The World of Fine Wine
Bordeaux is often portrayed as a corporate world devoid of soul and passion and driven by greed—the polar opposite of supposedly artisanal Burgundy. For Elin McCoy, however, this image is a gross misrepresentation of a great, historic wine region, where value rubs shoulders with the world’s finest bottles.
At the gala dinner for La Paulée de New York, the city’s biannual Burgundy party, organizer Daniel Johnnes described why he loves Burgundy by contrasting it to Bordeaux. Bordeaux château owners are elitists who wear scarves at their necks and fine gloves, he said, while Burgundy is about farmers with dirt under their fingernails and thick, purple-stained hands. The implication, of course, was that Bordeaux is full of tweed-jacketed aristocrats who hire others to make their expensive luxury “products,” while in Burgundy, “real” people, passionate about their patches of terroir, make “authentic” wines.
The audience hooted its approval and, at my table, added chuckles and more anti-Bordeaux slurs. I put that down to the presence of 35 Burgundian vintners and 1,000 or so bottles of their very best wines, many of which had been drained by that point.
But the negative attitude toward Bordeaux is one I’ve been hearing a lot recently, from sommeliers, bloggers, writers, and consumers, especially in New York, who bash the region with complaints about its exorbitant prices and perceived greed, its supposed slavish devotion to critics’ ratings, the current style of its wines, and much more. Some have suggested that younger drinkers no longer care about Bordeaux; Wine Spectator’s James Laube, in his “A Farewell to Bordeaux” column last September, wrote that it’s “a style of wine that no longer holds the same allure for me that it once did” and that he’s looking elsewhere for “enticing wine experiences.”
Bordeaux boring? What happened to the region that used to be considered the sine qua non of the fine-wine world? Does this storied region, with its long history of great, ageworthy wines, really need defending? Apparently, in today’s wine world, in some quarters it does.
Let me be honest: I’ve occasionally bashed Bordeaux. But then, I’m a critic. I have no hesitation in declaring that Bordeaux remains one of the greatest wine regions in the world, with quality, tradition, and an immensely important history. Bordeaux educated the entire world about wine and taught it that wine could age; its trade with the English forced it to look outward, early on, spreading the word of its wines globally. Bordeaux is to wine “what the Middle East is for civilization,” said John Gilman, who publishes the newsletter View from the Cellar.
Moreover, its reds are still the benchmark against which other Cabernets and Cabernet/Merlot blends are measured. Much as I have reveled in some great wines based on these grapes from elsewhere, nothing I’ve tasted from the New World has come close to the peaks of Bordeaux I’ve had the pleasure of tasting: 1900 Margaux, 1947 Cheval Blanc, 1961 Palmer, 1982 Lafleur, and 1989 Haut Brion are a few of the most recognized, but there have been many others. Those are the kinds of wines that “carve their initials on your brain,” to borrow a phrase from wine writer Mike Steinberger. To me, the taste of the most stellar Bordeaux is nearly architectural in structure, like a Bach fugue. Surely that must be part of why drinking them stimulates analysis and thought. It’s as if there’s an intellectual element in their balance of aromas and flavors that no other region comes close to sharing. Even Bordeaux’s more modest wines can demonstrate the balance of scent and savor, fruit and depth, tannin and acidity, that allow evolution in the glass at table,
as well as in the long-cellared bottle.
Falling out of love with Bordeaux
Yet even as many buyers in parts of Asia are embracing Bordeaux at an
astonishing pace, in the USA we’re drinking far less of it. One snapshot of the state of Bordeaux consumption in the United States is Wine and Spirits magazine’s annual restaurant poll, now in its 22nd year. The magazine asks top restaurants to list their ten bestselling wines for the last quarter of the year, then gives points to each one—ten for wine number 1, one for wine number 10—and tabulates the results.
In 2010, only 12 percent of the French wines named were from Bordeaux, compared to 19.1 percent in 2006, which was the same proportion as in 1994. Not only that, the prices for 2010’s bottles ranged from $100 to $188 (those are restaurant list prices), according to the magazine’s editor Joshua Greene. Before the economic downturn, in 2007, that range was $200 to $700.
“In the past, Bordeaux was used by customers to demonstrate some form of success,” Greene said in a phone interview. “Now it looks like people aren’t ordering it to show off.”
Driven by price, people are willing to try something new, but oddly, they haven’t turned so much to lower-priced Bordeaux, according to this poll. Instead, they are discovering other regions such as the Loire Valley. In 2000, that region accounted for 10.4 percent of the poll’s French wine segment, but in 2010 its share grew to 17.8 percent. One thing that hasn’t helped Bordeaux’s numbers among drinkers is the continually dwindling interest in Merlot, which has dropped from a 1997 high of 15.6 percent to a mere 2.9 percent for 2010.
But, says Greene, high-end restaurants like New York’s Daniel and Philadelphia’s Le Bec Fin are still selling Bordeaux, even though the customers who order them tend to be “older.” Several New York City restaurant wine directors regularly tell me their Bordeaux drinkers “have gray hair.”
Last year, leaders of Bordeaux’s wine council (CIVB) acknowledged the wines had lost market share, with many wines disappearing from wine lists and retail shelves. Their solution suggested eliminating the lowest level of basic Bordeaux, much of which is straightforward and simple, and concentrating on marketing the rest into the categories “Art, Exploration, and Fun.”
Fun? Well, why not? As the CIVB never tires of pointing out, one of Bordeaux’s greatest strengths (and weaknesses) is diversity, with 60 appellations, 117,500ha (290,350 acres) of vineyards, 8,650 growers, and good wines at different price points—from $10, to more than $1,000. The largest appellation contrôlée region in France, it pumps out 661 million bottles annually.
Yet the media image of Bordeaux is one of rare wines at prices unaffordable to all but the wealthy. That’s largely because the headlines, publicity, reviews, and coverage of Bordeaux in wine magazines and elsewhere focus primarily on 30 or so trophy names from seven appellations that make up a tiny proportion of the region’s wines. Pictures of grand châteaux on the Left Bank make the region look aristocratic and off limits to the unconnected.
Ralph Sands, the Bordeaux specialist at K&L Wine Merchants in the San Francisco Bay Area, says the perception that Bordeaux is a rich person’s game scares away younger buyers, even though it’s easier than ever to find amazing values—even under $15—especially from lesser-known appellations such as Côtes de Castillon, Lalande de Pomerol, or Moulis. Even crus classés can be had for as little as $25. “When they try the wines,” says Sands, “they’re surprised by how good they are.”
The petits châteaux of Bordeaux used to be ubiquitous—the claret for everyday drinking—but they have been pushed out of consumer consciousness by newer, flashier, more obvious reds from all corners of the globe. Sadly, availability of middle-rung Bordeaux has decreased dramatically in the USA since Diageo Château & Estates stepped out of the Bordeaux market in 2008. And because of the way Bordeaux is sold through négociants, it is difficult for a small château with no buzz, no “surround,” no brand image to find a niche in the market. As Josh Greene mentioned in our discussion, “When you gut the middle of a wine region, you’re in trouble.’’
Yet the quality is there, says Philippe Laquèche, director general of négociant Yvon Mau, which is now entering the US market. Plans are in the works to offer an exclusive range of ten small châteaux. The region has “a huge image,” he explains, but argues that it must somehow find a way to “democratize the consumption of Bordeaux wines.”
Bordeaux now mirrors the increasing income inequality of the world’s wine consumers. The gap between the top expensive brands and the wines from the estates at the bottom has widened, leaving fewer and fewer in the middle price range. The vast majority have a hard time staying afloat in what has become a two-tier economy. American billionaire Stephen Adams, who bought six small properties on the Right Bank, is selling off all except the most prestigious, St-Emilion’s Château Fonplégade and Pomerol’s L’Enclos. Even if you significantly increase quality, you can’t make money on wines that sell from the château for €2–3 a bottle, he told me last year. Consider this: AFP reported that last June, you could buy 1,200 bottles of basic Bordeaux for a single bottle of Château Latour.
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