Last night, by sheer coincidence three bottles of 1999 French wines appeared in our regular Friday night blind tasting. Together they underscored an important point about aging potential that we keep rediscovering: Bordeaux beats them all, even when it is an unimpressive, cheap label. 

The first bottle was this Burgundy, Chateau Corton Grancy, Grand Cru, a haughty label. It’s a top of the line Pinot Noir, from the mother-lode of Pinot Noirs. Its exalted vineyards, near the famed village of Corton are centuries old. Purchased in 1891 by the renowned negociant Latour family, the property has been producing elegant, expensive wines from average 40 year old vines, masterfully crafted and aged. 

I bought the bottle as a vertical of six in a benefit auction, paying $200 per bottle. The first one I opened a month ago, a 1996 was indeed worthy of its label, well liked by everyone in our group. 1999 was a vintage of exceptional quality and quantity in Burgundy, the wines powerful, charming and well balanced with great concentration and color. A vintage to drink young or old, according to the pundits. 

They were wrong about this one. The Corton Grancy had a tanky nose, oxidized flavors and hints of brown sugar, a sure sign of chaptalization (they added sugar to the wine during the winemaking process). It was over-the-hill and no good. A waste of money.

Next came Domaine Tempier Bandol, Cuveé Speciale ( it means a special bottling, akin to the “reserve” labels we often see in domestic wines). The wine looked old, with light brown rings around its rim. It smelled old and had more than a hint of Brettanomyces on the nose. It was powerful but odd, its excessive acidity running through it like a grand river. Before it was unveiled I guessed it as a very old Barolo, from the mid-80s maybe. 

Bandol is actually a cult wine from Provence, near the famed Mediterranean coast of the French Riviera. At one time this was a great wine. Now it had turned into a tired, scrawny old horse. 

Finally, 1999 Chateau Aney. This is a Cru Bourgeois, a pedestrian label from Bordeaux. It was – and still is – quite cheap, around $20 then, less than $30 nowadays. The wine was smooth and silky, with herbal and spicy flavors, well balanced and with a good finish. Most importantly, it looked and tasted young. No one in the group guessed 1999. 

It’s from the Left Bank, Haut-Medoc, the varietal composition around 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, the rest Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. The vineyards go back to 1850, re-invigorated by current owners  from 1978 onward. Nestled between two storied appellations, St. Julien and Margaux, whose 1855 Cru Classe Bordeaux will drain your check-book fast, Ch. Aney is a superb bargain that  delivers true to its terroir. 

For many of you out there who are die-hard fans of Napa, how often do you get a Cabernet mix so good, so age worthy, for that price? 

This coincidental pitting of grand names in Burgundy and Provence against a humble label from Bordeaux is yet another confirmation of what I’ve known for decades. For collectors interested in aging wine, Bordeaux is a must as a backbone of their collections. Good news: it doesn’t always have to cost an arm and a leg.