Exclusive and expensive vs everyday and cheap. Which of these pair of descriptors do you associate with Bordeaux?
Whether you are a sommelier or a consumer, chances are that you would go for the former – and you wouldn’t be wrong. Bordeaux wine is often described as inaccessible, pricey and – for many consumers – difficult to understand. It’s a perception that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Or is it?
The Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) is on a mission to revolutionise the region’s image. Looking at the figures, the strategy seems sensible. Bordeaux accounts for a staggering 2% of global wine production, with an average annual output of over five million hectolitres (to put things into perspective, this equals half of South Africa’s total wine production). Only a mere 3% of Bordeaux wine fits into the super-premium tier, leaving the remaining ocean of un-promoted, cheap, ordinary wine sold for a handful of euros in supermarkets.
‘When we ask the consumer “why are you not buying Bordeaux wine?” it’s always the same answer that comes out: Bordeaux is too expensive and too complicated,’ Allan Sichel, president of the CIVB, tells Imbibe. ‘This is what we’ve been attached to for many years and it’s the issue we’re trying to address.’
The top and lower end of Bordeaux's offerings rarely interact, with super-premium labels mainly sold within the on-trade or to wealthy private wine collectors, and the cheaper ones in the retail sector.
‘Bordeaux is seen as too expensive because we have those top crus that cost an awful lot of money because of worldwide demand and short supply,’ says Sichel, ‘but that’s only 3% of what we produce. The large majority of Bordeaux in France costs €5-€15, which will be about £7-£20 in the UK. That’s what we call the “everyday Bordeaux”, and it’s the price point that we are pushing. What we are doing is demonstrating that within that price bracket, Bordeaux represents fantastic value for money.’
Easier said than done. That’s where the degree of competition is at its highest, with South Africa, Australia, South America, and a growing array of Old World regions offering excellent, possibly unbeatable, value.
Furthermore, the message that a single region is capable of delivering good quality at both some of the highest and the lowest prices wine can demand is a tough one to get across. Other renowned wine regions such as Rioja and Chianti are characterised by significant price gaps between top and bottom labels, but none of them match that of Bordeaux; its cheapest first growth is now traded at just below £2,000 per 12-bottle case (2012 Latour) – a far cry from that ‘everyday’ price tag.
‘To associate one region with one type of wine is always easier, but we’re not going to be able to do that in Bordeaux unfortunately. It’s a big challenge, and it’s up to us to address it,’ explains Sichel.
To tackle the issue the CIVB is developing a wide range of consumer-orientated events, such as the second-annual Bordeaux Fête Le Vin in Liverpool, to be held next May.
But while the consumer might be unaware of the Bordeaux’s cheaper offering but can be educated to appreciate it with relative ease, wine professionals have simply been taught to despise it, and they won't change their mind easily.
With most wine literature focusing on that top 3% only and wine communicators bashing on the low quality of the remaining 97%, all that sommeliers are left with is the inevitable poor image of the ‘everyday Bordeaux’.
‘I am not convinced with the quality level of generic Bordeaux wines (Bordeaux, Bordeaux supérieur, etc),’ says Paul Fauvel, head sommelier at The Lanesborough London and recent awardee of the Gerard Basset Tasting Trophy. ‘Even when you expect a lighter, fresher style with less complexity, these wines are selling well because of the name Bordeaux, but what’s inside the bottle is average.’
Changing wine professionals’ perception of the ‘everyday Bordeaux’ can be even harder than educating consumers, admits Fiona Juby, UK consultant for the CIVB: ‘It’s difficult to organise promotions and events for the on-trade, but we would like to do more. Training is a big thing for us. A lot of sommeliers think they know Bordeaux but actually they don’t necessarily know a lot about it.’
The idea that sommeliers don’t know Bordeaux is open to debate; however, it’s true that, especially within the fine dining sector, somms’ engagement with the region rarely goes beyond its top crus, and little attention is devoted to what’s happening in less revered appellations.
The CIVB isn’t targeting the fine dining industry though: ‘We’re doing some workshops with sommeliers, but not in the top restaurant, rather in what I would call “the middle ground”,’ says Juby. ‘Last year we did one where sommeliers had to bring a bottle they didn’t stock that was within a certain price range and that they thought was good value. Then they had to match it to food. They all came back saying how amazed they were and now we’re encouraging them to use those by the glass.’
There is more in the pipeline aimed at the on-trade, including trade trips, blind tastings across the UK and training sessions for hotels and restaurants delivered by École du Vin de Bordeaux-accredited tutors or schools.
Activities are ongoing, and will run until the autumn. Will this be enough to win sommeliers over?