Wine Buying - A Cautionary Tale

There is a well-known saying: "you get what you pay for", which is often true, but not necessarily when it comes to buying wine, it would appear. An expensive wine from a world-famous château might turn out to be disappointing, while a wine with a far lesser pedigree, costing £5 - £10, might be an absolute revelation. Here is a cautionary tale from my own experience.

A few years ago I wanted to buy a couple of good bottles to celebrate my 60th birthday. Being a great fan of red bordeaux, and having tasted many fine examples during my frequent visits to my wife's home town (Bordeaux), I decided to push the boat out and buy some wine from a top château and from a very good vintage. Having looked on the internet for what was available (within my budget), I opted for Château Ducru-Beaucaillou 1985 and 1986, both of which were available from a well-known wine merchant at £70-£75 a bottle. Before going ahead with the purchase, I consulted the 1993 edition of Robert Parker's "The Wine Buyer's Guide", where I found the following information:

"Ducru-Beaucaillou (St Julien)*****

In 1989 Ducru-Beaucaillou made another exceptional wine. It tastes like a hypothetical blend of their 1986 and 1982. Less powerful and concentrated than the 1982, but not nearly as backward nor as tannic as the 1986, the 1989 is one of the Médoc’s most elegantly rendered wines. Rating: 90

The 1990 Ducru-Beaucaillou is a dark ruby-colored wine that is similar to both the 1986 and 1985, given its forward bouquet of oak, minerals, and cassis, attractive ripeness, firm tannins, excellent concentration and density, and powerful, tannic, long finish. Anticipated maturity: 1999-2015. Rating: 89+

Past glories: 1986 (94), 1985 (91), 1982 (94)"

At first I was a little put off by the comment that the 1986 was "backward and tannic", but it was now 2001, and the high score of 94, which was as good as the one awarded to the great vintage of 1982, reassured me that here was a wine built to last, and that although it might need several more years before reaching its peak, after 15 years of bottle-age it should nonetheless be reasonably well-developed. So as not to put all my eggs into one basket, I bought two bottles of the 1986 and one of the 1985 (which had a score of 91). Both vintages had a better score than the 1989 or the 1990, which were themselves very good vintages, and both were rated as "past glories".

Yes, you've probably guessed already, the 1986 was still very backward and tannic, and the 1985 was by no means the nectar that I had anticipated. Indeed I had previously supped many a minor château which was far more enjoyable, including an excellent Larose-Trintaudon 1985 (and even the Mouton Cadet of the same year), both of which had set me back a mere fiver or so at the time.

I intend no criticism of Robert Parker's ratings. The wine I bought may not have been properly cellared, or he may have been given samples from a superior cuvée. All I would say is once bitten twice shy, and I have since learned to live within my means whilst enjoying no end of superb crus bourgeois, pomerols, st émilions, bordeaux supérieurs, premières côtes, etc, etc, all of which cost a mere fraction of the aforementioned "glories". CAVEAT EMPTOR!

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