Tipple Talk | Stephen Quinn
The "Bordeaux blend" style of wine, usually a majority of cabernet sauvignon combined with other varieties that originated in France such as merlot, petit verdot and malbec, continues to dominate and fascinate wine consumers in Asia.
At the wealthy end of the market in Asia, people pay substantial prices to acquire the five first-growth classics.
In 1855 Emperor Napoleon III wanted to showcase France's best wine because the country was scheduled to host a major world's fair, or "exposition universelle", in Paris. He requested a classification system for France's best Bordeaux. Wines were ranked in importance from first to fifth growths (crus). The best of the best were given the highest rank of premier cru, or first-growth.
Only four wines - Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion - were awarded first-growth status. That 1855 list remained unchanged until Chateau Mouton Rothschild was included in 1973.
Recent vintages of first-growth Bordeaux have sold for up to $2,400 a bottle.
One of Australia's biggest wine companies, Treasury Wines, organized an event last year called the Master Blend Classification to compare some of the world's best and most-famous Bordeaux blends. Eighteen iconic wines from the 2008 vintage in Australia, Italy, South Africa, Chile, California and France were judged, including the five first-growths. Tastings were held in London, Melbourne and Toronto.
The event was repeated late last month. The number of wines increased to 30, focusing on the 2009 vintage. This was the vintage where the famous American critic Robert Parker gave an unprecedented 19 wines a perfect score of 100.
Tastings were held in Melbourne, Montreal and London. Tasters were asked to score each wine out of 100, with scores tallied at the end. All were tasted "blind".
People who buy first-growth Bordeaux expect the price to be high because of their scarcity. What was interesting about both events was the fact an Australian wine, the 2009 Wolf Blass Black Label, performed magnificently both years - despite being a fraction of the price of most of the wines judged.
It came joint second out of 18 wines last year, and tied at first this year out of 30 of the world's best Bordeaux blends. This wine retails at about $125. The first-growth among the four wines that came equal first this year sells for about $2,300.
It should be noted that the Black Label was the only wine that contained shiraz as part of the blend. It typically contains about 27 percent. Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker for Wolf Blass, says the shiraz definitely contributed to the wine's performance.
The event was not about comparing the Bordeaux region with the rest of the world, he told me afterwards. It was more about comparing differing styles. "The cabernet component varies considerably, so it's about the blends and the use of things like oak."
Five wines tied at fourth at the Melbourne event, with an average of 92 points. One of them was the 2009 Chateau Latour, a first-growth Parker awarded a perfect score last year.
Another was the 2009 Opus One from California. I gave it 94 points. Earlier this month Sotheby's sold a 100-case collection of Opus One to an unnamed buyer on the Chinese mainland for $165,000.
One wonders where the price of 2009 Wolf Blass Black Label will go after news of these results appears in the world's wine media.