On the Trail

The Perception of Luxury — A 2012 Bordeaux Overview

David Driscoll

I do a lot of shopping for clothes when I'm on the road—both for myself and for my wife. Over the years I've spent traversing the lower half of Manhattan, the boutiques of Saint Germain, and even the designer outlets in Livermore, I've become a bonafide expert on what is and isn't worth spending money on. Yes, those shoes are $800, but they're lined with leather and they fit in a way that no other shoe does. That? That's a $2000 Prada purse, but you can pretty much get the same thing at Kate Spade right now for $300. These aren't skills I was born with, but rather that I have honed over time. I can spot value now from a mile away and I've learned exactly when and when not to strike. Obviously value will always be in the eye of the beholder, but with luxury goods it's not always easy to know if you're paying for a name or for actual quality. One thing I can tell you with certainty from my experiences: couture never goes on sale—at least not the pieces worth owning. So when you see a Chanel purse marked down by 50% you know there must be something wrong with it. Otherwise, why would it be priced as such? I think there's a similar parallel going on with the 2012 Bordeaux vintage for big game Mèdoc hunters. After the huge mark-ups we experienced with the 2009 and 10 vintages, customers are wondering about the serious reductions we're seeing with the twelves. Was it a bad vintage? Is there something wrong with the wines? What's up? After tasting a number of the wines yesterday, I can tell you what's up: absolutely nothing.

I was in Bordeaux this past December visiting a friend while passing through on the route to Gascony. We stopped in St. Emilion for the night and stopped by Château Mont-Perat for dinner in the Entre-deux-Mers region between the rivers. The owner of the property, Thibault Despagne, treated us to a number of different vintages from his estate, but it was the 2012 that grabbed my attention that evening. "This is incredibly soft and drinkable in its youth," I mentioned to him as we sat down at the table. 

"Why wouldn't it be?" he asked with a smile.

"I thought 2012 was a somewhat difficult year," I answered. "I read that it was rather cold and that ripening only happened right before harvesting."

"That's true," he said, "But you can taste the result can you not? We made a very good wine from our 2012 fruit. Yields were lower, but the grapes we did harvest were very fine."

Having the ability to taste the 2012 side-by-side with the 2005 vintage, I was much more charmed by the former. There was just enough fruit and the alcohol was lower in volume, whereas the '05 was still quite powerful and rich. I found myself going back to the well a few more times before finally saying au revoir.

Having spent the better part of yesterday with our owner and head Bordeaux buyer Clyde Beffa tasting through some of the big guns of 2012, I'm finding that my experience from Château Mont-Perat is now applicable to a number of other wines from that vintage. We popped bottles of 2012 Leoville Las Cases, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Clinet, and Issan as part of our first Bordeaux tasting of the year. All of them were absolutely stunning, following the exact same model as the Mont-Perat—more delicate flavors, less richness, but with graceful, almost elegant fruit, all accented with underlying complexity. In the case of the Issan there were violets and earth underneath that fruit. With the Clinet, there were fine tannins and hints of tobacco from the merlot. The Leovllle Las Cases was wound up tightly with crunchy red fruits, but still as dapper as any other vintage I've tasted. The Ducru was gorgeous with a mineral backbone and enough structure for the long haul. I've tasted plenty of "off" Bordeaux vintages over the years and I've enjoyed plenty of good wines from those harvests at severely discounted prices. With the twelves, however, I don't really taste much of a drop in quality compared to "good" years. Sure, these are not thirty-year cellar wines. They don't have the power, plain and simple. But the wines we tasted are still classic, even what I would call textbook clarets. So why the low prices? There are a number of reasons.

While 2009 and 10 were blockbuster years, prime fodder for the Bordeaux hype machine, 2011 was a dreadful year. With prices for the previous vintages reaching record highs, the ball came back down to earth for the elevens. There was also uncertainty from the initial tastings for 2012. As you may or may not know, the prices for most of Bordeaux's top growths are set via en premier sales—pre-orders taken in advance based on barrel sampling by experts. Teams of critics fly out to taste the wines from barrel, make their notes, and then review the wines accordingly. If you talk to our Bordeaux team about their notes from the vintage, they'll all tell you the same thing: it was tough to know anything. "Everything about 2012 was late," Clyde told me yesterday, "The budding was late, the flowering was late, the ripening was late, and the harvesting was late. It only makes sense that it would take longer for the wines to come around." Unfortunately, Bordeaux en premier sales wait for no man—or wine, in this instance. The futures were released to drastically reduced prices based on lukewarm feedback, coupled with the fallout from 2011. A stronger dollar and weaker euro only helped the matter for prices here at K&L. Whereas the 2009 Leoville Las Cases sold for $350 on the shelf, the 2012 is currently priced at $139.99. Whereas the 2009 Clinet also came in at well over $300, the 2012 is now sitting at $79.99. But now that the wines are finally settling in and beginning to reveal their true nature, new scores are beginning to trickle out. The Clinet just snagged a 95 point score from Parker. The Leoville Las Cases a 96 point review from the Wine Enthusiast. Those hearty scores hardly reflect the makings of an inferior vintage. So what gives?

From what I've been able to glean as both a lover of Bordeaux and a serious shopper of fine clothes, the 2012 vintage offers people who actually want to drink their wine as real chance at luxury for prices that, while still expensive, are nowhere near as expensive as they once were. It's the same difference for someone who actually wants to wear their Prada shoes on the street versus simply admiring them in their closet. While those looking to cellar these wines for a chance to profit down the road may never find an auction market for the twelves, those who want the chance to sit down and enjoy these bottles with friends might want to grab a few while the uncertainty still hangs in the air. Personally, I've never been able to afford a $350 bottle of Leoville Las Cases, but now all of a sudden the wine is within reach. This is one of the truly great wines of France sitting there on our shelf at less than a buck-fifty. The question you have to ask yourself is: are the 2012 prices an anomaly, or can we expect more decreases in the future? Everything I've heard so far concerning the 2015 vintage is that it's another winner and we all know what happens to prices when people start getting excited about something. Is that a reason to buy in now? Only you can answer that question for yourself. It depends on how excited you are about Bordeaux obviously. Just like I can tell a pair of Ferragamo shoes from the ones down at Cole Haan, I can taste the difference between the 2012 Ducru-Beaucailliou and the 2012 Croix de Beaucaillou at half the price. It's a pretty big difference, by the way—one that in this case is worth paying for.

But not everyone loves Bordeaux the way I do. I definitely aspire to luxury when it comes to claret and clothes.

-David Driscoll