I was recently given a bottle of 2005 Château Palmer by a well-heeled and generous wine-loving friend. A truly exceptional wine, we both agreed, but still far too young to drink. And far too blooming pricy to drink as well, I almost blurted out. It retails for around £300 a bottle.
With my chum’s blessing I’ve tucked it away in the cupboard under the stairs, to be drunk, I told him, at a later date. Or, in truth, to be sold at a later date, although I didn’t want to fess up to such an ungracious, ungrateful thought at the time.
From where I’m sitting, the economic outlook is consistently bleak. That said, fine-wine prices show no sign of letting up, fuelled as they are by Russian oligarchs and Asian economic tigers.
So I reason that I owe it to myself and the missus to flog the Palmer and reinvest the proceeds in something a bit more plentiful and down to earth, focusing on “lesser” wines from top producers. After all, what you sacrifice in appellation and cachet you gain in value for money. There has been a string of fine vintages of late, across the wine-making world, so I reckon such a strategy is a safe bet.
I mean, which would you rather have for your £300: one bottle of 2005 Château Palmer or six bottles of 2005 Alter Ego de Palmer, the estate’s so-called “second” wine? Or 15 bottles of 2006 Margaux, From Vineyards Direct’s scrumptious own-label claret, made at a property the name of which I shouldn’t really divulge, but which is not a million miles away and is perhaps the finest third growth bordeaux…
A scrumptious, own-label claret made, I might add, from grapes grown on the estate, vinified by the same vignerons in exactly the same way, using the same oak barrels, as the first and second wines of this great property. Although such wines might not be as consistent or perfect as the first or second wine, they really do offer the wine-lover who seeks a bargain something close to them at a fraction of the price.
Useful, especially when one considers that even some second wines can be stratospherically expensive these days, boasting prices almost as high as their bigger brothers; the likes of Carruades de Lafite, Les Forts de Latour and Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux shooting through the roof in terms of both quality and moolah.
And it’s not just in Bordeaux, of course, that a bit of rootling about will reveal a relative bargain. Only the other day I was browsing and sluicing with my old mate Jason Yapp of Yapp Brothers, when he wafted a glass of seductively creamy, headily scented, apricoty, peachy white from the legendary Georges Vernay under my beak. One sip and I was in vinous heaven, transported to the terraced vineyards in the hills of Condrieu in the northern Rhône.
But, in my reverie, I had allowed myself to be transported just a few metres too far. For, in fact, it wasn’t a condrieu at all (which can cost anything up to £75 a bottle), but a Collines Rhodaniennes, made just a smidge outside the Condrieu appellation but from the same viognier grape and with the same care and attention by the same wine maker, Christine Vernay, Georges’s daughter – and selling for a mere £22.25 a bottle.
It was an absolute corker, far better than many a condrieu I have had and I defy any viognier-lover not to be similarly beguiled and happily misled.
Over in Burgundy, too, one can play a similar game by buying Jean-Philippe Fichet’s exceptional Bourgogne Blanc, say, for 20 quid instead of his Meursault for 50; or Ghislaine Barthod’s Bourgogne Rouge (£20) instead of his Chambolle-Musigny (£80).
In good vintages, of which there have been plenty of late, such wines can really shine, especially if you hide them away and give them a year to 18 months’ extra bottle age.
Or look at so-called Super Tuscans such as Ornellaia, the current vintage of which costs around £120 per bottle. I’m not saying it ain’t worth it, it’s a remarkable wine by any standards, but then so too are the second and third wines, Le Serre Nuove and Le Volte, with the former selling for around £30 and the latter for around £15. I no longer have ideas above my station and know which I’d go for.
There is an old wine-trade maxim that one should buy the top wines in lesser vintages (when the producers have to prove themselves and the prices are much lower) and the lesser wines in top vintages (when surplus grapes from the finest parcels are often de-classified). Either way, sadly, the likes of Château Palmer is way beyond my reach.
SIX OF THE BEST
2007 Viña Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon (£8.99, Laithwaite’s) From Château Lafite’s Chile estates.
2010 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz/Cabernet (£9.99, Waitrose) A fine entry-level red from the makers of Grange.
2010 Sylvaner, Leon Beyer (£7.95, Wine Society) Classy, entry-level white from a giant of Alsace wines.
2006 Margaux (£19.95, FromVineyardsDirect) “De-frocked” third-growth margaux – a bargain.
2010 Bourgogne Blanc, Jean-Philippe fichet (£19.95,Berry Bros & Rudd) This “mini-meursault” is a steal.
2010 Collines Rhodaniennes “Le Pied de Samson”, Georges Vernay (£22.25, Yapp Bros) Stunning, a condrieu in all but name.