A Cure for the Bordeaux Blues

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It’s been two months since the grapes were picked, and the 2013 Bordeaux vintage is now being vinified in oak barrels. But those barrels might be better described as wooden crypts: The 2013s are going to be dead on arrival when they’re sold as futures next spring. Heavy rains and a devastating hailstorm conspired to make 2013 one of the worst vintages Bordeaux has experienced in years, and while a couple of decent wines may yet emerge, most are going to be lean and insipid.

 

There is never a good time for rotten vintages, but this is a particularly unfortunate time for Bordeaux to have one of its own. The 2013 washout marks the third weak year in a row for the region. But Bordeaux has a bigger problem than that. Its wines, long the benchmark against which all others were judged, have lately become distinctly unfashionable. They are seen as too expensive and lacking soul, an indictment that is undoubtedly tied to the fact that most of the big-name châteaux, such as Latour and Cheval Blanc, are now owned by corporations or by extremely wealthy individuals who may not have the generational know-how so important to making exceptional wines. For the first time in the annals of modern viticulture, Bordeaux’s position as the lodestar of the wine world is under serious threat. In other words, they’ve got an image problem, and a very serious one at that.

 

So what can Bordeaux do to revive its fortunes? The answer may lie not in the famous appellations that are home to the priciest wines, such as Pauillac and Pomerol, but rather on the periphery, in satellite districts such as Fronsac and the Côte de Castillon. There are, in fact, two sides to Bordeaux: the several dozen classified growths that own the spotlight and command the hefty sums, and the thousands of small, artisanal producers working in the shadows of these famous estates. It’s certainly true that some smaller players do produce inferior wines. But even those that don’t are still struggling to stay afloat, and the 2013 vintage will likely put hundreds, maybe even thousands, of them out of business. That’s a real tragedy, because amid the plonk, there are some terrific wines coming out of these less heralded appellations. But it’s also an opportunity. By calling attention to the region’s dwindling number of artisanal, small-batch producers of high-quality wine, the powers of Bordeaux would not only revive the fortunes of those individual vineyards, but also—hopefully— the region itself.

 

There’s no question that the region needs reviving: The days of ever-spiraling prices for the top Bordeaux growths appear to have come to an end. Over the last three decades or so, the Bordelais have been very aggressive about pricing their wines. When the much-acclaimed 2005 vintage was sold as futures, many châteaux released their wines at prices 40 or 50 percent higher than what they’d charged for the equally promising 2000 vintage. And then, when the hotly anticipated 2009s were released in the spring of 2010, many raised their prices another 40 and 50 percent over what they’d charged in 2005. Some even went so far as to double their prices—and this at a time when the global economy was reeling from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. It didn’t even stop there. When the superb 2010 bottles hit the market, many were offered at prices ranging from 30 to 50 percent higher than in 2009. Hence, a 2010 Cheval Blanc opened at €900 ($1225) a bottle at today’s exchange rate. That was 21 percent higher than the opening price that the château set for the 2009, and double the price that the highly acclaimed 2005 Cheval Blanc was selling for at retail at the time.

 

The vertiginous price increases pushed many longtime Bordeaux enthusiasts to the sidelines while also generating great displeasure. At first, new buyers (particularly the Chinese), eagerly filled the void, but soon even they began to balk at further increases. And so while the 2009s sold well, sticker shock killed off whatever demand there might have been for the 2010s, and this despite ecstatic reviews from Robert Parker and other critics. The Bordelais are reportedly still sitting on large stocks of unsold 2010s today. “These vintages should have been easy sells,” says Daniel Posner, who owns Grapes The Wine Company, a highly regarded wine shop in White Plains, N.Y. “But the châteaux were greedy.”

 

That is the consensus view, and it goes a long way to explaining why so many oenophiles have soured on Bordeaux and why the region’s benchmark status is in jeopardy. The major estates—which includes both the First Growths (e.g., Château Latour, Château Lafite) and their Right Bank equivalents (e.g., Château Cheval Blanc)—can easily withstand the downturn in sales. French billionaire Francois Pinault, founder of Kering, the Paris-based retail group that owns Bottega Veneta and Gucci, for instance, owns Latour. His compatriot and business rival, Bernard Arnault, CEO of French luxury group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, personally controls Cheval Blanc, although he sold a 50 percent stake to LVMH in 2009. These owners don’t need to turn a short-term profit from their wines and can sit on large stocks of unsold inventory indefinitely.

 

But for Bordeaux as a whole, the diminished interest is a serious problem, starting with the fact that the region has a lot of wine to sell in any given vintage. Latour produces around 215,000 bottles of its main wine each year and roughly 130,000 bottles of its second label. By contrast, Burgundy’s most acclaimed estate, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, makes 80,000 bottles in total.

 

A less pressing but more ominous concern is that Bordeaux hasn’t just lost the allegiance of many longtime wine drinkers—it appears to have also been written off by many newer enthusiasts as nothing more than “wine for rich people.” The fact that a new generation of oenophiles is not cultivating their palates on Bordeaux, as their fathers and grandfathers did, could spell big trouble for the region over the long run.

 

The best chance of kindling an interest in Bordeaux among these younger drinkers is to introduce them to the region’s other side, to the quality wines being made on the periphery. There, they will find wines that are not only affordable but that also appeal to their small-is-beautiful sensibility. Daniel Johnnes, the wine director for Chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant empire and owner of his own wine importing business, is trying to do exactly that. Concerned that both younger sommeliers as well as consumers had become too dismissive of Bordeaux and were not aware that the region also produced quality artisanal bottles that could be had for the price of a good Beaujolais, Johnnes began importing wines from nine small Bordeaux producers three years ago. If the names of the estates that he represents—Château de Clotte, Château La Coudraie—are unfamiliar, the wines are impressive, with the added virtue of being very affordable—prices range from $10 to $25 a bottle. Adding to their appeal is the fact that they are made by people whose efforts most people can enjoy supporting—family estates that turn out consistently good wines amid challenging economic circumstances. As Johnnes puts it, “These are small châteaux struggling to keep family traditions alive.”

 

In other words, they are the antithesis of what we’ve begun to think of when we think of Bordeaux. The differing perceptions go some way to explain why Burgundy, which is dominated by small, family-owned estates, has eclipsed Bordeaux as the favorite region of younger collectors. (It doesn’t hurt that Burgundy is turning out incredible wines these days, but that’s another story.) If the best small estates on the edge of Bordeaux can gain traction in the U.S. and other foreign markets, it could help boost interest in Bordeaux across the board. But a seriously good vintage after these three abysmal ones would help, too.

 

Mike Steinberger is the wine writer for Men’s Journal. He has also written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Magazine. His latest book, The Wine Savant: A Guide to the New Wine Culture (W.W. Norton), is being published in December.

 

A view of Saint-Emilion, above, one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux.

 

 

 

 

 

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