If you are a wine broker, what do you do now that the Asian market for fine bordeaux has gone as flat as the Médoc (apart from trying to offload stock)? You turn your attention away from Bordeaux, of course, and perhaps spend a little bit of that fortune you amassed last year courting some publicity.
London's most aggressive wine brokers Bordeaux Index recently organised a 'semi-blind' tasting of the most famous wines of the Rhône as divertissement recently. We knew what we were tasting, Guigal's three single-vineyard Côte Rôties from the starry 1991, 1990, 1989 and 1985 vintages. We even knew that the wines were served in vintage order. What we didn't know was which vineyard each wine came from.
Marcel Guigal, arguably the most driven wine producer in the world, turned red Rhône into a collectible (with all that that entails) when he introduced a La Landonne, a second single vineyard Côte Rôtie, with the 1978 vintage. His family business had sold a wine from La Mouline since the 1966 vintage, so now they had both the luscious, perfumed Mouline from the Côte Blonde and a more rigorous, supposedly more long-term prospect for investors, La Landonne from the more concentrated Côte Brune.
These two wines were an enormous hit, with buyers and investors all over the world prostrating themselves in front of Marcel Guigal begging for more.
So with the 1985 vintage, having acquired some more fine vineyards via a takeover of the house of Vidal Fleury, Guigal introduced a third single vineyard Côte Rôtie, La Turque, supposedly somewhere in between Mouline and Landonne in that like the former it sometimes contains the fragrant white Viognier grape, but is, like the latter, the sturdier produce of the Côte Brune part of the Côte Rôtie vineyards.
Most of us had tasted these wines as single bottles, or occasionally in pairs, but had never tasted as many as 12, all from fine vintages, at a time. This tasting provided a rare chance to assess the relative performance of each bottling, unencumbered by such preconceptions as 'Mouline is bound to be the one that tastes oldest'.
The first thing to say is that these wines, whose prices vary from £150 to £300 a bottle on the fine-wine market, are very serious wines. Guigal could not put more effort into their low-yield cultivation on the ridiculously steep slopes above the river Rhône, nor into their meticulous vinification (three and half years in oak!) in the modern cathedral he has designed and dedicated to wine production.
The second thing that struck me when I found out what each wine was, is that over these four important vintages anyway, the longer-established the label, the more impressive the wine. With the exception of a 1991 plagued by rather dry tannins, La Mouline was my favourite in every vintage, with the 1990 and 1985 absolutely wonderful wines for both current and future drinking by any measure.
The third thing is that unless these top Guigal cuvées are luscious, as gorgeously spicy, opulent and deep-flavoured as Mouline 1985 and 1990, then they can be seriously hard work. Some of the more brutal specimens, the Landonne 1991 for example, convince that this austerity is our fault because we have been stupid enough to open the bottle too early. But La Landonne 1985 seemed fully evolved to me and yet had raspingly dry tannins. My advice to Landonne owners would be to sell 1985 and not even think of opening 1989 or 1990 until 2005.
Owners of La Mouline 1990, 1989 and 1985 on the other hand should simply preen themselves, safe in the knowledge that they can open these wines with a guarantee of enormous pleasure at any point over the next 10 years (although the 1985 is, not surprisingly, the most evolved).
The Guigal technique of long-term incarceration in oak seemed to me to work least well for La Turque. The 1991 looked good, with lovely fragrance, and the 1989 is already very attractive, but the 1990 seemed positively simple and the 1985, supposedly the star of the entire line-up, both looked and tasted plain old to me - although it did please others.
Based on this tasting, at which admittedly just two bottles of each wine were opened, the best buy seems to me to be La Mouline 1990.
My preferences run quite counter to prevailing prices. But in that respect at least there is nothing distinctive about Guigal's world-famous Côte Rôties.