OPPORTUNISTIC BUYING

2009 Chateau Senejac

Sometimes, it's difficult to recognize opportunities until they're gone. I tend to buy real estate when frenzied competition has driven the market to new highs. And the stock market...well, I often miss the boat there, as well. So I'm not great at recognizing and seizing opportunities. But there's an opportunitiy out there for getting good value in wine that even I can see. The location may seem counter-intuitive. It's Bordeaux…home of the ~$2000 per bottle Chateau Petrus and the ~$1500 per bottle Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Those wines, which were expensive ten or so years ago, have increased so much that they've become--at least to me--irrelevant. BUT--and it's a big but--the bottles that generate all the publicity, and which occupy a lot of the shelf space in wine shops, are a tiny percentage of the wine made in Bordeaux. Remember, Bordeaux is arguably France's largest wine producing region. There are literally thousands of producers--knowing exactly how many is challenging…recent estimates have run as high as 6,000. That's a huge number. Interesting. The appellation that challenges Bordeaux in terms of being the largest, Languedoc-Roussillon (which you call largest depends on the parameters you use to judge), is in the south of France, with consistently warm, sunny weather. Indeed, most areas that produce good value wines have plenty of sun. By contrast, Bordeaux is on the ragged northern edge of climates that can ripen red grapes. That means some years Bordeaux's grapes get well ripened…but many years, ripening is very uneven. For Chateau Lafite Rothschild or a handful of the other famous estates, that's a problem but one they manage reasonably well. In challenging years, top estates sort their grapes ruthlessly, shifting all the less than perfect grapes to their second and third wines and selling off the marginal ones in bulk. When you make 15,000+ cases of grand vin at $5000+ per case, you can afford to be as ruthless as necessary to ensure good quality. How many of the thousands of estates can afford to do that? Maybe 100…and that's probably generous. The exact number doesn't matter. It's only the ones whose fame and reputation drive very high margins on their wine. Somewhere around 90% of the estates have to make their wine with the grapes that nature gives them. Given that they're right on the climatalogical edge, that means that many years those estates make pretty mediocre wine (and sometimes worse than that). Bordeaux prices are largely demand-driven, rather than supply-driven (in contrast with Burgundy, where production is tiny). That demand exists for no more than the top 100 or so. For those thousands of estates you've never heard of, there is little demand…so prices are low. For the majority of vintages, I'd be tempted to say "Who cares?" Wine that's not very good is no bargain, even if it's only $20 a bottle. So, we're back to the "but…." In really good vintages, the grapes in Bordeaux ripen much more uniformly. So the producers that can't afford to sort ruthlessly, that have to take what nature gives them, get good grapes. And some of those producers have good terroir--perhaps not as good as the top properties, but good. That means in good vintages, some of those $20 bottles can be quite good. And the prices don't go up much in those vintages because you've never heard of the estate. Besides good weather and good terroir, the other factor that can make these little known wines good is winemaking. And there seems to be a trend of top estates buying or working with smaller estates. So in some cases, you have top winemaking teams making $20 wines. That's the case with the wine pictured above: Chateau Senejac. It's made by the team from Chateau Pontet-Canet…the estate that has earned rare back-to-back 100 point ratings from Robert Parker for their 2009 and 2010 vintages. What's the point? The point is that the ripening was very good in Bordeaux in 2009 and 2010 and those vintages are on the shelves now. But they are an endangered species. Many of the best bargains in 2009s are already starting to be picked over. And the 2010s will soon be gone as well. And they're being replaced by 2011, which is not nearly as consistent a vintage…to be followed by 2012 and 2013 which are worse. So the time to seize the opportunity in little known Bordeaux is right now! I don't mean to suggest that it's all good. I don't want the majority of it, even in the best of vintages. But that still leaves a lot of unknown wines--maybe even hundreds--that I do want. The challenge is knowing what they are and finding them. In general, the best options will be the good wine shops--like MacArthur's and Schneider's in DC. But they can only tie up a certain amount of their shelf space with comparatively low priced wines. So it pays to look around. Small neighborhood wine shops may well have a few of these gems. Talk to wine consultants that you trust. And be willing to experiment a little. At ~$20 a bottle, it's no crime if a few of your choices aren't big hits. This 2009 Senejac came from Wegmans. It was a good, enjoyable bottle of wine. Did it have the depth and complexity of the 2009 Pontet-Canet? Of course not. The 2009 Pontet-Canet is a profound wine. But it's also now over $300 per bottle and very, very difficult to find. The Senejac, and wines like it, don't pretend to be profound. They aim to be good--and affordable. And if good, affordable Bordeaux appeals to you, you have that opportunity. But it may not last long.


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