There's a neighborhood in Paris where parking is out of the question. Instead, people are let off or whisked away in Mercedes and Rolls-Royces, and entering a shop signifies that price is of no concern. There's a doorman at the ready inside each entryway and a cast of women who seem to spend every waking moment, when not shopping, getting gorgeous.
This is the second arrondissement of Paris' 20 curvaceous neighborhoods. Here you'll find the original Chanel store directly across the street from the Ritz, and Christian Dior is just around the corner. The finest goods in the most lavish displays: Fifth Avenue in New York is fine, but the Place Vendôme says you've really arrived. It was here that I sat down in a wine shop with Georges Bentet to sample six vintages from a Bordeaux Classified Growth estate. The wine is La Tour Carnet and its owner (since 1999) is Bernard Magrez.
We were not in just any wine store, but one that carries the Bernard Magrez name. This tony shop sells wines only from estates owned by Monsieur Magrez. They now number 35 from every corner of the world, and each bottle has a separate bottom label that proclaims it a Bernard Magrez property. When you add up each winery's vintages and the varied wines that each location produces, it makes for a pretty fair number of choices. (Parenthetically, Magrez also markets seven wines owned by his dear friend, and famous actor, Gerard Depardieu.)
Magrez made his fortune as a small distributor of port wine. He sensed that to successfully sell products, it meant going directly to the mass public with aggressively promoted, cost-conscious goods. His company, which he called "Pitters," soon expanded into Scotch, wine and pre-mixed cocktails. From such humble but intensely marketed products came millions. He recently sold the company, which he renamed William Pitters, for an undisclosed price; he also sold an extremely popular Bordeaux estate, Chateau Malesan, which had become a business gold mine. But Magrez had bigger fish to sauté—and has he ever.
His perspicacious marketing and buying skills prompted him to acquire some exceptional Bordeaux properties such as Chateau Pape Clément (Graves), Chateau Fombrauge (St. Emilion), and the wine of our tasting, Chateau La Tour Carnet (Haut Medoc). Magrez owns 18 other Bordeaux properties throughout the region, with some estates being his own start-ups and often containing just a few acres of vineyards. His credo is to work with what he calls "micro-cuvées" in varied locations rather than believing, as many Bordelais do, that location and the terroir of the finest Bordeaux is what really makes the difference between serviceable and great wine.
So he takes what was recently a tired, neglected vineyard, surrounded by woods and cornfields, and turns it into an all-star. One is called Bois Pertuis, located at the eastern reaches of Bordeaux proper. With the help of winemaker guru Michel Rolland, who assists at all of his properties, he is making a delicious estate wine for $14. But he also chooses the finest lots of merlot to make the "Excellence" bottling ($48). It's a "Super Tuscan" mentality taken to the extreme. Even at the historically pre-eminent Chateau Pape Clément, a wine by itself consistently sought out by collectors, he sees fit to bottle a special "Cuvée Bernard Magrez," which in 2004 produced a total of 681 bottles. Clearly it's not the money that intrigues, it's the uncompromising production of a crème de la crème product that drives him. Thus far, many of the renowned and start-up sites are producing results that are appearing on the critics' radars with increasing regularity.
This same approach has been realized all over the world. Magrez has estates in Spain, Morocco, Uruguay and Argentina. Many are experimental, but all are receiving lavish attention. This fall marks the release of his first California wine, made from Thorevilos Vineyard grapes at the foot of Napa's Howell Mountain (only four acres). Unlike his many reasonably priced wines, this one is specifically intended for the collector and sports a $160 price tag. (See tasting note below.)
The following are my comments on the La Tour Carnet estate that I tasted at his Paris shop. Local availability is spotty. Check with your retailer or go to a good Web site such as winefetch.com.
Arturo's Grades—All New!
I now use the five-star system that dates back generations and has had a special appeal to me as suggested in The Great Vintage Wine Book by English writer Michael Broadbent. My take on the system works as follows:
Not very good
Fair to moderately good
A star (or stars) in parentheses means what the wine promises to achieve with further aging. For example:
() = Fair now but should become extremely good with bottle age
1978 La Tour Carnet, $90
Old leathery singed nose with subdued spices. A calm drink absolutely ready to consume. Gorgeous orange-maroon colored rim with lean but not mean flavors. Relaxed and satisfying if a bit past its prime.
1996 La Tour Carnet, $60
Vibrant fruit invites us into a great candidate for current consumption. Beautifully evolved nose with mushroom, earth and lavender overtones. Delicious distinctive flavors with long aftertaste in a medium-bodied, taut style. Drink now to 2012.
2000 La Tour Carnet, $35
First vintage with Magrez ownership and Michel Rolland consulting. Dramatic difference in styling. Concentration comes out on the dark nose with a bay leaf, beef tallow richness. Drinks roundly, tight still, more oak evident than previous years. A bit short now with possible improvement ahead. It's not the final solution Magrez has in mind, but a new style has been born. Drink now to 2015.
2002 La Tour Carnet, $30
Soft fruit jumps out at you. Dark berry scents, plenty of spice—so alluring and lushly inviting. A beautiful drink. Surround sound fruit with nary a harsh note. A genuine success in this unheralded, difficult vintage. Drink now.
2003 La Tour Carnet, $38
Has a circular depth—like being in the middle of a ripe, marshmallow-like grape. Intense nose but soft and calm hot climate overtones. Drinks like an excellent California Meritage. Unctuous with a touch of raisin. Good tannins, but probably a limited development ahead. Drink now to 2013. ()
2004 La Tour Carnet, $35
Black currant meatiness and light leather, but a bit drying on the nose. A tough drink at the moment—powerful, dark and one-dimensional. Very dry and seems to lack fruit on the palate. Just released. Drink now to 2016.
From his Esperança estate wine (Portugal) for $5.75 to his latest release of Chateau Pape Clément at $105, Magrez' wine prices reflect all niches. So when you look at his first Napa Valley release, a 2004 Bordeaux-like blend, the $160 price tag is a bit of a shock. Perhaps not if you consider what other California "cult" wines cost and—make no mistake—this is what Magrez is aiming for. I've had the pleasure of tasting this wine. The results:
2004 Bernard Magrez Napa Valley, $160
Enveloping bouquet of cassis, plum, black cherry, dark chocolate, black pepper and herbal overtones. Harmonious, very complex with even a bit of Rutherford "dust" peeking through. But promises more than the medium-bodied flavors deliver. Tarry, blackberry and cherry notes, slightly woody with too high acidity on the palate and finish. A stylish wine that bodes for an exceptional future at this property.
I recently discovered an interesting object lesson reversing common sense. American consumers are really at a tremendous advantage when it comes to some very basic pricing matters. Consider the advertisement I saw for Subway restaurants in London. The special that week—3-foot-long sandwiches for £11.99. That's 11.99 pounds, not dollars. So this "special" is really $25. Not a very big bargain hereabouts, eh? Gasoline, as we should always remember, is shockingly expensive in Europe. Averaging prices I saw in Paris, London and Torino, the cost is the equivalent of $7.50-$8 per gallon. Wouldn't that put a crimp in all those Hummer enthusiasts? As for wine, the cheapest wine I saw at any shop was $8. But be it Champagne, Rhone, Piedmont or Tuscany, those wines that I saw and knew well were all more expensive than in the United States. Why? I don't know. It could be that our business acumen drives a hard bargain for all imports, or is it that many European estates and exporters are willing to take less money in order to be seen on America's shelves?
The dollar is at an all-time low against the euro. This became painfully clear when I paid $18 for a traditional meat pie at lunch in London, and $15 for a croque monsieur in Paris (that's a ham sandwich, stateside).
You'd think with the higher costs of all locally produced goods, such as wine, that American viticulture would be reaping benefits in the export market. Well, here's one view from a recently released British catalogue of wines—the ubiquitous, but giggle-producing Balls Brothers Wine Merchant. Their brochure has many examples of Western Hemisphere bottlings from Argentina and Chile. But when it comes to the United States? They carry three varietals, all from a single "winery" named Angel's Flight. I had to look up Angel's Flight as I had never heard of it. Turns out it's a spin-off brand produced by California's Delicato Winery. These sell for approximately $11.60, so I don't imagine that this is Delicato's top of the line.
Something is very wrong here. I welcome wineries to contact me in order to explain why, to save our life, we can't seem to sell our wines overseas.