Sunday, February 21, 2010

The $200+ question

To spend or not to spend? That is the question!

Last week I drank Grand Cru white Burgundy - Corton Charlemagne, Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, and Chevalier-Montrachet. A couple of great vineyards were missing from this exalted line-up, but believe me - it was exalted alright!

We (as in "wino crowd") all know that 3 things matter - vineyard, vintage, producer.
You leave out one of them, and you are as good as a sitting duck.

2006 - a vintage for white Burgundy that had received mixed comments from the aristocrati, though personally I found many brilliant wines. For the tasting lineup organized by a local wine shop, they picked the absolute top examples from the extensive portfolios by Girardin, Pernot, B. Morey, Boillot and Bouchard, ranging from $78/bottle to $235/bottle (and those were bargains at a 40% discount!)

For reference, here are the wines I enjoyed:
1. 2006 Corton-Charlemagne (Vincent Girardin) $78
2. 2006 Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet (Paul Pernot) $99
3. 2006 Bâtard-Montrachet (Jean-Marc Boillot) $135
4. 2006 Bâtard-Montrachet (Bernard Morey) $135
5. 2006 Corton-Charlemagne “Quintessence” (Vincent Girardin) $144
6. 2006 Chevalier-Montrachet (Vincent Girardin) $204
7. 2006 Chevalier-Montrachet (Bouchard) $235

As I was tasting these 2006's, it was obvious they were extra-ordinary wines. Rich, fragrant, intense yet elegant, serious yet approachable. For all the talk I hear these days about regular folks not comprehending how someone should spend more than $20-30 on a bottle of wine, 7 answers were staring me right in the face and flowing down my palate. I suppose "to each their own", but really the basic question is:

Would you rather have 10 drinkable bottles or 1 great one?

I realize that this is a deeply personal question. Is a great bottle worth 5 good ones? Is a divine bottle that is slightly "better" that a great bottle worth twice the price? For that is almost the ratio of a the Bouchard Pere et Fils' magnificent Chevalier-Montrachet ($235) to Bernard Morey's superlative Bâtard-Montrachet ($135). I've thought about it so many times, and still cannot find a good answer, except that I want both!

I think it's a philosophical question that applies to everything in life, not just wine. Is one great programmer worth 10 mediocre ones? Well, opinions differ, but even in the age of Google and Apple, their wunderkinds don't get paid even twice of what an average programmer gets paid elsewhere.

But back to wine, the quality/price scale is anything but linear. More like exponential. A fractional improvement in quality will double the price. Seems like it shouldn't be worth it, right? But then why is that Chevalier-Montrachet haunting me?

A couple of words on the difference between the two neighboring vineyards. First off, before anyone goes defending modern California wines and dissing French, you owe it to yourself to taste a good Bâtard or Chevalier at least once. Assuming your palate has even the roughest ability to differentiate tastes, I think that once and for all, you will stop defying the truth about who makes the best dry white wine in the world! Second, it is a fascinating study of grape to think that two vineyards located on the same hillside, growing the same exact grapes, vinified in generally the same method will produce wines that taste so different. It's called terroir, baby - we all say it, but a tasting like this really makes you feel it. Grape seems to be an amazing conduit of the nutrients in the soil underneath, fueled by the energy of the sun above. And that is the difference between Chevalier-Montrachet (top of the hill) and Bâtard-Montrachet (bottom). Both wines are gorgeous. Both make heads turn when they enter the room. But if I may offer a visual comparison, they are Mr. and Mrs. Smith! Chevalier - muscular, reserved and classy. Bâtard - more flowery and fruity, voluptuous, round and feminine. Which one do you want?

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