Seven lessons that other wine regions can learn from Bordeaux

chateau petrus

Following up on my somewhat controversial post on the coming wine war last week, here are some thoughts about what the wine world can learn from the current success of high-end Bordeaux wines.

Of course, Bordeaux, the world’s most famous wine region, has a split personality. On the one hand we have the wealthy classed-growth Châteaux of the left bank, as well as the famous right bank estates in St Emilion and Pomerol. These are the wine world’s elite. On the other, we have the producers in less exalted parts of the region, selling their wine very cheaply, and struggling to make a living. Here I’m going to focus specifically on the high-end properties, and discuss what other wine regions can learn from their success.

1. Perception. First, I’d emphasize that this success is not solely a result of wine quality. Bordeaux makes some fantastic wines, but so do many other regions in the world, and yet they don’t get as much for their wines as the Bordelais do. It’s about perceived wine quality: how people, in general, regard the wines. Bordeaux has managed to position its top wines in the luxury brand category. And, as recent research has shown, if we think of a wine as great or very expensive, this will change our actual perception of the wine – we’ll enjoy it more.

2. A simple marketing message. Bordeaux is easy for people to get their heads around. The Chateaux act as brands. And they don’t have a complicated range: usually just a Grand Vin and then a clearly marked second wine. There’s no Reserve range; no single-vineyard designates. The Grand Vin is the  top wine. This is hugely important, because it makes Bordeaux accessible to non-wine geeks. You just have to learn the names of a few famous Chateaux.

3. Scale of production. Each classed growth Château makes its top wine in quite large volumes. This is really important. It means that people can actually buy the stuff, cellar it, taste it and talk about it. The major Bordeaux Chateaux are reasonably large – typically around 50-80 hectares. This means there is plenty of wine to go round.

4. A clear hierarchy. An easily understood ranking system helps. The 1855 classification of the left bank properties, with a very few minor modifications along the way, has been really important. It’s a clear ranking system for those with lots of money but little desire to learn lots about wine, to help them identify immediately what is best.

5. A clever mechanism for distributing the wine. The system of courtiers and negociants, with no direct sales, is unusual, but it works very well for the Bordelais. The en primeur system acts strongly in favour of the producer, and perhaps its greatest skill is in helping to shift even modest vintages. Many critics give poor to middling vintages the benefit of the doubt, and as much of the wine is sold so early, people don’t realize that lesser vintages really aren’t very good before they’ve already bought the wine.

6. The compliance of wine critics and publications. Bordeaux is where the money is in the world of wine. And because of this, critics and publications have – on the whole – been quite supportive of Bordeaux, choosing not to rock the boat too much or be critical of the en primeur system that works in favour of the Chateaux and not the consumer. The way that the Bordelais court the press and wine merchants is very clever.

7. Reaching beyond the wine trade bubble. Most wine regions reach the wine trade and the heavily involved consumers very well. But what they find more difficult is selling themselves to the non-involved consumer. Bordeaux, along with Champagne, is very skilled at this. Even some of those who aren’t really into wine know quite a bit about Bordeaux, are aware of its presence as a fine wine region, and probably know the names of a few top Châteaux. Very few wine regions have this sort of visibility to the non-wine community.

7 comments to Seven lessons that other wine regions can learn from Bordeaux

  • Paul Metman

    Hi Jamie,

    God forbid, that other wineregions are going to learn these lessons!! I prefer to have my favourite Portuguese wines as Crasto Reserva, Vallado, Vale Meao, Meandro, Redoma, Pintas, Vale Dona Maria, not to mention the better Alentejo wines (imho just as good as most classified growths) for EUR 15.00 to EUR 50.00 at the most instead of the ridicule prices for Lynch Bages, Ducru, the Leoville’s, Cos and so many others!
    Great value for reasonable prices: yes, I am Dutch ;-)!

    Paul Metman

  • Jamie,

    While I can’t argue about the points themselves I am a little confused about the point of this post and its relevance to the rest of the wine world. Bordeaux has ended up in this state of affairs after hundreds of years, especially for points 1, 4, 5 and 7. Other regions would kill for Bordeaux’s advantages of history & geography, especially when the wine trade went truly global in the 19th & early 20th Century – they’re now playing catch up.
    As for 2 and 3, it hasn’t hurt Burgundy or the Rhone trying a different tack (although you could argue Germany has failed miserably on both these points, and several of the others as well).

    As for the critics and publications, that is most probably effect rather than cause – far too much media exposure is given to the region than it justifies (but probably appropriate for what it’s marketing machine has paid for).

    Bottom line, as much as these may be Bordeaux’s strength now, just listing them isn’t really useful to other wine regions who don’t have the benefit of Bordeaux’s upbringing – most of those things can’t be created out of thin air or over a few decades.

    I class myself as a well grounded wine enthusiast who, by necessity, has to buy wine on a budget. Bordeaux may produce the best quality wine in the world, but at the lower price ranges it also produces some of the worst value for money ones as well and I know just enough to keep away from most of it. The Classed Growths have the same kudos as Super Car manufacturers, and just like these manufacturers they can continue to produce a superb product at astronomical prices and earn a tidy profit, but for me they have lost all relevance in the real world – I’m as likely to get hold of a Lafite or Margaux as get a Ferrari or Aston Martin.

    I echo Paul Metman’s first comment – god forbid regions like Portugal (& my own favourite – Germany) get anywhere near what Bordeeaux has done, because then I won’t be able to afford them either!

  • Jamie,

    When you say, “if we think of a wine as great or very expensive, this will change our actual perception of the wine – we’ll enjoy it more” I must point out that you are committing both an inaccuracy and a generalization.

    What a causal consumer enjoys and what a skilled and informed winemaker or evaluator recognize as quality are two disparate things.

    I have a high suspicion that you are referring to the *economics* (ie not a neurophysiology or neurobehavioral) research paper published a few years ago where fMRI imaging was used to image subjects presented with a wine and its suggested price.

    As a clinician and a clinical neuroscientist,I see a number of flaws and shortcomings not only in that paper, but in its rampant misinterpretation by those who write about wine.

    I do not recall much being made, in the paper, of the skill, knowledge or experience of the study’s subjects. The study did not speak about the subjects’ confidence levels with wine as well as in other scenarios.
    It DID, however, point out that no matter what they were told of the price of the aliquot of wine injected into their mouths, neither their trigeminal nucleus not thalamus changed in activity a key finding that has been repeatedly passed over by those who seem to understand as much about neuroscience as they do about wine.

    Bottom line: inexperienced, unconfident tasters will always say the wine is better if it costs more because they *know* they don’t know the difference.

  • Not just that study – Frederic Brochet also did some interesting studies on wine professionals that came up with the same conclusion. Google it.

  • I think we have several problems here: 1. the type of research being done, 2. the types of subjects being tested and 3. the concepts being tested and finally, 4. how they are tested (a test is a question, the way the question is presented and structured, determines much about the answer).

    I have reservations about the validity of these studies. As I see it, this kind of research not so much reinforces some sort of subjectivity of wine evaluation but rather the pompousness, ignorance and lack of skill of these supposed experts: “‘the practice and teaching of tasting rests on rather fragile theoretical bases going back to the founding fathers of the discipline’ André Vedel and Peynaud.” Thus the results of these studies are fundamentally at odds with the principles of neurobiology.

    Reading some of Brochet’s writing, it seems he has some understanding of behavioral science and seems to glimpse some of the neurological underpinnings of behavior, but the wording he chooses for the concepts is at times poetic and philosophical sounding. Makes me think of the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists (a distinction made more sharp in my circles by juxtaposing “alchemist” and “chemist”).

    Yes, people are suggestible. Yes, people can be fooled. But not all people in all situations. If that were to be true, medicine-as a discipline- would not function in a reliable or predictable way.

    I know people who subscribe to this subjectivity of wine notion believe they are right. Trying to explain to them how and why they are wrong is like trying to explain to the Pope that there is no god….

  • FiloBianco

    God forbid Burgundy follows any of the 7 points above!

  • Jamie,

    Do you really think the “region” is important or a good-thing at all? As you point out “Bordeaux is a split personality”, with an elite that have had success banding together following your well-made points 1 to 7. But what has the “region” done for the other 1,000+ producers who don’t really make a living on the wine they produce, but rely on EU subsidies (i.e. us taxpayers) and are forced to beg or riot for an existence? If points 1 to 7 are so compelling, why don’t the Gran Vin Bordelais look-after their fellow neighbours with these points?

    The more I see of AOCs, DOCs and the whole appellation system, the more convinced I am that they are a massive mistake. The best analogy I can find is with Soviet Communism. A great idea to begin with, that if we all band together we can share the costs and the fruits equally, and the world will be a better and fairer place. Early pioneering success through hard work and sacrifice; and then that slow-motion unraveling, a la George Orwell’s twin masterpieces, Animal Farm and 1984, as corruption and bureaucracy strangle, twist and mutate good into evil.

    The Animals’ seven commandments (a curious coincidence with your seven) end with the reality that, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

    Don’t fall for the trap of regions (appellations), they are communism.


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