A Modest Proposal
Amid a Bordeaux backlash, does the world's most famous wine region have anything for the 99 percent?
“I am totally totally intimidated by Bordeaux wines,” sheepishly admitted one friend, a woman who feels totally at ease with wines as obscure as Spanish mencía or teroldego from northern Italy or vranec from the Republic of Macedonia. “I walk past that shelf in the store and all the Bordeaux bottles look exactly the same. Same colors, same scripty fonts, same gold leaf, same illustration of the damn chateau. It’s always Château du Something Something. Château du Blah Blah Blah. Château du Frenchy French. How do I even know where to begin?”
When I recently raised the topic of Bordeaux with another friend, a beverage manager at a very fine restaurant, he got seriously angry. “Ugh, why do I even care about Bordeaux?” he nearly shouted. “Who is able to afford it? Why don’t they just sell it all to Chinese billionaires so they can mix it with Coca-Cola! I’ll stick with the wines I love from Italy and Spain and the Loire Valley and everywhere else.”
I feel their frustration. Every year, we are beaten over the head by an insider wine press that seems intent on helping Bordeaux hype how awesome it is—the breathless reports on auction prices, the Talmud-like annual spring dispatches from Bordeaux en primeur barrel tastings, the crystal-ball predictions on futures (i.e. wine bought by rich people that hasn’t even been bottled yet). 2009 was especially full of hyperbole. Robert Parker, the world’s best-known and most influential wine critic: “For some Médocs and Graves, 2009 may turn out to be the finest vintage I have tasted in 32 years of covering Bordeaux.” Yet I feel like I hear a declaration to this effect from one or two of the major wine critics at least every other year.
Not too long ago, Bordeaux launched one of the more cynical marketing campaigns I have seen, to promote what we were told was “affordable Bordeaux.” Their “affordable” price threshold? Thirty-five dollars. Which may or not make sense during a period when Western countries are teetering on the verge of financial collapse.
Last spring, Wine Spectator devoted its March 31 cover to Bordeaux’s 2009 vintage, which the magazine deemed “classic.” A cover line declared “Second Labels Offer Great Value” and underneath — presumably to show this so-called “great value” — were images of labels from Les Forts De Latour and Carruades de Lafite, both with the standard, staid Bordeaux pen-and-ink illustrations of the estates. Next to the labels, editors listed the prices and critics’ scores right on the cover: $345 for the 93-point Les Forts De Latour and $400 for the 92-point Carruades de Lafite.
Now, I’m pretty certain that irony was not at play, since I doubt there is a less ironic magazine in the world than Wine Spectator (of which I, like hundreds of thousands of other wine drinkers, am a subscriber). I’m therefore going to assume that the editors earnestly believe that paying $400 for a bottle of wine represents “great value.” If so, they are part of the problem.
Perhaps these editors would say the word “value” is relative. The best wines, the premier cru “first labels,” were also featured on the magazine cover as a point of comparison next to their “second labels” — Château Latour ($1,600; 99 points) Château Lafite Rotheschild ($1,800; 98 points).
But just to be clear: For $400, you won’t be getting the winery’s best grape juice. For $400, you’ll be buying a wine that, by the magazine’s own supposedly objective numeral ratings, essentially received an A-minus. (Pretty good, but most of the college students I teach would consider studying harder if that’s the grade they received.)
Can we all just finally admit that wine people are in desperate need of a reality check on Bordeaux? The sooner we do, we will all be better off. Even Bordeaux itself — the entire region and its thousands of wine producers, not just the First Growths — will be better off. By focusing so much on the top end, Bordeaux has become almost entirely irrelevant to two generations of wine drinkers.
The Bordeaux backlash began to gain steam during all the hyperbolic critical attention for the 2009 vintage, and its record-setting prices. New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov wrote that “for a significant segment of the wine-drinking population in the United States, the raves heard around the world were not enough to elicit a response beyond, perhaps, a yawn.”
A few months later, the Wall Street Journal’s wine critic (and occasionally famous novelist) Jay McInerney bluntly asked: “Does Bordeaux still matter?” McInerney recounted boos at a fine wine auction when an offering of Bordeaux was announced. “For wine buffs with an indie sensibility,” he wrote, “Bordeaux is the equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster, more about money than about art.” As sort of a hedge, he added: “Bordeaux bashing has become a new form of wine snobbery.”
A year later, the Journal’s other wine critic, Lettie Teague, wrote about how wine drinkers “shy away from Bordeaux, dismissing it as too expensive, too old-fashioned, too intimidating or simply too dull.”
Top sommeliers have weighed in, too. At Terroir, Paul Greico’s trend-setting New York wine bar, it is often noted that, despite over 50 wines by the glass, there is not one from Bordeaux. But perhaps the most damning rebuke of Bordeaux came last summer, from Pontus Elofsson, the sommelier at the cutting-edge Copenhagen restaurant Noma, voted “best restaurant in the world” three years running. Elofsson steadfastly refuses to carry Bordeaux on Noma’s wine list.
So it was with all this venom as backdrop that I made my first visit to Bordeaux last spring.
My friend was right. Even for someone who writes about wine, Bordeaux is totally intimidating. It hit me when I found myself sitting uneasily in the tasting parlor of Château La Mission Haut-Brion in the company of Prince Robert de Luxembourg, the chateau’s royal managing director.
Prince Robert told me that the big-time critics like Parker and James Suckling had visited here the week before. During our chit-chat, I mentioned this was my first trip to Bordeaux, and the Prince guffawed, incredulously. “Never been to Bordeaux? And you write about wine?”
“Um, well…yeah?” I said, backpedaling. “I guess I’ve just spent most of my time in places like Italy and Spain and Portugal. And other parts of France? I don’t know. Italy I guess is where most of my wine knowledge has come from.”
“Oh,” said the Prince, in a grand princely fashion, “so you are an expert in Italian wines? Ha. Well, we have an Italian wine expert here!” I haven’t felt so foolish since middle school when I forgot to wear shorts to a basketball game, and pulled down my sweatpants to reveal my tighty-whities to the crowd. The message from Prince Robert seemed to be: How the hell did you get an appointment to taste wines with me?
I looked around at the regal tasting room, with the heavy wood furniture and the bust of someone famous, and the high-seated chairs where the important wine critics swirl and spit and opine and move cases of thousand-dollar wine. And I decided to jump right in with a question that may have been impolite: “A lot of wine writers and sommeliers back in the States say that Bordeaux isn’t really relevant anymore. What do you say to those people?”
“The fact is,” said Prince Robert, “that people need to write about something. And Bordeaux is obviously so relevant that they need to write something about Bordeaux. It’s the tall poppy syndrome.”
Prince Robert clearly had answered this question many times before. “I would ask other winemakers around the world and they will tell you that Bordeaux would be the benchmark by which to judge all other wines,” he said. “There are no wines in the world that receive more excitement.”
“But wait,” I said. “Aren’t you worried that younger people aren’t drinking Bordeaux? That it’s not even on their radar? Aren’t you afraid that when this generation can finally afford your wines, they won’t care about them?”
“Yes, the young wine drinker likes the simplicity of New World wines. Wines that are easy to explain,” he said, and I’m not sure I can properly convey just how much contempt dripped from the Prince’s voice. “Anyway, I am confident that people will come back to the great wines of Bordeaux.”
“There has never been more demand for the top-end wines,” he added. This may be true, but we all know that the market is now being driven, in large part, by newer collectors in Asia. One might reasonably hypothesize that tastes will eventually change in China and India, too, just as they have in the United States in the decades since 1982 when Americans “discovered” Bordeaux (via Robert Parker). Surely by now there is a Chinese Robert Parker? And in the not-so-distant future a backlash against Bordeaux by young, tattooed, hipster Chinese sommeliers will happen?
I didn’t get to ask these questions because, apparently, our conversation bored the Prince. He rose from his chair, bid me adieu and wished me a good first trip to Bordeaux. “Enjoy those Italian wines,” he said, with a smile and a wink.
I was then left to taste nine wines from the 2011 vintage with the public relations person. How were the wines? Amazing. No doubt about it. The flagship first label wine was more complex and dense and rich than just about anything else I’ve ever tasted. But at what price? Château Haut-Brion 2009 has been listed at $1,000 a bottle. I tasted the only ounce of the 2011 that I will likely ever taste, one ounce more than most of my friends and readers will likely ever taste. Will my description inspire you to drink Bordeaux? I mean, one of my friends drove a Ferrari once and another once had sex with an underwear model, but neither of their descriptions has exactly led to me closer to the same experience.
Please don’t misunderstand. I loved my trip to Bordeaux, but it was also disquieting to see how much emphasis was placed on the top end wines. It actually seemed a little disquieting to some of the younger winemakers I met.
At the 712-year-old Château Pape Clément, I met with a 27-year-old assistant winemaker named Arnaud Lasisz. “In Bordeaux,” he told me, “everyone always says we have to be the example. We cannot make middling wines.”
As we wandered the cellars, Lasisz told me, “Our boss, he got a 95 for the red and he called a meeting and was furious. He said to us, ‘Tell me what you need, and I will give you the money to do it.’ He was furious. Even though he’d gotten 100 for the white that year!”
“So money is no object, right?” I said. “Don’t you have the resources to do what you want?”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
It’s interesting to note that Château Pape Clément’s 2009 first label (the one that received 95 points from Wine Spectator and earned the wrath of the boss) “only” costs $150. It’s also interesting to note that the boss, Bernard Magrez, owns wineries in Spain, Chile, Argentina, and California.
Before Lasisz came home to Bordeaux, he’d previously worked in New Zealand and Australia. “In Bordeaux, there are too many rules sometimes. I was surprised in New Zealand and Australia by all the experimentation. There are no rules.”
As we tasted the strange, intense 1988 vintage, full of cigar smoke and tar and leather and dried leaves, I asked Lasisz — as a twentysomething — if he drinks a lot of Bordeaux wines when he’s out at night with his buddies. “When I’m with friends who aren’t in the industry, they want something different,” he said. “Something fruity, something easy to drink.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Bordeaux since my trip last spring. Is Bordeaux really irrelevant? Will it really lose a generation of younger wine drinkers?
On the surface, the idea is crazy. Bordeaux is a vast wine region of 8,500 producers and 54 different appellations, who make wine at all price points. About half of all Bordeaux wine sells for less than $6 per bottle. Look in any wine shop and see how many bottles are imported! Any region that produces this many wines should make a few bottles we can affordably enjoy, right? Of course. So why don’t I know anyone who drinks Bordeaux on a consistent basis?
I believe the answer is straightforward and two-fold. First, the top-end wines chase everyday wine consumers away. They perceive Bordeaux to be too expensive. Secondly, just go to your local wine store, and look at the Bordeaux shelf with your own eyes. After a hard day of work, can you concentrate enough to discern the difference between labels? The shelf looks more like the window of a real estate office that deals in chateaux. After a strenuous yoga class, are people parsing the difference between Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux and Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux? I’m certainly not advocating for the dumbing down of Bordeaux labels with cartoon animals and stupid catchy names, but there’s got to be an easier way.
The sad thing is, there are a lot of truly affordable, truly good-value wines from Bordeaux that many people would enjoy. As a random example, in just the past month, I’ve tasted three from the 2009 that I would place in my own personal top-20 “best buys” of the year: Château La Fleur de Jaugue from Saint-Emilion ($25); Château Reynon from Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux ($19) and Château Val de Roc Bordeaux Supérieur ($14). The Château Val de Roc was such a low-price revelation that I delved deeper and realized just how many Bordeaux I could find under $15.
Inspired, I decided to put together a tasting of all the Bordeaux from the “classic” 2009 vintage under $15 that I could find at the stores near my home, in Philadelphia and suburban South Jersey. Altogether, I bought over 30 bottles from 2009 and opened them with friends over two days, the first group being wines under $10 and the second group from $12-$15. We tasted each bottle without food, and then a second time with pizza. Yes, my methodology was completely unscientific, but it was significantly closer to a real-world wine-buying experience.
What did I find? The stuff under $10 (with a couple of notable exceptions) was mostly drinkable but forgettable. But if you stay in the $12-$15 range, more often than not you will find a good everyday bottle that punches above its weight. Mostly, I would look for wines from the Bordeaux Supérieur, Côtes de Bordeaux , or Côtes du Bourg appellations, though occasionally you will find a cheap bottle from Haut-Medoc or Saint-Emilion or perhaps a satellite of Pomerol like Lalande de Pomerol. If you’re frightened by French words, just look for those place names.
Below, I offer the following under-$15 selections that will show you that Bordeaux is still very much relevant. Any of these would be nice to drink by the glass at a bar or restaurant. Perhaps it’s not as sexy as trumpeting $400 selections. But if Bordeaux is ever to appeal to a new generation of wine drinkers — a few of whom will eventually make millions of dollars and will buy the top-end wines — we ought to start having more conversations about the bottom end. • 7 December 2012
•Mayne Sansac Bordeaux AOC 2009. 13.5% abv. $8.99Fruity and gulpable, but layered with notes of licorice and earth. As cheap as Bordeaux gets. 50% merlot, 25% cabernet franc, 25% cabernet sauvignon.
•Château Martinon Bordeaux Supérieur 2009. 13.5% abv. $9.99Fresh, with hints of green the nose. Complex, with a long finish for a wine at this price.
•Château de L’Estang Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 2009. 14% abv. $12.99Rich, with ripe fruit and tobacco, and chewy tannins.
•Château Fonseche Haut-Medoc 2009. 13% abv. $12.99Autumn leaves, cedar, and leather on the nose, but light and full of berries in the mouth.
•Château Val de Roc Bordeaux Supérieur 2009. 14% abv. $13.99Leather, tobacco, spice, fresh fruit, soft tannins. Complex, but drinkable. This is one of my favorite value wines from anywhere this year.
•Château Tour de Cazelle Câtes du Bourg 2009. 13%. $14.99Inky, with deep forest and leather aromas, and soft, spicy fruit.
•Château de Paillet-Quancard Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux 2009. 13% abv. $14.99Balanced, bright, and savory. This wine was a favorite with pizza. 80% merlot, 15% cabernet sauvignon, and 5% cabernet franc.
•Chateau Rocher-Figeac Saint-Emilion 2009. 13% abv. $14.99Decadent cigar and leather nose, with dry, elegant tannins and nice acidity on the finish.
•Plaisir de Siaurac Lalande de Pomerol 2009. 14% abv. $14.99Earthy, smoky and savory, with chocolate and licorice and balanced with subtle fruit. A good introduction to Bordeaux’s complexity for a newbie.
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin), writes the Spirits column for the Washington Post, and is the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits. Follow him @boozecolumnist.
Article originally published on Table Matters.