“Label drinkers”… the parthian shot of a particularly pompous wine merchant as he passed us on his exit from one of my favourite restaurants in the world. We were in Beaune, drinking Coche-Dury and Dujac.
Many restaurants in wine producing areas buy direct from the local producers and price their wines with a fair mark up, either unaware or (I hope) not caring about the market price of their wines, so some pleasure is often there for the taking. A couple of hundred euros for a bottle might seem excessive, but it’s hard to resist when you know that the same bottle would set you back three or four times that in London. This restaurant is one of those places. The food is quite, quite excellent and the ambience is perfect – laid back, and we are all here for the food and the wine, nothing else. The owner also has a collection of old Chartreuse that simply MUST be experienced. The restaurant’s only fault is that it is invariably filled (at least in November) with pompous wine merchants. This particular chap is pretty close to the top of the tree in terms of pomposity. The simple fact of the matter is that the wines we were drinking would set us back five times what we were paying were we back in London, and we were seizing the day.
The label on a bottle tells you what is in the bottle. Where it’s from, who made it (this is of paramount importance in Burgundy) and all sorts of boring stuff like alcohol levels. At a restaurant, it also tells your neighbours a bit about you (see this for Champagne, and how to set yourself apart from the riff-raff), be it something about your level of class and sophistication, or simply the likely level of your bank balance.
The ultimate label wine, if that is the correct way of putting it, is Les Carruades de Lafite. Some might say that Lafite-Rothschild itself is the winner, but the thing about the grand vin is that it IS the real deal: there is some irreplaceable, unmistakeable and irreplicable (think I just invented a word) class and character of the wine – the label just tells you what it is. But Carruades, the label is worth at least a couple of grand a case.
Carruades isn’t bad wine, but it’s a long way from grand. In a world where logic prevailed, it would sell for £600 a case, or £50 a bottle. That would be £30 a bottle for what’s in it plus a premium of £20 for what’s on it. But this isn’t the case, largely due to our Far Eastern friends, who are simply mad for it. With even weak vintages of Lafite going for six or seven grand a case, and the big ticket vintages selling for double that before they are even bottled, Carruades is the budget option if you want the guys at the table next to you (or even the guys on your table) to think that you’re a bigshot.
But, as with most things in life, cream rises, and quality prevails. The word from the Far East is that, whilst the Lafite effect is by no means a bubble about to burst, real connoisseurs are working out what this is all about. Lafite? Yeah, for millionaires, but a bit crass for billionaires. Lafite will always be the Rolex of Bordeaux but, like Rolex, it’s maybe a bit “gauche”, and Latour is the silverback, as any fule kno. Speculators might fancy a punt on Les Forts de Latour, Latour’s second wine (though not really a proper second wine, most of which are made from the juice that doesn’t make the cut for the grand vin) or even the grand vin itself.
What I fear most, though feel is inevitable, is that Burgundy catches on. I’d rather have the basic Bourgogne Rouge from any of the top growers than a bottle of Carruades every day of the week and twice on Sundays. It won’t take many people on the other side of the planet to feel the same way to make even very basic Burgundies to become very rare, sought after, and expensive wines… so the next time I’m in Beaune I’ll be label-drinking like it’s going out of fashion.