The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Collecting French Wine – Part I (Bordeaux and Burgundy) ~ Saturday, March 31st, 2012
Collectors and top regions of France: Not all wine buyers are the same.
In the Information Age, where everything and everyone is divided—and then subdivided—into unique demographics and groups, there isn’t one type of wine buyer, but many. However, to list them all here would be impossible, not to mention superfluous. For the purpose of this column, our subject is wine collectors and, with special emphasis, top regions and estates to buy from.
Speaking of which, what are collectors? And how do their wine buying habits most significantly differ from others?
At its simplest, a wine collector is a buyer that seeks out fine wine, usually to cellar for the long term. Types of wines purchased? While not a prerequisite(!), usually ones with higher prices and top critics’ scores, sourced from very specific regions in countries throughout the world.
But what are these countries and regions? And is there one country whose regions stand out above the rest?
For most collectors, this would be France. The reasons for this are complex. Some have attributed it to France’s having identified and categorized its best winegrowing regions and most famous wines so early on—a by-product of French culture, whose standards in gastronomy remain in essence unmatched. Others have pointed to the remarkable types of terroir found throughout France, as if the French were meant to lead the world in fine winegrowing since time immemorial.
Whatever the case, collectors are the beneficiaries.
Of regions, Bordeaux and Burgundy vie for top spot. On the Left Bank of the Gironde, the Cabernet-blends of Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac, and St-Estèphe are most lauded. On the Right Bank, the best Merlot-dominant wines of St-Emilion and Pomerol are eagerly sought out. In Pessac-Léognan, the finest Cabernet-dominant reds and Sauvignon-centric whites are increasingly the talk of the wine world. And let’s not forget Sauternes and Barsac, where collectable stickies crafted predominantly from Sémillon are the order of the day.
With just a few exceptions, the most esteemed wines, or estates, in the Médoc are part of the 1855 Classification. In Margaux, the eponymous First Growth Château Margaux leads the way, closely followed by Château Palmer. Other must-haves are Châteaux Rauzan-Ségla, Brane-Cantenac, Kirwan, Giscours, d’Issan, Malescot-St-Exupéry, and Cantenac-Brown. In St-Julien, the greatest estate, and First Growth pretender, is Léoville-Las Cases, followed by Châteaux Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville Barton, Gruaud Larose, Léoville-Poyferré, Branaire-Ducru, Langoa Barton, Talbot, St-Pierre, and Beychevelle.
In Pauillac, the three First Growths of Châteaux Latour, Lafite Rothschild, and Mouton Rothschild are among the most fought-over wines at auctions and en primeur campaigns every year. These are closely followed by the likes of Pichon-Comtesse and Pichon-Baron, Lynch-Bages, and Pontet-Canet; which, in turn, are closely matched by Châteaux Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Duhart-Milon, and Clerc Milon. Also stockpiled by collectors are wines from Châteaux d’Armailhac, Haut-Batailley, Batailley, and Haut-Bages Libéral, to name but several of the best estates in most collectors’ opinion.
In St-Estèphe, Château Cos d’Estournel nowadays heads up the company, with Montrose consistently hot on its heels. Other estates collectors routinely watch out for are Calon-Ségur, Lafon-Rochet, and Cos Labory.
Then, there are the Médoc estates not included in the 1855 Classification. In St-Estèphe, the most esteemed names are Châteaux Haut-Marbuzet, Phélan Ségur, and Les Ormes de Pez. In Pauillac, these are Pibran and Fonbadet. In St-Julien, Château Gloria stands out. In Margaux, Châteaux Siran, Clos des Quatre Vents, and Marojallia each have their own followers.
As if this wasn’t enough, a few estates outside these four appellations, in both the Médoc and Haut-Médoc, are also greatly acclaimed. In the former, top châteaux are Sociando-Mallet and Potensac. In the latter, Poujeaux and Chasse-Spleen, both based out of Moulis, are seldom overlooked.
On the Right Bank in Merlot-dominant St-Emilion, choices are almost as prolific. At the very top of the St-Emilion Classification (last revised in 2006), Châteaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc, the only two estates granted Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) status, are both universally revered. Next in line are those of Premier Grand Cru Classé (B) status, of which Châteaux Angélus, Pavie, and Figeac routinely rank highest in terms of veneration and price. Other collectibles of equal official status include Beau-Séjour Bécot, La Gaffelière, Magdelaine, Pavie-Macquin, Troplong Mondot, and Bélair-Monange (formerly Bélair). Rounding out the ‘B’ category are Châteaux Canon, Clos Fourtet, Beauséjour (Duffau-Lagarrosse), and Trottevieille.
However, some of these names are often outshone by wines of Grand Cru Classé ranking or lower. La Mondotte, a single-vineyard wine owned by Stephan von Neipperg, along with Grand Cru Classés Canon-la-Gaffelière, Tertre-Rôteboeuf, Pavie Decesse, and Monbousquet; plus garagiste operations Valandraud, La Gomerie, and Le Dôme are just such examples. Other St-Emilions of similar, slightly less expensive disposition are Grand Cru Classés Larcis Ducasse, L’Arrosée, Destieux, and La Couspaude; as well as Grand Cru estates Bellevue-Mondotte, Gracia, Rol Valentin, and Moulin St-Georges. There are at least a dozen others.
Over in Pomerol, where there is no official ranking, collectors also have their hands full. More talked about than drunk, Château Petrus is widely considered the Holy Grail of claret collectibles, matched/surpassed in price by Château Le Pin. Then, there are all the other estates Pomerol is famous for. From a standpoint of quality and price, the most sought-after are Châteaux Lafleur (almost as expensive as Petrus), Trotanoy, Vieux Château Certan, L’Eglise-Clinet, L’Evangile, and La Conseillante. Other star estates of considerable acclaim include La Fleur-Pétrus, Hosanna (formerly Certan-Giraud), Clinet, Latour à Pomerol, Clos L’Église, Certan de May, Le Gay, Le Bon Pasteur, and Gazin. Not to be left out, La Providence, La Clémence, Petit Village, Beauregard, Rouget, Nenin, and Bourgneuf all command serious prices. All of these, plus several others, are arguably considered the greatest collectibles in Pomerol.
In Pessac-Léognan, where the best whites, crafted from Sauvignon Blanc (usually predominant) and Sémillon, are as highly valued as the best reds (crafted largely along Médoc Lines), certain favourites emerge. Sparring for top honours annually, First Growth Château Haut Brion and leading Graves Cru Classé La Mission Haut-Brion lead the way—both the red and white versions are treasures. Pricewise, these two estates are followed by the reds and whites of Cru Classés Pape Clément, Haut-Bailly (red only), Smith Haut Lafitte, and Domaine de Chevalier. Other red/white estates routinely on collectors’ circuits are Châteaux Malartic-Lagravière, Carbonnieux, and de Fieuzal. In the Graves AOC, Château Branon is very expensive.
Next come the stickies of Sauternes and Barsac, of which the legendary Premier Cru Supérieur Château d’Yquem is considered unbeatable. After this are the best of the Premier Crus, usually Châteaux Climens (second only to d’Yquem), Rieussec, Suduiraut, Coutet, and Lafaurie-Peyraguey; Château de Fargues and Raymond-Lafon, both non-classified, are also considered gems. Other Premier Crus of high regard are Châteaux Guiraud, Sigalas Rabaud, and La Tour Blanche. Of the Deuxièmes Crus, Doisy-Daëne and Doisy-Védrines are must-haves.
Indeed, the choices of collectable clarets seem endless. However, when collecting Bordeaux, quality and price at time of purchase, while both paramount, are not the only factors at play. Nowadays, collectors have an extra reason for laying their hands on the best bottles: investment.
A relatively new trend, many collectors seek out specific clarets from great vintages that, having been scored highly—usually by very specific critics—will likely increase in value over the long term. Such wines are often bought be the case, to be sold down the road. As blue chip investments, some analysts have referred to such wines as ‘alternative investments,’ much like jewellery or works of art.
To a lesser extent, the same goes for Burgundy, where the world’s greatest Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are produced. Here, however, collectors already have their hands full in just trying to memorise the best vineyards and domaines.
For white Burgundy fanatics, the most highly prized are the Grand Crus and best Premier Crus of Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault (only Premier Crus), Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton (Corton-Charlemagne), and Chablis. There are a few others, but these are the standouts.
In Chassagne-Montrachet, the Premier Crus of Caillerets, Ruchottes, and Morgeot are usually considered best. In contrast, shared between Chassagne- and Puligny-Montrachet, the Grand Cru of Le Montrachet has long been considered immortal, closely followed by Chevalier-Montrachet and the more variable Bâtard-Montrachet; the seldom-seen Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet and Les Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet are also both potentially stunning. In Puligny-Montrachet, Premier Crus Les Pucelles, Les Caillerets, Les Folatières, Les Combettes, Les Perrières, and Clavoillon are all considered superb. In Meursault, Les Perrières and Les Genevrières lead the way, closely followed by the upper parts of Les Charmes; Les Poruzots and Les Gouttes d’Or are also superb. In Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton, the finest examples of Corton-Charlemagne are often lauded as some of the greatest of white Burgundies. Finally, in Chablis the Grand Crus of Les Clos, Les Preuses, and Vaudésir, to name but three favourites, all have an earnestly loyal following.
For red Burgundy connoisseurs, the choices are even more varied. By price, the best Grand Crus and Premier Crus of the Côte de Nuits, located between Beaune and Dijon, tend to attract the most serious collectors. From south to north, the most lauded Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards are located in the villages of Nuits-St-Georges (Premier Crus only), Vougeot, Chambolle-Musigny, Morey-St-Denis, and Gevrey-Chambertin. Within Beaune and throughout the rest of the Côtes de Beaune, the finest Premier Crus in Pommard, Volnay, Meursault (listed as Volnay-Santenots), and Chassagne-Montrachet are also much in demand.
In Nuits-St-Georges, the Premier Cru of Les St-Georges is ranked highest, followed by Les Vaucrains, Les Cailles, Les Porrets, and Aux Boudots. In Vosne-Romanée, both Grand Crus La Romanée-Conti and La Tâche, both solely owned by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, are among the most expensive wines in the world; while the best examples of Le Richebourg and Romanée-St-Vivant often outstrip demand. Not to be outdone, the Grand Crus of La Romanée and La Grande Rue, respective monopolies of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair and Lamarche, are nowadays prohibitive in claim. On a much more variable level, the same can be said of the best wines of Grand Crus Les Grands Echézeaux and the even more variable Les Echézeaux. Finally, the Premier Crus of Aux Malconsorts, Les Suchots, Les Beaux Monts, Cros Parantoux, and Aux Brûlées routinely sell for small fortunes when denoted by case.
Heading northward to the next commune, in Vougeot the Grand Cru of Clos de Vougeot is world famous; though collectors are well advised to stick with only the best, most reliable producers. In Chambolle-Musigny, the Grand Cru of Musigny, a top collectable, is widely considered the most seductive of red Burgundies; in the same village, the Grand Cru Les Bonnes Mares is also remarkably extolled, while Premier Crus Les Amoureuses, Les Charmes, Les Fuées, and Les Cras are all greatly admired. In Morey-St-Denis, wines from the Grand Cru of Clos de la Roche take top honours, followed by Les Bonnes Mares (a tiny part), Clos de Tart, Clos des Lambrays (a virtual monopoly of Domaine des Lambrays), and Clos St-Denis. The Premier Crus of Clos de la Bussière, Les Charmes, and Monts Luisants also possess collectable attributes.
In Gevrey-Chambertin, wines from the legendary Grand Cru Chambertin vie with La Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, and the finest Musignys for consideration as the most omnipotent of all red Burgundies. On occasion, those of neighbouring Chambertin Clos de Bèze also merit the same adulation. Then there are the remaining seven Grand Crus of the commune. Though subject to debate, most view Mazis-Chambertin, Griotte-Chambertin, and Ruchottes-Chambertin as the next best three, followed by Charmes-Chambertin, Latricières-Chambertin, Chapelle-Chambertin, and Mazoyères-Chambertin. Of Premier Crus, Clos St-Jacques is in a league of its own, while Les Cazetiers, Lavaut St-Jacques, and Les Varoilles are all ranked highly.
South in the Côte de Beaune, there remains a bevy of lighter-styled selections for which this particular part of Burgundy is famed. In Beaune, top Premier Crus collectors routinely watch out for are Les Grèves, Clos de Mouches (lower slopes for Pinot Noir), Les Fèves, Les Teurons, Les Marconnets, and Clos du Roi. In Pommard, the best parcels of Premier Crus Les Epenots and Les Rugiens are hugely adored. In Volnay, Premier Crus Clos des Chênes and Les Caillerets are infallibly seductive. In Meursault, the Premier Cru reds, on occasion excellent, are labelled as Volnay-Santenots. Skipping Puligny-Montrachet (no reds allowed), in Chassagne-Montrachet the most collectable reds generally hail from La Boudriotte, Morgeot (also known for great whites), and Clos St-Jean. As with all other communes, there are invariably too many vineyards to list.
Yet surprisingly, once getting past all the top vineyards to memorize, there are far fewer famous domaines and négociants to account for when compared to Bordeaux, as virtually all winegrowers have plots in multiple vineyards. Still, to help readers out, many labels of the crème de la crème have been included in this column possible.
And yet, Bordeaux and Burgundy are but the tip of the iceberg. For many collectors, no cellar would be complete without a proper selection of wines from the Rhône and Champagne, not to mention all the other regions that make France the greatest winegrowing nation in the world. But such regions, I am afraid, would take up far more than the one sentence I have left—which I shall simply conclude by raising my own glass, filled with claret, to the two titan regions of the French winegrowing world; without you, there’d be no point.