Bordeaux and the politics of wine

Bordeaux is the name everyone knows even if their interest in wine is zero, also the home to the greatest names in wine.

The Chateaus that top the list of desirability year after year, those great names Lafitte, Mouton, Margaux, Latour, Haut – Brion, Cheval Blanc, Petrus, Ausone and so the list goes on – these are the largest collection of fine wines in any one place by far and despite Bordeaux Chateau having an enormous total production it’s only the top 1% that the consumer is interested in.

I have to admit to a limited tasting of the 1% – they are simply out of my league for the most on a price basis. Although I have drunk and purchased some of these wines its been a few and over a long period of time, so I will try to give an overall picture of where Bordeaux is at this moment in time and recent developments, but first the general layout of the different appellations and some of the Chateau.

The appellations fall simply into left and right bank of the Gironde river, which itself splits just above Bordeaux into the Garonne and Dordogne.

On the left, the the great communes of – from north to south St-Estephe, Pauillac, St-Julian, Margaux, surrounded by the Medoc and Haut Medoc, south of Bordeaux itself comes Pessac Leognan, Graves that also makes a dry white from Sauvignon and the two communes of Barsac and Sauternes making sweet white also from Sauvignon with a much larger proportion of the Semillon grape that provides the fat creamy texture.

On the right bank of the Dordogne, St Emilion dominates the proceedings with Pomerol being the most famous satellite, others being Lalande de Pomerol the Cotes de Bourg, Blaye and Loupiac and Ste Croix-de-Mont on the land between the two rivers known as Entre-deux – Mares, the last two producing sweet and dry wines across the river from the more famous Sauternes producers.

Entre-Deux-Mares itself is mainly bulk production of cheap everyday drinking wines, some of which are white wine bargains but not many.

The old 1855 classification of the Chateau still stands today with little alteration. It was originally based on the price of wine fetched over the previous 100 years or so, only Mouton Rothschild has moved up to the top flight since the original classification was laid down.

In the four divisions below you can almost forget wether they are second or fifth class growths such is the improvement in so many of them, and indeed many of the Cru Bourgeois and others now rank with the classed growths

Such has been the improvement in vineyard techniques and the use of consultant oenologist’s such as the omnipresent Michel Rolland plus the enormous investment that has been poured into the Chateau since the early nineties, by the owners themselves or in the case of quite a few large companies buying out the old owners, though in many cases they stay on for their expertise – this has resulted in not just new equipment but new cellars and everything else that goes towards achieving perfection, what can be derived from all this is that the old classification system is really of academic interest only.

What has made all this investment possible has been the expansion in demand for these top wines, new markets in particular the far east have with their new economic rise in the world joined the world’s wealthy and along with the rest want what is perceived as the best, whether it be wine, Saville Row suits or Rolls Royce motor cars.

The demand has increased and there is a lot of competition for the top Chateau, all of which means the price has steadily risen to heights unimaginable a few years ago. All this and a product that cant be increased in output plus a succession of great vintages since 2000 and the money has been rolling in.

There is another reason for rising prices – one not often put forward by the wine press, en primeur or wine futures – this is basically the securing of wine by buying a vintage before bottling.

This is a complicated subject, with many advantages and many pitfalls but was in essence introduced by the Chateaus in order to get money up front without waiting until the wine is bottled and put on the market, a process taking up to three years.

This seemed a win win situation but the process faltered when the Chateau owners realised that a lot of money was being made by purchasers selling on their cases, as in some cases a huge profit by simply buying early and selling later when the market had decided what a particular vintage was worth.

It is common knowledge that the likes of wine buff Lord Webber who could purchase quantities of wine he could never consume sold at auction a few years ago a large part of the collection for £3.5 million and although names were not revealed, Hugh Johnson the wine writer allegedly sold his collection for some £6 million.

This was in part made possible by the purchase of large quantities of the 1982 miracle vintage, the prices of which just continued to soar, an example being Chateau Latour, which was sold en primeur for £250 pounds and twenty years later was fetching £9500.

Nice work if you can get it, remembering there wasn’t then the competition for these wines from say the far east.

So the Chateau, seeing they were losing out, started to jack the introductory price up year after year to grab some of that extra profit.

So you now have the likes of Lafitte and Latour being offered initially at prices around as in another miracle “vintage of the century” 2009 at around £8000 a case plus taxes and VAT when you receive them.

On top of all that, the consumption of much of this wine never happens, the investor the wine collector who also rarely drinks the stuff now make up a large proportion of the en primeur buyers along with our friends from the east who don’t care what they pay as long as they have the best labels, so the advantages of buying en primeur for the wine drinker have to an extent disappeared.

There has been further erosion in the wake of a series of wonderful vintages and with the world recession it would appear another of these vintages in 2010 was one to many, with many of these wines still available, unlike its predecessor.

And of course the price as with any commodity can go down.  The crash in 2008 saw wine prices fall dramatically and a few shrewd investors who took a chance have seen prices back to where they were before 2008, so have made a small killing, but this not a playground for the amateur regarding wine or money as several companies went under taking the investors money with them.

The wine was never purchased and will for those  who paid up front never be seen.

As I said at the beginning of this I’m not an expert in wines from this region for the reason stated. I have purchased wine from there but not in any quantity needed to offer an opinion, and although thirty years ago there was little written on the subject, you are now spoilt for choice with general and specialist books on all regions and all aspects of wine.

For what it’s worth, I still think Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine – in its umpteenth edition – takes a lot of beating as an introduction to all the world’s wine areas and all the other aspects, such as how wine is made the different influences of soil weather and everything else.
Since the early nineties, there has been another big change in Bordeaux, for whilst there are still a few Chateau sitting on their laurels and milking the benefits of the ever increasing demand for the wines emanating from the region, there has been an explosion of small and not so small operations starting up in old neglected vineyards, new plots often near great estates and operations in nearby satellite communes using all the expertise that money can buy to make wines challenging and even surpassing the established names.

Most of this is happening on the right bank of St Emillion and Pomerol, known as “garage wines” because of the size of the operations, they are using the best of fruit and very small yields to produce superlative wines several have made a huge impact on the established heir-achy often producing only 500 – 1000 cases.

They command prices rivalling and surpassing even the first growths on occasions, their small allocations making them much sort after, the estates in St Emillion and Pomerol are all generally a lot smaller than the Medoc ensuring when the quality and vintage are right prices from the likes of Petrus and the very small Chateau of Le Pin to fetch prices that are astronomical up to around £20,000 a case, wine for millionaires.

There is a difference on the left and right banks in the choice of grapes used – in the Medoc, Cabernet Sauvignon is dominant comprising 40 – 85 percent in the blend there, in St Emilion, Merlot rules 35 – 95 percent in the blend and with Pomerol it can be 100% so with Cabernet Franc as the third grape and a little Petit Verdot as well the two main centres of Bordeaux make a very different style of wine with the Merlot based ones being softer fleshy and more generous and generally earlier to mature than the Cabernet based ones across the river.

One of the more interesting amongst the garage operations is one Gerard Depardieu who teamed up with Michel Rolland and multi millionaire Bernard Magrez – owner himself of three Bordeaux chateau including Pape – Clement and thirty other outfits world wide have started to invest in parcels of land and small vineyards as well as renting vines in select areas to make wine on a short term basis.

Gerard has two vineyards in the Cotes de Blaye and the Haut-Medoc turning out some very good wines the pair have also made wine from holdings in Morocco and Algeria that are terrific – I managed to buy some in Auchan before returning home last plus another from Bergerac that I haven’t yet tried.

Depardieu is no fool and really does know his wines and is using the best knowledge available to produce his wines.  He has, I’ve heard, just purchased some old vineyards in the Crimea the old Russian wine growing area to the Czars and even Argentina has a vineyard of his.
One other region of quality is Sauternes, as in Germany – the very ripe fruit needed to make the wine is reliant on the weather and “noble rot”, botrytis, the grapes ripen to a raisin like condition wich concentrates the flavor and are are nearly all hand picked, the production for estates like Chateau d’Yquem is tiny – only a sixth of the red wine estates per acre and because of the years that produce little because the weather is wrong to produce “noble rot” and the amount of hand picking of suitable individual grapes – the price can never be low.

Strangely, many years ago, when I took my wife shopping to a local Sainsburys – this was around 1980 when wine was only just beginning to appear in supermarkets in any variety or quality – I browsed whilst she shopped and I spied in a bin along the bottom row, several bottles of a Sauternes.

On closer inspection, it turned out to be Ch Climens 1966 Climens, being only one rung down from d’Yquem Sauternes.  It was not fetching a price then but this was obviously wrongly marked, so I took a chance, loaded up a basket and went and paid.

Just occasionally, the good Lord smiles on one.

This is just an overview of Bordeaux and it’s workings as I see it.  If you buy wines from here, you will almost certainly take heed of the numerous wine critics out there.

The problem they have is very few agree and the marking systems used all vary as well causing further confusion.  The people I would as a rule of thumb not take advice from would be the merchants who all of course have a vested interest in selling the wines they have purchased and many wine writers in magazines and newspapers have connections with retail outlets and others that make their findings hardly neutral.

Some critics are serious and objective and can be relied as to the comments they make in this country. Jancis Robinson springs to mind and although he rarely gives opinions on expensive wines, Oz Clarke is acknowledged to have an amazing ability when it comes to judging a wine.

Bordeaux as a city and the Gironde dept are wine, eighty percent of the areas agriculture is wine, you can’t escape it.

As a place to visit, the left bank with all the great names is the least interesting scenically, mainly flat or gently sloping towards the river, and don’t expect to see lots of “Chateau” the word means estate here not building although there are some, notably Margaux a ‘monument historic’ this place was also bought back from a period of under achievement when it bought by the Mentzelopoulos family in 1977.

A year later, it was back where it belonged.  The new owner died after only a couple of years but his daughter carried on the good work and it’s now jointly owned by her and the Agnelli family or was at last count.

St Emilion is quite different, with a variety of landscape and a pretty village of the same name, plus with the generally smaller estates, it does not appear as organized in a visual sense as the Medoc.  It is, after all, at the beginnings of the Dordogne and offers more in a holiday perspective.

The Medoc has some merit in that a childish pleasure in seeing the endless famous names come up is rather like kid trainspotting.

The bargains from the area, although nothing of note, is that cheap come from the satellite areas of Cotes de Blaye, Cotes de Bourg, Fronsac, Cotes de Castillon as the main sources.

One other area I will tack onto that, comprising of Cahors and Bergerac, officially Frances Southwest – they are everything that is not Bordeaux.

Cahors is another “older and famous before Bordeaux” area, its legendary black wine used to bulk up many Bordeauxs many years ago.

This region suffered badly from the ravages of phylloxera and never recovered the acreage, being only some 15% of its pre phylloxera time but there is hope in this region with Bergerac, Monbazillac – sweet whites in many cases the equal of top Sauternes – and further down, Cotes de Durac and other regions are on a bit of a roll with a variety of old grape varieties being used alongside the ‘international’ ones.

An area to watch for cheaper drinking, this region is, of course, cut through by the Dordogne river and the nearby Lot so has much to offer scenically for those traveling in the region.

4 Responses to “Bordeaux and the politics of wine”

  1. dearieme October 28, 2012 at 19:24 Permalink

    We once had a coup, buying ten bottles of unlabelled Chateau Guiraud. The wine merchant wasn’t allowed to name them, but he did hint at their identity. It took us twenty years to finish them off. Oh they were delicious.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_Guiraud

  2. James Higham October 29, 2012 at 06:55 Permalink

    I’d like to thank Wiggia for this series, which took quite some writing and editing. I’s suggest to him that he gathers the various posts and makes them into a combined book, which gives a perspective on the wine-growing regions of the world in an immediate way I for one have not got from other works on the subject.

  3. wiggiatlarge October 29, 2012 at 08:44 Permalink

    James there is one more in the series, a more general overview of wine and comments on the smaller and forgotten wine growing countries !

  4. James Higham October 29, 2012 at 08:53 Permalink

    Ah, I was getting ahead of myself.

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