Opinion: Bored of Bordeaux

Donald Edwards

Donald Edwards

19 February 2016

Not long ago three folk from the Bordelais CIVB came into my place of work. They were in town, not for the big Australia day tasting (they fair wrinkled their noses at my suggestion that it'd make a fun afternoon for them) but for some meeting to work out how best to shill us the cheap dregs of Bordeaux that no one else wants to buy. Okay, I'm being melodramatic, but they really wound me up. Here's why.

When I was growing up, red wine was Bordeaux. Not posh Bordeaux, by any means, but basic Bordeaux Superior, or if it was a special occasion a nice St Emilion Grand Cru, but that was because my parents had a flat on the Bassin d'Arcachon and we spent all our holidays around the Gironde. I remember visiting the citadels of Blaye and Bourg, acting le gavroche around the old town of St Emilon as my parents learnt about wine tasting in some darkened room. Driving up the Médoc, seeing the signs of the great estates (it never crossed our minds that we might cross the heavily-gated thresholds though) and generally eating and drinking our way around the region.  I had a lot of love for Bordeaux.

Then I started to get properly into wine. I read all the books, learnt all about the importance of gravel mounds, or the complex interaction between clay, gravel and limestone. I immersed myself in the histories of the great estates and tasted as much as I could (both Bordeaux and, importantly, everywhere else).

To give this some sort of perspective time wise, we're talking early 2000s, and there was plenty of early 90s Bordeaux from very decent estates still knocking about. Indeed, around that time I used to sell Château Cissac 95 (I think) by the glass at the posh(ish) hotel I was working at, and it was very reasonably priced.

Now I look at BBR and see that until 2005 Mouton was about £2,500 a case (£200 a bottle, expensive, but almost within saving-up-for territory) and both Lynch-Bages and Palmer were in the £40s per bottle.

As an aside, I should note that since the early 2000s we've seen almost total wage stagnation in all but the upper echelons of earning, but that's an issue for a far more serious article. I just wanted to point it out before we get onto the increase in Bordelais pricing.

Mouton is now around £10k a case, Palmer and Lynch-Bages are both around £1.5k. That's a fourfold increase for the first growth and three-fold for the others. That's quite something, driven in part by the superb 2005 vintage the Châteaux got stuck into some serious price inflation, of course consecutive ‘vintages of the century' in 09 and 10 didn't help, but it really did seem that the Bordelais had just stopped having any interest it the UK market (outside of our fine wine investors). I read about Château owners touring China, flirting ever more with the massively wealthy in the states, and obviously overlooking us traditional Bordeaux drinkers over here.

Please don't take this as the screed of a scorned lover, I'm not particularly bothered - there are plenty of other wonderful wines for me to fall in love with. Personally, I'm quite happy switching out Graves for decent Brunello and garagiste Right Bank for aspirational Super Tuscans.

the wine market that until recently would have bled claret if you cut it

What really does rile me is that the Bordelais think they can come over to one of the most diverse and educated wine markets in the world, the one that created the concept of modern Bordeaux, the market whose demand for the best châteux drove the pricing variations that underlay the 1855 classification, the wine market that until recently would have bled claret if you cut it. They can come over here and suddenly be all about the Côtes. Again, I've nothing in particular against the varied Côtes (Castillon, Blaye, Bourg etc) but they're not where we're going to find great wines. Sure there are some good value wines that are faintly reminiscent of the great Bordeaux we grew up with, but where's the interest in 'faintly reminiscent'? Sure, we can fill our shelves with Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion, or Lalande-de-Pomerol, but who hasn't felt slightly fraudulent selling wines whose primary appeal is that they have a name that's perilously close to a really famous one? 

Anyway, back to those three folk from the CIVB... They sniffily looked at my Bordeaux corner (about 10 wines) and enquired whether this was all I had. I replied that there was also the fine wine fridge, in total about 30 listings (about 4% of the shop). The gentleman was shocked. 'Why so little?' I explained that value-wise I had to look elsewhere, and that anyway no one really asked for Bordeaux that much. Obviously I stopped short of saying that only ignorant wine drinkers who go by name and price drink expensive Bordeaux, but then he caught me out by noting, incredulously, that I didn't have any Bordeaux on the enomatics. How could this be? It was then that I started to lose my patience.

To whit - if you spend two centuries teaching a market that only the very best terroirs in your region make great wine, don't be surprised when, if you price that market out of the wines they're used to, they don't believe you when you come around trying to talk up what's left.

Oh and later that week I cracked open a bottle of 1985 Ducru-Beaucaillou and promptly reminded myself of why I loved the wines in the first place.

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