Liv-ex interview with Michel Rolland, part two

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Last week, Liv-ex published the first part of an interview with Bordeaux winemaker and consultant Michel Rolland. In it, he discusses his career and winemaking philosophy. In the second part,  below, Rolland shares his views on Bordeaux and wine criticism. To view the interview in French, please click here.

There was lack of consensus on the quality of Bordeaux 2015, as shown by the Liv-ex En Primeur survey results. Do the tasters know what they are talking about?

You know, for the past 40 years I have enjoyed around 3000 new wines each year and I’m still not sure.

However I find that your non-consensus is good on two levels. First, it shows that a broad range of wines may appeal to a broad panel of tasters. This is rather positive. A consensus would mean that there is an objective ‘good’ and everything else is bad.

How about the critics, specifically?

We all know that there is one person that determines the market, even though he only reviews California now: Robert Parker. He’s the only one who has managed to build a commercial consensus behind him. He had followers and created social networks before anyone else in wine.

Today, there are people that I like such as Robert Joseph, Michel Bettane in France, Antonio Galloni in the US and Neal Martin in the UK. These people taste with professionalism and honesty that I do not doubt, but they are struggling to have as many followers as Parker did at the time.

Why do you think they don’t have Parker’s influence?

First, the market is much more complicated than it was in the days of Bob Parker. 30 years ago, when he came to a tasting that I organised, we tasted 220-230 samples in total, and then it was over. Today, I think it would have been incomplete if he tasted 800. This complicates things.

The opportunity Parker had was to taste significantly less wine. At the time he enjoyed France, Italy, Spain, the US, South America and Australia. Today, nobody can do that: just for France, there is a specialist in Bordeaux, a specialist in Burgundy and a specialist in the Languedoc.

Does this make them more expert?

No, because the best way to be an expert is to be broad – to taste everything. The more you reduce your field of view, the less expert you are.

So to become an expert critic, we must enjoy everything – a lot and often?

Exactly. It takes time to become a good taster. However, you also need talent. I always compare it to sport: everyone can run, but some run faster than others.

Do you think there will be a new Parker?

No, for the reasons I mentioned before. Nobody will have same opportunity now. No-one can have the same influence.

Do you think the influence he had was a good thing?

That’s a good question! No. Intellectual hegemony is a form of dictatorship. However, unlike other dictatorships where one can force people, nobody had to listen to Parker… but everyone did!

How do you see the role of social media currently and in the future?

I have had two thoughts. First, I was absolutely convinced that social networks were an opportunity to spread knowledge about wine. The problem that we have now is that they are not used for tasting notes but for fighting. I find them too aggressive.

Aggressive to whom?

Ultimately, to everyone. At times, about wines or to winemakers, journalists – or amongst themselves. If a person claims to have tasted an extraordinary bottle of white Lagravière Malartic 2005, a wave of people will go against him. There is a kind of aggressiveness in the words; there is no consensual exchange that could move the debate forward.

I thought – and still think – that the situation can improve and be positive. Today it offers the only opportunity to cover the entire wine production globally. If you were tasting 2,000 wines 30 years ago, you’d need to be tasting 20,000-25,000 today. Who can do that? No one. If people enjoyed a bottle of Pontet Canet in Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, London or Paris and shared their experience online, it could become helpful for the consumer.

And maybe bring some consensus among a group of people?

I think so. This could be positive, even if it is complicated today when everyone wants to strengthen their reputation. People are more concerned about their egos than the intrinsic quality of the wines.

Do you think that tasting from barrel at En Primeur is a system that works well?

No, because as we said, it is very complicated. Tasting young wines is extremely technical.

So when should the wines be tasted?

When they are bottled.

Immediately, or a little later?

Perhaps 15 months later.

There would be no En Primeur system…

Not necessarily.

You want a system without En Primeur tasting?

If you look at scores for all wines from the past 20 years, you’ll see that some received poor marks but went on to become very good. Take Larcis Ducasse for example you’ll see monumental differences between scores. When you compare the assessments with sales prices and volumes – information that the properties can give ten years later – you’ll find that that the initial score has little impact on En Primeur sales. Instead, the wine falls into its usual price range and will sell as usual if the vintage is good, but will not sell if the vintage is bad – even if it received positive reviews.

So the individual score of a wine does not change the release price, even if the wine received 98 or 100 from Parker?

No, but this can offer a small boost.

What do you think of blind tastings?

I’m not a supporter of blind tastings. I do it a lot because it’s fun, but as an approach to tasting professionally I don’t like it much. You lose the spirit of tasting a little – and it is already necessary to be focused enough while tasting, even without needing to identify the wine.

Do you think the critics have sometimes under-scored your wines?

I don’t think about this too much, or judge them. Parker never really rated my own wines highly.

I assume you are aware of “Bordeaux bashing”?

Yes, there has been Bordeaux bashing and there still is.

Why?

I don’t know. In Bordeaux, we must have a sort of arrogance that does not please everyone.

But five years ago, everyone loved Bordeaux…

That’s true. I believe the arrogance of Bordeaux is shown in the prices of 2009 and 2010. Interestingly, however, it was only the prices of the very top wines that increased significantly – the others rose less.

The world of commerce and consumption poorly digested this price increase on 2009 and 2010. Then we came across more complicated vintages in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

So this is mostly due to release prices in 2009 and 2010?

Effectively. On top of that, Bordeaux fell in love with the Chinese market and became distracted from its traditional markets. Again, wine is not poetry! You have to make sales.

Are those who are “Bordeaux bashing” wrong?

I don’t think there is a reason for Bordeaux bashing specifically, but there is some truth in it. Bordeaux had a moment of madness on pricing in 2009 and 2010 and with its market orientation: China, rather than the traditional markets like the UK or USA. Some prices soared as China started to buy. It is true that this isn’t the best way towards a balanced market; it’s the best way to be criticised – and that is what happened.

What do you think of buying wines – especially the great wines of Bordeaux – for speculative purposes?

I think as long as wine is a speculative product, it is reassuring for the sector. Some point out that we can’t drink the firsts, seconds or other famous wines. I always say to people that there are a lot of good wines from the lower crus. We don’t need to drink Margaux, Latour or Mouton Rothschild every time that we drink wine. There are other very good wines – some that are much cheaper can be very pleasant.

The speculative side pleases me. As long as there are auctions that will make everyone dream, fine wine will remain a luxury item. If Louis Vuitton and Cartier are successful it is because they offer things you cannot buy every day and not everybody can afford, but can dream about.

Do you think fine wine is good investment?

I think that buying fine wines is a very good investment, even today.

Which?

Bordeaux or Burgundy – French. The United States has a good reputation, but specifically within the United States. They are beginning to find success in Hong Kong but less so in England. Old bottles of fine French vintages remain a sure bet.

If you could, what would you change in Bordeaux?

Nothing really! You know, it’s like all great systems. It can be criticised, but is there anything better than the selling power of Bordeaux? No – even if the market in London partly grew thanks to the merchants. Bordeaux has an international network of distributors with a lot of power – and this is great. Of course, you could blame Bordeaux for the margins or distribution, but on the other hand it is the only market in the world that can do everything. Personally, I would not change anything.

Which region or country do you think the greatest potential for the future?

I have high expectations for countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine or Georgia because of the climate and soil in the area surrounding the Black Sea. I think this region has a great potential.

How would your family describe you?

According to my wife: high standards for myself and others; a perfectionist – obsessive. I do not support mediocrity: we must always be more ambitious.

In the wine world, who do you admire most?

A lot of people! In Bordeaux, I had a great teacher, Émile Peynaud – he is hard to beat. I admired Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon very much. In trading, John Paul Jauffret was one of my mentors. I have also liked many great winemakers at various points in my life.

And today?

When you are 70, it is others who are watching you. So it’s a little different, but there are many wine producers that I admire such as my colleague Stéphane Derenoncourt who has had an absolutely remarkable journey, and even families like the Perses, and Alain Vauthier. In the Médoc, I would name people like Alfred Tesseron or the Cuveliers of Poyferré. In the US, there is Bill Harlan: someone who saw the big picture before anyone else in wine. He is a marketing genius. I have liked many people in my life. There are unusual characters like Marcel Guigal. It’s hard to make a list! Many people have experienced successes and shown intelligence.

What is your greatest professional achievement?

To experience my 44th harvest – I think few people have made more than 40 harvests. In fact, this must be my 75th harvest if we take into account the northern and southern hemispheres. I am sure that few people have had this opportunity and this chance, and it’s a very satisfying thing on a personal level. When I was young, I wanted to travel. I think I have been quite successful!


1996 First Growths: price movements from peak

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Following Neal Martin’s re-appraisal of Bordeaux 1996 in The Wine Advocate last month the market has seen a boost in activity for the vintage. It stands alongside 1982 and 1990 in terms of quality and is the most active pre-2000 Bordeaux vintage traded this year.

The 1996 First Growths are mostly high-scoring and were some of the early wines purchased in volume by fine wine investment funds that emerged in the early 2000s. All fell hard from the peak of the Bordeaux market in June 2011. Lafite Rothschild 1996 fell the most, sliding 53% from its peak of £14,800 per 12×75 in February 2011 to a low of £6,950 in November 2014.

Since the Bordeaux market’s recovery at the end of 2015, First Growth price performance of the 1996s has varied. Haut Brion has risen the most year-to-date, followed closely by Margaux. Haut Brion is now 7.4% from its peak of £4,300 in April 2011.

In his re-appraisal, Martin upgraded Margaux from his previous score of 98 to a perfect 100. He said the wine “may well turn out to be the Left Bank pinnacle of the 1990s.”

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2016: one direction

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From 2011 to 2013, the monthly movements of the Liv-ex 100 index followed similar patterns. Optimism in the build-up to En Primeur lifted the market during the first quarter but was dashed following disappointing campaigns. The index went on to decline, closing each year down.

This pattern was turned on its head as En Primeur failed to provide a first quarter bounce in 2014 – but market sentiment began to pick up towards the end of the year. This made 2014 the year in reverse.  With the direction changed and the pattern broken, the index changed direction on almost a monthly basis in 2015 revealing a discord with previous years.

After an extended period of market decline followed by consolidation, the Liv-ex 100 has moved in one direction in 2016: up. It has gained 22.3% year to date when measured in Sterling terms. If it closes the final two months of the year in positive territory, 2016 will be the first year since records began to consistently see upward movement at the end of every month.


 

Talking Trade: 11th November – 17th November

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Bordeaux activity was down this week, but the Fine Wine 50 was stable, closing Thursday on 334.75 (+0.1%). Trade by volume and value was up on last week and First Growth activity was higher at 34.8%.

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Italy’s market share surged with Sassicaia 2013 and San Guido, Difese 2014 top by value and volume respectively.  Altesino, Brunello Montalcino 2010 also found the bid and was in the top wines traded by volume.

Activity for the ‘Others’ was up, boosted by high-scoring US wines. Dominus 2008 (WA 99), 2004 (WA 97) and 2007 (WA 98) all traded. The acclaimed 2013 vintage saw brisk activity. Opus One (JS 100) and Verite Joie (WA 100), Verite Desir (WA 99) and Verite Muse (WA 100) all traded. Robert Parker said Verite Muse 2013 is “amazingly like a great vintage of Petrus.”

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Older high-value Bordeaux were active. Margaux 1996 (WA 100) and Latour 1996 (WA 95) both traded at £6,063 per 12×75. They were re-scored by Neal Martin last month in his “Bordeaux 1996 – Twenty Years On” report. Parker previously awarded Margaux 1996 99 points and Latour 1996 99 points.

Carruades Lafite 2014 has recently seen a flurry of activity as it has become physically available. Neal Martin said it “is a decent, satisfying Carruades de Lafite that should be afforded three or four years in bottle.”

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Liv-ex interview with Michel Rolland, part one

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Michel Rolland is a Bordeaux-based winemaker and consultant with a global client base. Liv-ex Director Anthony Maxwell recently caught up with him to find out more about his work and views on the world of wine. In the first part of the interview, published below, Rolland discusses his career and winemaking philosophy. The second part of the interview will be published next week. To view the interview in French, please click here.

Can you tell us about your background in wine? How did you become a consultant?

I grew up in a family of winemakers – I didn’t consider anything else. I started in the laboratory, as was done at the time, and eventually became a winemaker.

When I grew tired of this, I thought I could give advice to others. So I worked hard, and then consultancy work came gradually.

How many producers are you currently consulting for?

I work with seven employees and we manage a total of 230-240 accounts.

In how many countries?

My team advises in 14 countries. I have personally made wine in 21 different countries.

When consulting for a producer, what is your end goal?

To make my client happy! Like everyone else.

And what makes a customer happy?

When their wine sells. You know, we can approach wine as a cultural form – like poetry or music – but nobody makes wine because they are an artist. Even if I am an artist, it doesn’t make my clients happy. They are happy when they sell their wine. They spent money on producing it and want to maximise their profits. This is business.

And how do you achieve this? How do you increase the price of a wine?

There are several scenarios.

When a client comes to see me because he wants to get into the wine business out of nowhere, I give him various options then the choice is with him because it is his money.

Initially, it is only the quality that matters, and it is often necessary to invest in improving it without expecting immediate returns. We also consider where its fits into the market – positioning is essential. We make the wine with this in mind, and how this enables us to finance the operation. We mustn’t forget that wine is business!

We also look at marketing, though if the quality is not there, it’s not worth doing the marketing.

Take the case of Harlan Estate: we were making great wines before we were asking big prices. This has taken 25 years, but the potential was there originally.

So you knew that the potential was there from the beginning for Harlan?

Yes. I thought the potential was there but that the wines weren’t that good at the time. Then, fortunately, 1990 came along. This wasn’t a great vintage in Napa, but I thought that we could make good wine. Then 1991 and 1992 followed. These were two good vintages in Napa – relative to Bordeaux

Are you able to be objective in the qualitative evaluation of a wine?

I would say that I have my own objectivity. Quality is not the same for everyone: there are opinions that you share; others that you don’t share. My personal objectivity is a relative one in some ways. I do not take a wine and say whether it’s good or not: I try to make a wine that will achieve a goal. The goal is the market, the customer – in one or more countries.

You have previously said that your job is 70% psychology and 30% oenology. What does the psychology involve?

The psychology involves convincing people that they will get there one day. This isn’t easy – there are all sorts of obstacles, climate and otherwise. For example, the press response to the wine is not always what you expect. These are unknowns that we can’t predict, so you have to stay in touch with people and reassure them of the purpose of their work.

Take the Bordelais. Historically, they all thought that they were making the best wine in Bordeaux. Yet 40 years ago, there was more bad than good. I had to succeed in telling them that, maybe, the wine could be better but without saying that it was bad. These ideas could sometimes cause them to become frustrated. So early on the psychology and relationships were very important – but later we had to prove to them that what we said was verifiable. The psychology is very important.

Are you a businessman or an artist?

I’m certainly not an artist! It’s not a job where you can be an artist because success is too dependent on realism. There are many small organic wineries that I work with because I have a very open mind, but it’s not my main focus. My job is to work with people that are not necessarily artists.

Parker clearly admired the style of your wines. Is your influence affected by his retirement?

So far no clients have told me that I’m not needed now that Parker is retired!

Certainly a positive note from Parker can make life easier – even if it isn’t everything – and it was a useful point of reference. However, Bordeaux continues to sell today even without Bob Parker: 2015 saw a successful En Primeur. I think it was a great vintage, though not the most homogenous – there are good, so-so and, frankly, bad wines. Still, sales were made fairly and correctly at satisfactory prices.

Why do you think some critics they say there is a ‘Rolland style’?

What bothers me with the ‘Rolland style’ primarily is that I have trouble defining it. If I look at ten bottles of wine that I make from Bordeaux, Italy, Spain, South America and North America, I can’t identify a common style. It is true that when you drink the young wines, you can detect the oak. However if you put them side by side – wines that were made in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 – you will find that the Chilean are often Chilean, the Argentinians are very Argentinian and the Bordeaux are Bordeaux.

Jancis wrote in a report that she could detect the clarets that had seen your influence…

I have invited her to taste them blind several times but she has not accepted. If she would like, I would be ready to offer again. It is almost certain that the wines will deceive.

What are the most common errors made by winemakers?

Not to go all the way – and this is perhaps what is lacking in the wine market in general. In general the winemakers do not make a lot of mistakes but it would sometimes help to be stronger commercially or with marketing. Some think that as soon as the wine is sold to the merchant, they have done what they need to do. This is not the case, as the second part begins – you need to strengthen the brand.

The disadvantage of this profession is that you need to know everything: the vine, the wine, bottling, selling, marketing… It is therefore a relatively complicated business, but some do it very well.

Apart from that, there was once the issue of excessive production, which has now disappeared.

You are in favour of using technology. Where will it stop? If we could produce Lafite Rothschild in a laboratory, would that be a good thing?

Technology isn’t everything, but it has allowed us a lot of progress. We have never before drunk wines as good as we do now. Today, even the wines that we say are bad are still good. This is similar to the history of the car: we can’t say that technology has damaged the car industry, just as it hasn’t spoiled wine.

You said that nobody wants ‘loser wine’. What is a ‘loser wine’?

As I said earlier, wine is made to be sold. If it does not sell, this reveals a problem. In my experience, I have never met anyone disinterested in selling their wine – even among the richest people.

In Bordeaux, there is a petit château called Château Pabus owned by a wealthy and friendly American. It has five hectares of vineyards and a fantastic cellar. But his goal is still to sell. He was happy when I told him that his wine is exceptional, but he will not be happy if it doesn’t sell.

How have your preferences and the preferences of consumers evolved over the last 20 or 30 years?

Consumer preferences, not my own, are important. I don’t work for me, even though I know what I like – indeed, I have done for 20 or 25 years. In a business like mine, it is necessary to have an eye on what the consumer enjoys. In the world of wine, the consumer is like the labour code in employment: when a new law passes, it must be taken into account. Similarly, when consumers’ preferences change, it is necessary to change the wines slightly in terms of fruit, acidity and alcohol.

Are you a trend setter or trend follow?

We must remain modest: one is never a trendsetter. I am a follower of trends. The market is always right.

The second part of the interview with Michel Rolland will be published on the blog next week.


How much is the First Growth ‘brand’ worth?

It’s well known that prices for Bordeaux First Growths trade at a premium to other Left Bank wines, but how do we quantify this premium – and how much of it is due to differences in brand value as opposed to quality?

To help answer this question, Liv-ex has plotted the prices of the First Growths in the Fine Wine 50 index and wines of the Left Bank 200*, which tracks the price movements of other leading Bordeaux wines such as Leoville Las Cases, Lynch Bages and Pontet Canet, against their scores from Robert Parker. The two resulting trend lines are shown in the chart below. This analysis assumes that a wine’s score from Parker acts as a reasonable proxy for its ‘quality’.

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The chart above illustrates the average price premium that the market is willing to pay for First Growths relative to other leading Left Bank wines. Since the trend lines compare wines with the same scores, the distance between the two may be attributed to differences in ‘brand’ value.

For the lowest scoring wines on the chart (i.e. wines with 91 points), the market pays an average premium of £2,791 for First Growths over other Left Bank wines. This premium increases to £5,565 for wines with 100 points from Parker.

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The Fine Wine Market: Dollar opportunities

Last week it was observed that viewing the fine wine market in Dollars provides a good perspective of where there is real strength in the market. Similarly, looking at the wines in the Liv-ex 1000 that are up in Sterling but largely flat in Dollars provides a view of where value may remain for Dollar-based buyers.

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As the table above shows there are a number of high-scoring wines that look attractive in Dollar terms. Margaux 2000, Latour 2010 and Haut Brion 2010 are all 100-point wines and have hardly moved in Dollars over the last year. Latour 2010 was described as one of the “perfect” wines of the “great” 2010 vintage by Robert Parker.

Angelus 2010 was upgraded to 99+ by Parker in 2015. He downgraded Mouton Rothschild 2009 to 99 points (from 99+) but said it “could turn out to be a candidate for perfection in another 8-10 years.”


 

Spotlight on… Angelus

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Owner: Stephanie de Bouard de Laforest

Appellation: Saint-Emilion AOC

Classification: Grand Cru Classe A

Vineyard area: 39 hectares

Grape varieties planted: 50% Merlot, 47% Cabernet Franc, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon

Standard blend: 50% Merlot, 50% Cabernet Franc (2014)

Average annual production: 100,000 bottles (Grand Vin)

Second wine: Le Carillon d’Angelus

Colour: Red

History

In 1782, Jean de Bouard de Laforest – one of the King’s bodyguards – settled on the estate in Saint-Emilion. His son Maurice inherited the property and extended it to include a three-hectare enclosure named Angelus in 1920. The inspiration for Chateau Angelus comes from the painting of the same name by the French impressionist Jean-Francois Millet. The estate is found in a natural amphitheatre and, according to folk law, vine workers could hear the angelus bells of the three neighbouring churches at the same time.

In 1945, Maurice’s sons Jacques and Christian inherited the property and continued their family’s work. The property was classified in 1954 and the two sons extended it further to exceed 20 hectares by 1985. In 1987, Jacques’ son Hubert took over the management of the estate and was joined by his cousin Jean-Bernard Grenie and then his daughter Stephanie in 2012.

In 2012 Chateau Angelus and nearby Pavie were both upgraded to Grand Cru Classe A in the Saint Emilion re-classification. To celebrate the Chateau’s promotion Stephanie designed the iconic black and gold bottle for the 2012 vintage.

Most recently the wine has featured in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, following an appearance in Casino Royale in 2006.

Market Performance

market-performance

The broader Bordeaux market tumbled from mid-2011 but both Angelus and Pavie continued to rise. This was helped in no small part by their upgrade to Grand Cru Classe A in September 2012, as the chart above indicates.

Over five years, the Angelus index – which tracks the price movements of the last ten physical vintages – is up 81.5%. It has significantly outperformed the Bordeaux 500 index which is up 6.2%.

Acclaimed vintages

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There is a very clear difference in price between the 100-point 2005 vintage and those from other years. The 2009 and 2010 vintages – both scored 99+ points – are currently trading at discounts of 22.6% and 26.2% respectively to the similarly scored 2005. Despite critical acclaim, those wines have not been able to command the price of the 100-point 2005. Robert Parker described the 2009 as “a candidate for perfection” and James Suckling described the 2010 as “the greatest Angelus ever for me”, awarding it 99 points.

Vintage prices

vintage-prices

So far this year, the 2010 has been the most actively traded Angelus vintage by both value and volume – the wine traded more than 2.5 times the 2009. Its price has also been rising and it now commands a Market Price of £3,102 per 12×75, an increase of 29.3% on the previous year.

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Of the recent vintages, 2008 and 2013 have been the top performers over the past 12 months, up 41% and 44.6% respectively. The 2006 follows close behind with a 40.4% increase. Despite the percentage increases, these wines continue to be among the cheapest vintages on the market. The 2012 has seen the smallest increase in price, but it was already trading at the second highest price a year ago, due to the success of its black and gold label.


 

Talking Trade: 4th November – 10th November

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Focus has remained on high value wines with the total value traded on the Exchange up on the previous week and volume up marginally. Bordeaux activity was solid at 82% with buyers targeting older vintages. Having climbed in October, the Fine Wine 50 was up 0.4%, closing Thursday on 334.58.

region

First Growth trade was up on last week at 25.9%. Lafite Rothschild was the most active First Growth and the 1982 vintage (WA 97+) traded at its highest level in five years. It was the second most traded wine by value this week.

Trade by value across the regions was stable: the Rhone and the ‘Others’ declined the most. Activity for Champagne has dipped in the last two weeks after seeing strong trade in September (9.6%) and October (8.3%). Louis Roederer, Cristal 2000 (WA 95) was, however, among the top wines traded by volume this week.

Activity for Italian wines was up with buyers focussing on the recent vintages. Super Tuscans – Sassicaia, Solaia, Masseto and Tignanello – all found the bid. Sassicaia 2013 (AG 93-96+) was in the top wines traded by volume.

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Older high-value Bordeaux appeared in the top wines by value this week. Activity for Petrus was solid with the 1998 (WA 98) vintage top of the table. The 2002 (WA 90), 2003 (WA 93), 2005 (WA 97+), 2007 (WA 91) and 2010 (WA 100) vintages also traded. Robert Parker said Petrus 2010 was “stunningly rich, full-bodied and more tannic and classic than the 2009.”

The top wines traded by volume this week were mixed with low and high value wines both active.  In his “2005 Bordeaux Retrospective” last year, Parker said Virginie de Valandraud 2005 (WA 92) was “a gorgeous, sexy wine to drink over the next 10-15 years.”

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