Whither Bordeaux: Bordeaux wines

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

11 January 2016

With what looks like being the first unequivocally good vintage in five years sitting in its tanks, there is optimism in the châteaux and chais of Bordeaux. But is it justified? Chris Losh talks to the on-trade to find out what it really thinks of the world’s most famous wine region

The Panel

Kate Hawkings, Bell’s Diner & Bar Rooms; Matthieu Longuere MS, Le Cordon Bleu; Andre Luis Martins, Seven Park Place at St James’s Hotel and Club; Barry McCaughley, Wineaux Ltd; Marcin Oziebly, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn; Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan Group; Laure Patry, The Social Company; Debbie Smith, ex-21212; Igor Sotric, China Tang at The Dorchester; Nigel Sutcliffe, Truffle Hunting; Eric Zwiebel MS, Summer Lodge Hotel

Which châteaux/levels/appellations of Bordeaux are selling well for you at the moment?

‘Best sellers for me are Bordeaux Supérieur (based on both price and accessibility), big name first growths (in the right restaurant), plus St-Émilion and Pomerol.’ Barry McCaughley

‘To be honest, Bordeaux is not a bestseller on our wine list. At The Harrow at Little Bedwyn we specialise in New World wines and they represent such good value for money that it’s difficult for Bordeaux to compete with that. We have a couple of top Bordeaux on the list but it’s more to show off that we do have it than to actually sell them. We sell maybe only one or two bottles a year.’ Marcin Oziebly

‘It’s always been a challenge to make Bordeaux affordable. It’s easier to sell top wines, but you can add a small margin to second growths; they sell well when the vintage isn’t championed (and prices get hiked). Château Léoville Poyferré St-Julien 2007 drinks really well around £120. Historically, poor vintages meant inferior wines; that’s not so much the case now, though in the better years, prices rise accordingly.’ Nigel Sutcliffe

‘When I was at La Trompette my customers tended to go for names that they recognised, such as St-Émilion, Pomerol, Pauillac and Margaux.’ Matthieu Longuere MS

‘It tends to be the guests with a more traditional palate who will order Bordeaux. As a sommelier it is never a region I particularly recommend, as I prefer to introduce guests to areas they are less likely to turn to when they’re at home. Having said that, Bordeaux is a staple of most good lists and I don’t believe this should change. St-Émilion in general is always popular with the Merlot fans.’ Debbie Smith

‘Classed growths do well for us at all price points, but we also sell lots of modestly priced grand cru St-Émilion, which we do by the glass. La Conseillante is our most successful classified Right Bank wine, and d’Armailhac, Palmer, Léoville-Barton and Mouton Rothschild are doing best for the Left Bank.’ Christine Parkinson

‘Big guys love Pauillac and they don’t mind paying for it. Other guests will buy two bottles of a good vintage from
St-Julien – often on a recommendation – for the same price. I moved Talbot from 2005 to 2006 to lower the price,
and it became the appellation’s best seller.’ Igor Sotric

‘Some of the St-Émilion, Médoc, Haut-Médoc and reasonably priced Left Bank wines that are priced between £49-£99 are doing well.’ Eric Zwiebel MS

‘I would say that at Social Wine and Tapas, it’s mostly St-Émilion and Pauillac [doing well]. Most of them would be the entry-level price but we do also sell the most famous names such as La Mission Haut-Brion.’ Laure Patry

What isn’t selling so well for you?

‘Big name and expensive wines don’t sell well, and neither do Graves and Pessac-Léognan.’ Eric Zwiebel MS

‘The challenge is still entry level and for me it’s difficult to get under £40 on the list because these days, there are better wines even from other regions of France. I’m thinking particularly of Cabernet Franc in the Loire that ripens well and produces a rich style of wine that’s not as twiggy as it used to be 10 years ago.’ Nigel Sutcliffe

‘Sauternes is very slow moving. Anything in the middle category (ie not able to sell on value and not a known name) does not sell at all. Poor vintages or vintages perceived as poor move very slowly. In general Bordeaux sales, when considered alongside other countries/categories, are poor.’ Barry McCaughley

‘Pétrus is a slow mover but we know why. The first growths mostly are slow movers due to the price.’ Laure Patry

‘Pessac-Léognan is a poor seller – perhaps simply because it’s toward the bottom of the page.’ Igor Sotric

‘High end Bordeaux generally moves slowly in Scotland! In a previous position, within a period of nine months I sold perhaps 18 or 20 bottles of first growth Bordeaux – but all to the same (wealthy) gentleman.’ Debbie Smith

‘[Some] smart Right Bank wines such as Pavie and Figeac are really slow sellers. I don’t know why. On the Left Bank, Lynch-Bages never goes nearly as well as we expect it to, and Lafite Rothschild seems to be dead in the water. White Bordeaux underperforms as well. It’s really a minority choice.’ Christine Parkinson

What do you think have been the key factors in determining the success (or not) of the various wines?

‘Success is determined by a good price to quality ratio – and overall Bordeaux is increasingly seen as bad value and boring. The style of wine at the sub-£10 level does not reflect customer demands.’ Barry McCaughley

‘Parker scores have damaged Bordeaux. They give estates a reason why they can be so expensive. As a result, some growers in Bordeaux don’t make wines for themselves any more – they make them to please the critics.’ Eric Zwiebel MS

‘I think the main factor hurting Bordeaux is the price – and the fact that the new style of Bordeaux is much more concentrated than a few years ago.’ Laure Patry

‘So many of Bordeaux’s wines are overpriced – perhaps because of snobbery, scarcity etc. The Chinese and Russians are welcome to it, in my view. It represents everything I hate about the elitism of some aspects of the wine world. If I had £100 to spend on a bottle of wine I’d always pick madeira.’ Kate Hawkings

‘Our customers themselves are a factor in Bordeaux’s success at China Tang. Many are the more classic type. The Dorchester clientele probably grew up on Bordeaux.’ Igor Sotric

‘Entry-level Bordeaux was always tough at La Trompette. And wines from lesser areas such as the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux – we’d have to hand-sell them to people who came in looking for Pomerol but couldn’t afford it.’  Matthieu Longuere MS

Could the Bordelais do more to cultivate their relationships with the on-trade?

‘They could stop being snobbish and elitist and understand that their wine isn’t God’s gift; [we should see] greater humility from producers and brand ambassadors. And stop courting Asia, Russia, China and India at the expense of the customer base that got them where they are!’ Barry McCaughley

‘Why should the Bordelais change the system which has worked for them for decades? To be more friendly with their customers? They build a wall around themselves with négociants and agents, and pay them to listen
to complaints and wishes.’ Igor Sotric

‘The biggest problem is that the producers sell their wines en primeur, so by the time they are fit to drink, they have usually changed ownership once or twice. This leads to a system where lots of different brokers and distributors are selling the same wine, and none of them has a relationship with the producer. Restaurants depend on distributors to help them understand the wine and build a relationship with the producer. So, with Bordeaux, there’s a missing link. The experience of buying Bordeaux is not much different to casing Amazon for the best deal on a food mixer. Completely impersonal, in other words. One or two make an effort – the Yvon Mau châteaux, for instance. It’s time the others joined in.’ Christine Parkinson

‘We would like to see more Bordeaux producers coming to introduce their wines and perhaps more tastings for the on-trade.’ Laure Patry

‘The Bordelais could be more reasonable about prices and also be more friendly and welcoming when you visit a Bordeaux château, rather than [making you feel] you need to know or to be someone special.’ Eric Zwiebel MS

‘Few restaurants do more than 200 covers a day, or list more than four or five bottles of Bordeaux. The on-trade is a drop in the ocean of what the Bordelais sell in the UK, so in all fairness the Bordelais don’t need to do anything with us. The region is famous enough that the customers will look for it anyway, and it’s widely available. A restaurant might only sell six bottles of a château’s wine in a year.’ Matthieu Longuere MS

‘Unless you go to the big Vinexpo show in Bordeaux you’re dependant on your own trusted supplier to show you what’s out there, and they, too, are limited to their own relationship. So in a selfish manner it would be fantastic to have a big Bordeaux focus on all the wines from all the [sub-regions] available.’ Nigel Sutcliffe

‘Bordeaux is such a legendary wine region because of the capability of its wines to age gracefully – yet whenever you visit the region (for tastings, trade trips, etc) they give you the youngest wines possible and expect you to say how amazing it is. I do not expect to try 1982 every time I visit a Bordeaux château but if producers from other regions are willing to share with you their aged wines, I do not understand why Bordeaux can’t do the same.’ Marcin Oziebly

‘In many ways Bordeaux has been allowed to rest on its laurels, being one of the most traditional and highly regarded regions in the world. I do, however, think the time has come for a more targeted publicity drive to ensure that many of the lesser-known châteaux, which produce excellent wines at lower price points, become better known.’ Debbie Smith

Playing God

We gave our sommeliers the chance to move as many as six wines around in the bordeaux classification system. Here’s what they said...

Lynch-Bages (5ème cru) (8 votes) *
Palmer (3ème cru) (6 votes) *
Pontet-Canet (5ème cru) (5 votes) *
Talbot (4ème cru) (3 votes) *
D’Armailhac (5ème cru)
Beychevelle (4ème cru)
Cantemerle (5ème cru)
Croizet-Bages (5ème cru)
Grand-Puy-Lacoste (5ème cru)
Gruaud-Larose (2ème cru)
Lagrange (3ème cru)
Léoville-Las Cases (2ème cru)
Pichon-Baron (2ème cru)
Pichon Longueville
Comtesse de Lalande (2ème cru)To join the crus classés
Brane-Cantenac (2ème cru)
Desmirail (3ème cru)
Durfort-Vivens (2ème cru)
Haut-Brion (1er cru)
D’Issan (3ème cru)
Lascombes (2ème cru)
Marquis d’Alesme (3ème cru)
Mouton Rothschild (1er cru)
Rauzan-Gassies (2ème cru)
Rauzan-Ségla (2ème cru)

Contenders for a global Cabernet/Merlot cru system
Out of a sheer desire to create mischief, we also asked sommeliers which wines they would want to see included in a ‘global first growth Cabernet/Merlot classification’. We realise, of course, that we’re not comparing like with like, but we wanted to see what answers came back.
Some sommeliers replied with (entirely justified) comments such as ‘is there need for a Cabernet first growth? Isn’t it confusing enough now, with the 1855 system?’ Others shared detailed treatises on how, exactly, such a system might work and which countries (and producers) would probably come out of it best. To save our respondents being lynched by a mob of furious Bordelais, we’ve preserved their anonymity. And to save your time, we’ve condensed all their ideas below...

Bryant Family Vineyard, Napa Valley, USA
Cullen Wines ‘Diana Madeline’, Margaret River, Australia
Harlan Estate, Napa Valley, USA
Screaming Eagle, Napa Valley, USA
Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia, Tuscany, Italy

Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny, Loire, France
Mas de Daumas Gassac, Languedoc, France
Masseto Merlot, Tuscany, Italy
Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia
Stags’ Leap Audentia, Napa Valley, USA
Vega Sicilia Único, Ribera del Duero, Spain

Other ‘classed growths’
Bodega Norton Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza, Argentina
Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River, Australia
Charles Joguet Les Varennes du Grand Clos, Loire Valley, France
Errázuriz Viñedo Chadwick, Maipo Valley, Chile
Markus Schneider Tohuwabohu, Pfalz, Germany
Meerlust Rubicon, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Mount Mary Quintet, Yarra Valley, Australia
Rust en Vrede Estate Red, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, Australia
Yarra Yering Dry Red Wine No 1, Yarra Valley, Australia

Illustration: Jon Berkeley

Opinion: Chris Bailey from Bordeaux wine importer Department 33 found himself 'in absolute agreement and dismay' with our panel's comments

'As someone who seemingly battles hard for Bordeaux, I find myself in absolute agreement about its often aloof nature and its perceived acceptability of shielding itself from customers with walls of négociants etc. I would also have to agree [that] much of the entry level claret is both challenging taste- and price-wise.

Bordeaux needs to reconnect with the world of wine, rather than assuming the world of wine will just follow it

'However, what is so often overlooked, in the pursuit and discussion of the dazzlingly priced big growths, is the real Bordeaux. [In] a region that produces as much wine as the entire continent of Australia across its 60 appellations, there is more to this vast wine resource than its investment grade elite. You’ve only to make a visit to one of their 'Maison du Vin' or look up one of a number of specialist importers here to discover Bordeaux also has an abundance of small family estates both in premium and more peripheral regions. Small estates, run by approachable families with new generations of winemakers anxious to show [their wines].

'The words "good value" and “Bordeaux" are not necessarily very comfortable bedfellows. A little deviation from the norm though, will quickly demonstrate that such a phenomenon really does exist.

'I think Bordeaux needs to give itself a voice that demonstrates its expertise, but crucially, in a very humble way. Its voice needs to be overtly representative of the majority of the region’s wine, rather than the majority of the value. It needs to reconnect with the world of wine, rather than assuming the world of wine will just follow it. Probably not an easy task for a region more famed for its arrogance than humility, but were it able to achieve this, it would pay dividends for the region as a whole.'

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