The Great Second Wine Steal of 2017
One of the great professional wine experiences of my career was the first time I visited Château Lynch Bages in Bordeaux and experienced the complete walkthrough from the vineyard to the cellar to the finished bottle. Still my favorite wine producing region in the world, visiting Bordeaux can sometimes feel a bit more like a carefully curated production compared to say Burgundy or the Loire where the properties sometimes consist of little more than an old barn next to a narrow vineyard. With its expansive landscapes, huge châteaux, and decadent feel, it's easy to forget you're dealing with agriculture in anyway at some of the gaudier properties along the Médoc, but that wasn't the case my first time around at Lynch Bages. We were met by owner Jean-Michel Cazes and his son Jean-Charles who allowed us to get as handsy as we pleased, tasting the most recent vintage right out of the barrel and meandering through the vineyards under the early light of the morning sun. It stood in stark contrast to some of our other tastings in Bordeaux, where a butler in a tuxedo might escort you into a fancy salon and pour the latest release into an expensive crystal goblet. Not that I don't enjoy doing that as well, mind you; it's just that those rather posh encounters don't do anything to help me understand the wine on a professional level that I can then share with consumers. That entire experience at Lynch Bages felt genuine and authentic; it was an all access look at what makes the wine one of the world's best, creating a positive lasting memory and bond that I'll probably carry for the rest of my life. To this day, I often use Lynch Bages as the standard for top level Bordeaux recommendations with my best customers because I believe wholeheartedly in the quality of the wine, not based solely on my taste buds or critical reviews, but also my own nostalgic fondness and impression of the property—one that has some of the best terroir in all of Pauillac and deserves a bit of posh pampering.
While I'm always going to recommend the grand vin of Lynch Bages to anyone asking for a great Bordeaux, not everyone has $150 to $200 to spare for a single bottle of red wine (including myself), which is why I'm always hawking the serious second wines of Bordeaux—the cuvées that often carry much of a property's inherent quality for a fraction of the price. When I brought home this bottle of 1988 Château Haut-Bages Averous earlier this month for a sultry steak dinner in the warm Bay Area weather, I thought we must have made a mistake on the pricing—the wine was simply incredible from front to back and fifty bucks seemed far too good to be true. Haut-Bages Averous was the second label of Lynch-Bages until the property changed it over to the Echo de Lynch-Bages after the turn of the century. 1988 is part of the famed 88/89/90 trio of successive successes (say that three times fast) and I'm always on the lookout for 88's specifically because they're usually priced more fairly than the more heavily-hyped 89 and 90 harvests. Let me tell you, straight up: we opened another bottle of the 88 Haut Bages Averous at the store this weekend and the wine was absolutely PERFECT!!! I had to do a bit of digging to get the cork out, but once I managed to break through the wine was immaculate. There was still plenty of fruit, sweet cassis notes, bolstered by licorice, soy, and earth on the nose. At 12.5%, the wine is everything us old school Bordeaux fans appreciate, but there's still enough freshness for newcomers to mature claret to wrap their heads around.
More importantly, the 88 Haut Bages Averous is affordable, bolstering even more my affinity for second wines. There hasn't been anything this good for around fifty bucks in our Bordeaux library department all year, and I haven't seen anything on the docket that could best it before the year is up. With the plethora of drinking opportunities still on the calendar, I don't imagine a case being enough. I'm bringing this to Thanksgiving dinner, my wife's birthday, my birthday, Christmas, New Year's eve, and any other party where someone's willing to grill me a steak. This is well-priced, perfectly-aged, somewhat-collectable Bordeaux from one of the region's top producers, from a great vintage, drinking perfectly right out of the bottle. It doesn't get much better than this from a wine merchant's perspective.