheerleading of folks who have a financial interest in getting us to buy certain products. Standing there, glass in hand, with no magic whatsoever going on as I experience this thing I coveted once upon a time--just call me "sucker."

Having said all that, an honest wine store employee with tastes that match your own is worth his weight in gold. I was 10 for 10 on vacation in France in October. Thank you Romain! (Uh--sorry this comment is longer than your post.)

peter said...

Burgundy is a giant pain in the ass. (Worms are common.) It's also the greatest pleasure in the wine world. I agree with Steve- a smart, trustworthy dealer is your best insurance.

As for your Bordeaux, resell it; I felt like a heel too after I bought a ton of 2002 Aussies, then promptly outgrew them, and now they've all gone up 25-300%. Cha-ching...

Edward said...


Very well said. It's one reason why I tend to only buy no more than 1-3 bottles of any particular wine that I have not tried before.


Joe said...

Hi Neil - the only thing worse than your mediocre bottle is knowing that you have two more in your cellar - aargh. I have been buying burgs one by one as of late to save myself from that fate - unfortunately, it means they are sold out by the time I figure out it is great...no easy answer. I've seen Rhone and Tuscan estates downgrade their top cuvees, but I haven't seen that in Burgundy (or Bordeaux, for that matter)

Jack Everitt said...


Too often I've found that with more time, sometimes a lot more time, these wines come around. Say, 3-4 out of 5 times. So, when you get one of these at home, go back to it every 2 days to check in.

Brooklynguy said...

doh, sorry steve. but the good news is, maybe you will find pleasure in the wine. what do i know, anyway? my one taste does not indicate anything about the absolute quality of the wine and you know it. especially if you consider what jack is saying, that more time might bring out the best in the wine. what was the astounding cuvee, out of curiosity? and yup, a sales person with a good palate who knows what you like and can make recommendations....worth a lot.

where would you suggest re-selling the wine, peter? it's only 6 bottles, so it's not the end of the world. it's the case of 05 that i bought like a moron that i might re-sell, whenever it reaches the US.

i agree Edward, in fact, i never buy more than one if the wine costs more than $30 (that's $7 Australian, to you). danger is, as Joe says, when I find a knockout, it might be gone from the shelves. part of the game.

Anonymous said...

Just for you I hauled out my old notes: on October 19, 2001, Jobard's 1990 Meursault 'Genevrieres' knocked my socks off. What I knew about white Burgundy at the time was nada, but I knew what I liked.

And you guys are right--it's a true conundrum: do I buy one bottle only, in case it's disappointing (and perhaps wind up wishing I'd bought more), or several, in case it's good (and run the risk of not wanting the extra bottles)? What's the perfect trade-off number? Ah, yes, the old greed vs. fear battle.

Unknown said...

Hang on to the Bordeaux futures. I
bought four bottles of 1970 La Lagune in the early seventies. The first bottle I drank in about 1975 or 1976 it was great young fruity some what tannic however very good. The next I drank in 2004 awful hard tannic not good. The next bottle November of 2007. A great old Bordeaux woody balanced earthy. Most of these wines are drunk much to young. How do you tell when
to drink them wait like I did you
are still young enough.

peter said...

I'm selling mine on WineCommune; it's pretty easy and gets a lot of traffic.

My friend Mary is just starting up a wine business in Brooklyn; she specializes in Burgundy and has a fantastic palate. I trust her suggestions and buy from her without having to taste them myself. (I have no financial stake in it, it just seemed relevant to the thread.)


Anonymous said...

Opened my first bottle of the same Jobard last night: rats, you were right. Certainly pleasant, but a $50 bottle of wine? Hardly. Repeat after me: taste before buying, taste before buying...

Brooklynguy said...

sorry to hear that pal. good rule, but not always possible. especially when it comes to pricey wine. sometimes i just trust the producer.

taste before buying, taste before buying, taste before buying...

Anonymous said...

Update--yesterday I found myself at a tasting talking to Antoine Jobard. I explained my experience (in very tenuous French, I'm sure). He suggested decanting the wine in the fridge for an hour before service. I never thought of that. And by the way--the 2004 En la Barre was really good. Maybe we just like 'em young.