The great divide – Love it or hate it, Bordeaux is the Marmite of wines

Drinks: Wines
Location: Bordeaux, Europe, France

For sommeliers and the wine-buying public alike nowhere polarises opinion like Bordeaux. Joe Fattorini dons his tweed jacket to find out which of the region’s wines restaurants should be spreading on their toast

It’s now the best wine region in the world for quality, value and price.’ ‘At the moment people there know that they’re like any other up-and-coming region: they’ve got to over-deliver.’ ‘As a region it’s coming back in fashion.’ ‘Most of the wines now stand up pretty well in a price/value comparison with anything in the world.’

So, where is this exciting, great value source of wine?

Er, Bordeaux, actually.

The world’s largest wine region, producer of 40% of France’s AOC wines and whipping boy for the worst excesses of European subsidies is getting a few people rather excited. Not that everything is rosy in Bordeaux’s garden. ‘I offer what people want to buy,’ says Hamish Anderson of The Tate. ‘Bordeaux just doesn’t sell if it simply sits on the list. The way you have to sell it is through things like by-the-glass promotions. When you say “look, we’ve got a great Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux”, or “We’ve got this new wine from the Côtes de Bourg; it’s a new region and making some really good wines”, then people will buy them.’

Even then, Anderson admits that it can be a hard sell. ‘Many consumers are sceptical of Bordeaux at lower price points,’ he sighs. ‘It’s a lot easier to sell Bordeaux when it’s more expensive.’


Bordeaux has three big problems. First, its image. ‘I don’t sell into the off-trade,’ says Matt Dickinson, commercial director at Thierry’s, ‘but my hypothesis is this: Bordeaux seems to be affected by the same issues as the rest of France. It has to work against a perception that it’s traditional and a perception that it’s dull.’

Second, Bordeaux faces the problem highlighted by Anderson: at lower prices people feel it’s expensive. If you’re spending up to £30, other regions offer more.

And finally, put bluntly, that it’s not very good. That at the volume end we just see insipid, nervy reds and thin whites.

“While there are many world-

class wines within Bordeaux,

they’re often hidden amongst

much less impressive peers”

‘The Bordelais haven’t done enough to engage with the market,’ says Richard Bampfield MW, a consultant with a huge knowledge of Bordeaux, though he says that the quality has improved (particularly the whites) and, crucially, the wines are better-suited to the UK market, ‘particularly at around £5 for the restaurant sector’.

Bampfield is also upbeat about rosé, as is Simon Jerrome, Bordeaux buyer for Matthew Clark. ‘Bordeaux is fantastically placed for making rosé,’ he says. ‘People are becoming sick of white Zinfandel and they’re moving on. Bordeaux makes rosé like proper red Bordeaux, just without the tannins. It’s brilliant stuff’.

So why the disparity between our perceptions of Bordeaux and the wines people find on the ground? In part people feel quality is patchy. ‘When we conducted our range review we tasted around 400 different wines,’ says Jerrome. ‘We added 40 to the range. That’s a hit rate of 10%.’

Others agree that while within Bordeaux there are many world-class wines, they’re often hidden among much less impressive peers. ‘The customer is generally right when they’re cautious about Bordeaux’s quality,’ says Anderson. ‘Yes, some of it is interesting and excellent, clearly. But take 100 Bordeaux and only six or seven in the line up over deliver. There’s an awful lot of rubbish.’


However, there are those within Bordeaux who feel that such a perception is out of date.

‘Bordeaux doesn’t have a really shady bottom end any more,’ says Sean Allison, a New Zealander who runs Château du Seuil in Graves with his Welsh wife Nicky. He feels that across the board winemaking and quality have improved a great deal, although he concedes ‘I couldn’t have said that five years ago.’

Across the river, Christophe Château, director of the Côtes de Bordeaux association, is adamant that quality has improved and will continue to improve. ‘There was a huge crisis with white Bordeaux in the 1990s and that was followed by a huge uprooting and replanting programme. That means that the quality in white Bordeaux is now very good. The same process didn’t happen with the reds until 2000. But in the next months and years red Bordeaux will improve in the same way.’

Château is especially upbeat about the prospects for producers in the seven Right Bank côtes and sub-regions he represents. ‘The wines are mainly Merlot with some Cabernet Sauvignon making them fruity and easy drinking. But they are also very approachable young. We’re now seeing the great 2005 vintage on the market, and that is a great opportunity to sell Bordeaux.’

He’s aware that Bordeaux producers and regions haven’t done enough to reach out to potential customers, but points out that organisations like his are implementing initiatives to work with restaurants because they now know that the wines are perfectly suited to what customers want.


But are they too expensive? Here we see Bordeaux’s double-edged sword. Many smaller, less prestigious producers enjoy the halo that comes from sharing the neighbourhood with some of the world’s grandest wine names.

But while first-growth Bordeaux has increased in price almost 1000% in the last 20 years, the price of generic Bordeaux has remained stubbornly the same, between 80 cents and one euro a bottle. As a result, while the New World was often able to undercut Bordeaux for wines in the mid-market category in the past, as New World prices have risen that’s no longer true. In fact good Bordeaux can be considerably less than equivalent quality wines elsewhere. Industry commentators particularly highlighted whites at the £4 to £10 wholesale price.

Obviously, when the opportunity comes to raise prices, many producers are keen to seize it, but merchants point out that this had been a problem when selling the wines to restaurants in the UK. If one Bordeaux wine goes up in a vintage change, many restaurants simply swap to another. To overcome this, merchants are now trying to agree pricing deals with producers to hold terms from year to year, so that there aren’t market-disrupting spikes in a year like 2005.

This, though, is often frustrated by the complex nature of the Bordeaux market with the ‘place’, courtiers, négociants and shippers. ‘Structure is a huge problem,’ says Château. ‘So many winemakers never know what the customer wants.’

“A lot of restaurants want wines that

they know are made by ‘someone’.

That way they can get some ownership

of the provenance of the wine” SEAN ALLISON

Jerrome, however, is keen to highlight the success of Allison at Château du Seuil. Wines from du Seuil have appeared on lists as diverse as Glyndebourne Opera and JD Wetherspoon, and are now at Bord’eaux, the new brasserie at the Grosvenor House Hotel.

Allison has found that ‘a lot of restaurants want wines that they know are made by “someone”. That way they can get some ownership of the provenance of the wine. And to be honest that comes with being family owned.’

Allison contrasts that approach with wines from négociants. He’s not critical of the quality, but suggests that ‘négociant wines are similar to lots of New World brands. They’re good, but they’re not super-interesting. We’ve got to make wines that are interesting but understandable.’

Château du Seuil’s success also comes as no surprise to Matthew Clark’s director of wine, Robin Knapp. His team has built up a strong relationship with both Allison and the wines, and passes on its enthusiasm to customers. Anderson sees the benefit of this approach too.

‘Bordeaux suffers from the unique way it distributes its wines… the place, négociants. Rarely do you get a château with a sole representative, someone who’s going to bang the drum for you like you get in Burgundy. These properties need one agent, one supplier.’

But once the wine merchant is talking to the sommelier or wine buyer, Knapp feels Bordeaux has a secret weapon. ‘It’s that magic word “château”. In order to sell Bordeaux you need to focus on château wines. Wines that actually come from somewhere. Not just a blend of grapes from various places. But wines that come from a single spot that people can imagine.’


It’s something well understood by Ghislaine Aubertel, another restaurateur convinced that Bordeaux’s time has come. ‘It’s coming back in fashion,’ he says in his new restaurant, Le Di-vin in Edinburgh. ‘We’re selling quite a few Bordeaux. I think that the style of claret is changing because of people like Denis Dubourdieu. Wines are becoming fruitier.’

He’s sure some of the most interesting wines are coming from petit châteaux in the Bordeaux côtes. A case in point is one of his wines by the glass – Château Lagrange Les Tours, a Bordeaux superieur from near Fronsac, supplied by Inverarity Vaults.

‘It’s a very honest wine,’ says Aubertel, who was impressed at just ‘how well it was drinking from the 2004 vintage’. He insists that he would have listed the wine on its taste alone, but also found it useful to meet the château’s owner (interestingly a Belgian incomer, rather than Bordelais native) who visited him in Edinburgh.

Another person to list Château Lagrange Les Tours is Nigel Fairclough, cellar master at The Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire. His wine list has received numerous accolades and sells considerable volumes of Bordeaux. But he’s adamant that as people move up the list, clever selection and price are critical.

‘Look, I’ve got Château Fouread 2000 here. Great wine from Listrac-Moulis at £32. That’s great value. But what people really go for are the second wines. Tourelles de Longueville 2000 for £37.50. Carruades de Lafite 2000 for £55. We bought these early and mark them up reasonably. And people respond to that.’

Bordeaux is clearly making some excellent wines, at very attractive prices and in styles customers enjoy. But when it comes to selling itself, it remains in the Dark Ages. To achieve the success it deserves, Bordeaux needs to highlight the individual châteaux, individual sommeliers and individual initiatives.

Surely that’s worth it for such a famous region that is finally delivering on quality, and value?

Uncle Joe’s Five to Look Out For
Joe Fattorini selects some of the top Bordeaux currently on the market: wonderful vintages, astounding value for money and classic styles

Château du Seuil, La Rosé du Seuil 2006
£7.13, Matthew Clark, 01275 891400

Selected by the buyers for the Glyndebourne Festival, this is the epitome of the style of rosé that Bordeaux can – and should – be making.

Château Beaumont les Pierrières 2006, Premières Côtes de Blaye
£5.62, Lea & Sandeman, 020 7244 0522

A story of truly genius winemaking that gives you a barrel-fermented, Graves-style white for
a fraction of the price. An astonishing wine for the money.

Château Tour Grand Mayne, Côtes de Castillon 2005
£5.58, Matthew Clark, 01275 891400

Now onto the excellent 2005 vintage, this wine is a perfect option by the glass as a way of introducing people to Bordeaux.

Château Lagrange Les Tours, Bordeaux Superieur 2004
£7.03, Inverarity Vaults, 01899 308000

Everyone who has mentioned this wine talked about its ‘honesty’. A solid, dependable, classic red Bordeaux – and great value, too.

Château Brulesécaille 2004 Côtes de Bourg
£7.95, Vine Trail, 0117 9211770

This is a wonderfully concentrated wine for this price, offering supple tannins, chocolate
and stylish oak spice. Great value.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – May / June 2008

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