If recent wine auctions in the U.S. and Hong Kong are any indication, the market for the world's top wine collectibles is headed into some wild uncharted territory. For several years now in the Far East, wealthy long-time collectors, well-heeled newbies and speculators alike have focused their attention on a handful of top Bordeaux. During the past year, happily, the speculative fever for clarets has cooled a bit. The bad news: many of the same collectors in Hong Kong and China are now targeting Burgundy, a region whose best family estates make tiny quantities of their top bottlings.
Thus prices for posh labels from the most glamorous producers have gone through the ceiling in a very short period, thanks to desperate pursuit by a minuscule percentage of the wine-drinking population. And evidence suggests that their interest is spreading beyond the bluest of the blue-chip Burgundies. Can top Barolos, northern Rhones and even Napa cult bottlings--pricey as they already are--be far behind?
Is this the last gasp of conspicuous consumption before the next down wave in the world economy? Or are we seeing a paradigm shift in which celebrated wines virtually disappear from the marketplace as new buyers armed with strong currencies overhunt Europe's best wine lands? Since Burgundies are made in very limited lots to begin with, it doesn't take much available cash to skew the market for the top examples.
Historically, Burgundy pricing at the cellar door has been stable--in direct contrast to practice in Bordeaux, where prices can fluctuate widely depending on the perceived quality of a new vintage and the likely market demand for the latest set of wines. Up to now, it has been very difficult to accuse Burgundy's top family domains (or those in the Piedmont or Rhone Valley) of greed, or of turning their backs on their long-time customers in favor of new clients willing to pay more. But there's simply no way that Burgundy's better producers can ignore the strong demand for their wines, and many have taken sharp price hikes for the 2009s and 2010s. Middlemen along the way have similarly been tacking on richer mark-ups for the items in greatest demand. Here's how one top producer in Vosne-Romanee explained to me the sharp price hike he took on his most lusted-after 2009s: "I was getting the blame but not the money for the tripling of prices for my wines on the Internet. I'd prefer to get the blame and the money." Top producers in Burgundy, Bordeaux and California are even selling their wines directly through the auction houses, thereby putting further pressure on the supplies available to thirsty consumers.
But cheer up: even if the top 1% of buyers is spiriting away the greatest wine collectibles today, matters are hardly grim for the rest of us. Wine speculation is always a risky business--and wine is far from the most liquid of assets--but there has never been a better time to be a wine drinker.
If you can afford $15 to $20 for a good bottle you'll do just fine, provided you're willing to forgo the biggest names in each category. The range of choices for American wine lovers is staggering today thanks to better winemaking than ever before and to cut-throat competition at virtually every price point up to thirty bucks. Producers are fighting to maintain or improve their share of the U.S. market, and importers, distributors and retailers must often reduce their mark-ups to hit sweet spots in retail pricing.
Some of the most fertile sources for excellent wines at affordable prices, such as southern France, the Loire Valley and Spain, are prominently featured in this month's collection of recommendations.
Bright violet color. An intensely perfumed bouquet evokes dried cherry, blackberry, rose oil and Asian spices, with a musky herbal quality coming up with air. Juicy, focused, deeply pitched dark fruit flavors show impressive clarity, with peppery spices providing lift. Finishes bright and long, with resonating floral and cherry notes.
(from 80-year-old vines): Good full ruby-red. Blackberry, menthol,
licorice and bitter chocolate on the nose, plus a whiff of roasted bell pepper.
Plush and sweet but lively, offering very good integration of fruit and
acidity. Sexy, concentrated wine and a steal for
the price. The spicy finish features suave tannins, a hint of menthol
and lovely length.
(a blend of 57% malbec, 15% merlot, 15% cabernet sauvignon, 10% syrah and
3% petit verdot): Bright medium ruby. Sexy, nuanced aromas of
blackberry, game, chocolate, herbs and smoky oak, with suggestions of
liqueur-like ripeness. Suave on entry, then dense and smooth in the
middle, showing good violet lift to the intense black fruit flavors.
The rising finish features tannins that are firm but not hard. As usual, this bottling offers a lot of
flavor for the price.
Bright, pale yellow. Very pure, perfumed aromas of ginger, licorice,
rose petal and brown spices. Concentrated, supple and ripe, with
impressive sappy intensity to the flavors of spices and fresh herbs.
Builds nicely on the back half, finishing with lovely saline persistence
and chewy grip.
Very pale color. Pristine, ethereal aromas of grapefruit pith, spearmint and lavender. Dense, brisk and soil-inflected, with a captivating, saline lavender and violet perfume that reminded me of fleur de sel from France's Camargues. Wonderfully bracing and penetrating sauvignon blanc, without showing any bitterness or hardness. Finishes with outstanding subtle persistence.
Ruby-red. Ripe black cherry, black olive and sweet brown spices on the nose. Pliant, juicy and fresh, with harmonious acidity lifting the flavors of black raspberry, chocolate and fresh herbs. Lovely balance here: not a bit overworked or overextracted. Finishes with serious but very fine tannins and lovely length and lift. There's no hurry to consume this wine, but it's delicious already.
Light yellow. Citrus, orchard fruits and herbs on the nose, lifted by a candied ginger topnote. Spicy and focused,
with lively aromatic lift to the racy flavors of lemon zest, green apple and
dusty minerals. At once tactile and silky, displaying strong racy cut and
precision. Finishes with refreshing bite and dryness, the lemony note
Dark purple. Intense, spice-accented aromas of red and dark berries,
licorice and floral oils. Juicy and seamless on the palate, offering
vibrant black raspberry and bitter cherry flavors that gain sweetness
with air. Shows impressive energy on the finish, which lingers with
alluring sweetness. I suspect that this Beaujolais cru
will reward cellaring.
(a vendange tardive style of wine from fruit picked with 45%
botrytis, in four passes through the vines, according to winemaker Billo Naravane;
15.1% alcohol with less than 2 grams per liter of residual sugar; 10%
fermented in a new barrique, another 40% in neutral oak and 50%
in stainless steel): Full straw-yellow. Very ripe, smoky aromas of
apricot, honey and orange blossom. Chewy, powerful and fresh; glyceral
but not at all heavy, with lovely pure apricot and lavender flavors
framed by sound acidity. This tactile, dry wine finishes clean,
refreshing and long. Should make an intriguing accompaniment to Thai
and Indian dishes. An extraordinary value.
(a joint project between Renacer and the Amarone producer Allegrini; 60%
malbec, 30% cabernet sauvignon and 5% each cabernet franc and bonarda,
with the grapes partially dried on the vines via the appassimento
process): Bright red-ruby. Liqueur-like dark raspberry, cassis,
licorice and black pepper on the nose, plus an exotic whiff of fresh
apricot. Distinctly sweet (8 g/l r.s.) but with excellent acidity
giving the wine a surprising delicacy. Exotic and round, with terrific
fruit intensity and a very long, seamless finish featuring sweet
tannins. An excellent vintage for this extract-rich wine.
(100% syrah): Vivid purple. High-toned, intensely perfumed nose
displays dark berries, licorice and smoked meat, with a sexy floral
topnote. Juicy, broad and a bit wild, with sweet, floral-accented
blackberry and cassis flavors that show very good depth and energy.
Closes sappy and long, with lingering violet and black pepper notes.
Opaque ruby. Dark berries, cola and violet on the highly fragrant nose. Lush
and expansive, with very good depth and breadth to its sweet blackberry and
cassis flavors. Brighter red fruits come up on the perfumed finish, which
clings with impressive tenacity and length.
Since 1985, Stephen Tanzer and his team of renowned, widely published regional experts have spent months of every year on the wine trails of the world, having their passports punched and tasting tens of thousands of wines annually, the best of which are reviewed in the independent, critically acclaimed, bimonthly International Wine Cellar (IWC).
Many wines featured in Second Tuesday will be selected from past, current and upcoming issues of the IWC. But Stephen and associate editor Josh Raynolds will also include superb recent discoveries that would otherwise slip between the cracks of IWC coverage.
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