PREMIER GRAND CRUS – A brief look at the irrational world of fine wine, modern Rioja and vegan wines

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I can’t recall the last time I was asked if I had plans for a Monday evening.  That vague, post weekend interlude where we feel incomplete, undetermined, pending, mostly unresolved, a jittery slot in the week much in common with that medieval Christian concept of limbo where powerless souls wait helplessly to see what the future may bring. So I was delighted to be invited to a Monday evening charity dinner by a friend who, prompted by a minor health scare and conscious of the inexorable march of time, decided it would be prudent not to defer any longer the opening of some cherished bottles of Chateau Haut Brion collected over decades when the price of this First Growth or Premier Grand Cru claret was affordable, if never cheap.

Samuel Pepys having tasted the wine at the Royal Oak Tavern in 1663 wrote in the in The Diarist. drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryen that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with”. 

Thomas Jefferson, third president of America, placed Haut Brion as the best wine of Bordeaux when, as ambassador to France visited the vineyard in 1787. Having bought six dozen bottles, he wrote to his brother in law Francis Eppes in Virginia:

“I cannot deny myself the pleasure of asking you to participate of a parcel of wine I have been chusing for myself. I do it the rather as it will furnish you a specimen of what is the very best Bourdeaux wine. It is of the vineyard of Obrion, one of the four established as the very best, and it is of the vintage of 1784. the only very fine one since the year 1779. Six dozen bottles of it will be packed separately addressed to you and delivered to Capt. Gregory, who will take care to send it to you, and perhaps call on you himself.

The dinner goes well and over £3000 is raised for two local charities. Much to the relief of our host, none of the bottles are tainted and we indulge in the rare and not to be repeated pleasure of tasting eight vintages of this most famous of wines the oldest being 1996 and youngest 1995. As anticipated, the wines turn out to be uniformly very good indeed. I am embarrassed to admit, that much to my surprise, I could hardly detect any vintage variation from one bottle to another.

Modern wine filtration

I was recently asked by our editor if wines like Haut Brion are worth the price. I think that in spite of the undoubted quality the answer to that is an emphatic no. I say this for three reasons.

The first is that Haut Brion together with other Premier Grand Crus like Lafite, Latour, Chateau Margaux and Mouton Rothschild are traded in much the same way as gold is traded. Collective madness of ever hopeful investors has propelled prices of these wines to levels which are no longer defined by the inherent quality of the liquid and buyers rarely see their purchases, let alone drink the stuff. Millions of pounds of these elixirs lie untouched under the streets of London whilst above, in the hustle and bustle of the capital, pieces of paper change hands denoting that the dusty case of Lafite, Haut Brion or Latour has acquired a new, ever hopeful owner.

The second reason I feel these wines are not worth the money is that many of the ultimate drinkers do so for reasons to do more with status than wine. I don’t necessarily condemn this just as I don’t look down on Ferrari owners, each to their own, but without status drinkers, these wines would never achieve silly prices.

The third reason is that these wines have been admired for centuries for a very good reason, at least initially, when fermentation, cleanliness, yeast activity, bacterial, contamination and so on were poorly understood. Under these circumstances, the potential for differences in quality between one producer and another was huge and any half decently made wine, in what was a relatively small pool of producers, was in line to acquire cult status and fame which persists to this day.

Not now when technical know-how, flying winemakers, consultants and modern equipment has made even the humblest wine acceptable. The gap between Premier Grand Cru and other fine wines no longer justifies the massive price differential. As Adam Smith famously said “ This is one of those cases where the imagination is baffled by the facts.”

I was kindly invited to a Roda tasting by Patrick Sacarello last week and a very enjoyable evening it turned out to be. I used to be very familiar with Roda as it was a wine we brought to Gibraltar many years ago when my wife and I run a small wine import business. Roda is undoubtedly a modern version of Rioja and it was always intended to be. Rodas are dark in colour, fruit driven and opulent which is achieved by ripe grapes with high sugar content and ensuring long contact between grape skins and musts during fermentation. Some traditionalist feel that modern Riojas, in their search for opulence, sacrifice complexity whilst others feel that complexity is over-rated and prefer their wines fruity, rich and intense. Are you a modernist or traditionalist?

For this month’s column, I was looking up veganism, that much maligned movement intent on reminding us of that great inconvenient truth on animal suffering most of us would prefer to brush under the carpet, because my editor asked me if I knew of any vegan wines, which I didn’t, but hopefully, I made some useful observations on what could possibly constitute a vegan wine or, more accurately, a non-vegan wine. Firstly, I could allay her fears that animal bones are not used to filter wines. Probably an urban myth, however, I could confirm that many premium wines use egg whites to clarify wines as well as isinglass, from fish bladders, and casein from milk. Not that long-ago blood was also used to clarify wines but this is now outlawed by the EU.

There is a strong move to make natural wines as consumers want to know what goes into wine with the use of sulphites coming under scrutiny. However, we are told that making wine sans sulphites is virtually impossible so we will continue to see warnings from the Surgeon General in American wine labels alerting pregnant women about sulphites in wine. Of course, sulphites could be acceptable to vegans though the use of bone meal as an organic, natural fertiliser would not. The reality is that other than premium wines, most wines have no animal products so I am surprised that producers don’t use this as a selling point.

Wines to be tried at least once in your life
Corimbo 1 2010 (From the Roda stable)
Ribera del Duero
Sacarellos Irish Town
Corimbo is the relatively new venture by Roda in their efforts to get into the lucrative market which is Ribera. As expected, from a no expense spared bodega, the wine is extremely well made and Ribera lovers as well as modernists Riojans will appreciate this wine. Opulent, expressive, mouth filling, all come to mind when tasting this well-made tempranillo wine. May even satisfy traditionalists given a few years in bottle.

words | Andrew Licudi AIWS