Time Tells

Just south of the town of St. Emilion in Bordeaux, 18 acres of vines spill down the southeast-facing slope of a steep limestone hill. The name of the vineyard is Chateau Ausone. Though there's no particular reason to believe that the fourth-century poet-physician-statesman Decimus Magnus Ausonius ever lived here, there's no reason to believe he didn't, because among the few things we know for certain about Ausonius is that the old boy liked his wine and knew a good glass when he tasted it.

As a wine-producing property, Chateau Ausone has had its ups and downs over the years. But that's sort of par for the course when the number of years in question tops 1,500. And what's true of Ausone is true of most of the other vineyards in Bordeaux: Some can trace their ancestry back farther than others, but pretty much wherever you go here, wine grapes were already growing when recorded history began, and from those days to ours, the wines of Bordeaux have on average been more admiredand cost morethan any others.

The prices commanded by the very finest of these wines (Château Cheval Blanc, Lafite Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux, and their ilk) soared so astronomically during dot-comania that an entire generation of wine lovers has come to maturity assuming that fine Bordeaux is something ordinary people can't afford. That remains entirely true if you're talking about the Big Four-plus mentioned above. But direct your eyes away from the dazzle of publicity surrounding them, and another, wonderful world comes into view.

This is even more astonishingly true of Bordeaux's 2000 vintage, just coming on the market and widely trumpeted as the greatest of modern times. Last week, a tasting at Seattle's Grand Cru Imports revealed mainstream 2000 Bordeaux laden with the austere yet juicy and fragrant flavors that winemakers from California to Walla Walla, South Africa to Australia aspire to emulate, all at retail prices ranging from $20 to $27. You'll find it very hard to buy a U.S. wine of comparable finesse for less than twice as much money.

Bordeaux beats them not because of cheaper labor or more efficient winemaking but because of sheer time in grade. For 2,000 years, grapes and landscape and people have been co-evolving on the bands of the Gironde, and when prices aren't inflated by boom and bubble, Bordeaux's 2,000-year head start gives its products the edge nine times out of 10.


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