Have we fallen out of love with Bordeaux?

By Fiona Morrison M.W.

As I sit down to write this, Bordeaux is in the middle of “en primeur “ week at the end of March/beginning of April.  This is the moment, when Bordeaux presents its new vintage, worthy of viewing or not, to the wine world.  The quality of the vintage, indeed the question of whether a vintage should be purchased “en primeur” has become rather irrelevant. So important is it to see and be seen in Bordeaux that if you wanted to keep a foothold in the business, you join the masses going from chateau to chateau tasting the new wine and shaking the hand of the famous owners and winemakers. 

It is a great opportunity to inspect the various domains and see the latest developments.  Horses are seen ploughing the rows that, just by coincidence, are right outside the tasting room windows. Donkeys roam, bees make honey, salad crops are harvested among the grassy rows to prove the organic qualities of the vineyards. (Bordeaux may have come to organic farming late, but it is being adopted with a passion by most of the First Growths and great estates.) As you walk through the cellars to the tasting room, you are increasingly met with rows of small stainless steel vats, or rooms that have recently hatched rows of concrete “eggs.” Embossed invitations are sent, notebooks are personalized, slick tasting booklets give you the vital statistics on the wines and, in case you have reached absorption point and can no longer write a tasting note, glowing descriptions of the vintage you are tasting are penned.  Bordeaux puts on a great show.

So why then are there rumblings behind the scenes that Bordeaux wines are too expensive; that they are old fashioned; that they are no longer relevant; that no one buys Bordeaux to drink anymore, only to invest in; that you no longer find Bordeaux on the great wine lists of the world? Looking at these criticisms from a producer’s point of view, it is quite hard to understand. Our agenda for the En Primeur week is so full that we cannot satisfy the demand for any but our clients. As they taste and talk wine with us, they flatter us with their compliments and praise.  Herein lies the complicated relationship that the wine world has with Bordeaux.

There is a reluctant admiration for the power and the sheer business might of the region. Bordeaux comprises 2.5% of all the world’s wine production coming from 1,5% of the world’s total vineyard area.  Over 110,000 hectares of vines cover 60 appellations and produce almost five million hectoliters of fine wine.  In addition Bordeaux manages to sell part of this production “en primeur” – as futures, which is something that no other fine wine region can do.  On the flip side of the coin, is the paltry number of Bordeaux wines on the lists of the best restaurants and wine bars around the world.  This may be because sommeliers love to discover new regions and grape varieties and Bordeaux, rather like Burgundy, is just too well known.  It may also be something to do with Bordeaux’s key selling point, longevity.

In today’s world, where over 80 percent of wine is consumed in the first month of purchase, longevity may seem to be an odd advantage. So few people have room for wine cellars these days and most restaurants simply don’t have the cash flow to cellar wines until their maturity.  It takes at least ten to fifteen years before top Bordeaux begins to show its magic: that beautiful melding of fruit and vibrancy with secondary and tertiary aromas of cedar, cigar box, truffle and coffee bean.  Yet when that moment comes, Bordeaux is still unbeatable. Thanks to Bordeaux’s maritime climate, its growing season is substantially longer than other fine wine growing regions –the grapes ripen slowly and the tannins are finer and tighter grained than in warmer regions. It is this tannin quality which for me, sets Bordeaux apart from other “Bordeaux Blends” whether they be from Spain, Italy, California or Chile. 

Some may argue that it is exactly the exuberant ripeness of these other regions that has made Bordeaux become a “has been”. Yet, the elegant freshness and its precision as so beautifully exemplified by the 2014 vintage, is Bordeaux’s style. Acidity is so much more attractive than over-ripeness and alcohol.  Precision has come gradually: As Bordeaux has begun to better understand its soils, parcel selection has become of primordial importance. The dividing up of the great estates into small lots according to soil type, age of vines, type of clone or rootstock, water retention and exposure, has probably done more for quality in Bordeaux in the last two decade than any other development. The fact that the top estates in Bordeaux now have the means to carry on that parcel selection with rigorous sorting at the time of harvest is vital to quality.  This of course comes at a price but the market is willing to pay that price.

Fiona Morrison y Jacques Thienpont

Sadly, like other great wine regions, there is a world apart from the hundred or so “blue chip” wines that sell well en primeur and are traded above their opening price once bottled and the mass of other chateaux wine that can struggle to sell their crop before another harvest comes along.  Yet here too, Bordeaux is maligned. There have been such advances in viticulture and winemaking that, with my négociant hat on, it has been fun finding lots of wines that represent an extremely good price/value ratio in Bordeaux.  Scratch below the surface of the grands crus and there are a host of other wines worthy of interest.

There has been much talk in Bordeaux this week about the end of the Parker era.  (Robert Parker announced recently that he would no longer be judging Bordeaux wines prior to bottling and was passing his en primeur duties to Neil Martin.)  Rather than lamenting the disappearance of the Pope of Wines, it may be an opportunity for Bordeaux to reflect.  Bordeaux should erect a statue to Parker for his role in making Bordeaux desirable again.  However, recently, his influence has had a less benign affect. In a somewhat misguided turn of events, Bordeaux producers have made wines that are over extracted, often high in alcohol and overripe with the hope that this style is more suited to Parker’s American palate and will gain them those crucial high Parker scores.

Is it just a coincidence that in contrast to the “Parker style”, the fresh, elegance of the 2014 vintage ends the Parker reign?  Bordeaux has come of age and with that maturity comes a certain confidence.  We no longer need one critic to judge our wines but welcome a host of different palates and bloggers. The influence, at least judging from the attendees at en primeur week has passed to the websites of the top importers, bloggers and sommeliers.  Bordeaux can treat the criticism and the sulks of a wine trade as a lover’s tiff: It knows that for the lovers of great wine, it will always have a perennial place in their hearts. Now the only question that remains, is at what price?

Fiona Morrison M.W.
Fiona Morrison is a Master of Wine with over thirty years’ experience in the wine business in the USA and Europe. Together with her husband, Jacques Thienpont, she runs the two well-known wine domains: Le Pin in Pomerol and L’IF in Saint Emilion and she is Managing Director of the Thienpont wine négociant company. Fiona divides her time between Belgium and Bordeaux and is also a freelance wine writer and consultant for such companies as Brussels Airlines, Christie’s, LVMH and Autogrill. She sits of the board of directors of the Institute of Masters of Wine in London and Compagnie Maritime Belge in Antwerp.

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