Bordeaux: some reflections

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I’ve just spent a very enjoyable couple of days in Bordeaux. The first was a free afternoon (I walked and walked), followed by dinner; the second a big tasting of the 2014 vintage. So here are some thoughts about Bordeaux, in no particular order.

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First, this is a lovely city to visit. The changes enacted under the leadership of mayor Alain Juppe over the last couple of decades have seen Bordeaux completely transformed, and it’s now a beautifully functioning city, making the most of its situation on the left bank of the Garonne. It has a bit of the feel of the south, but also something of the north. It’s easy to navigate by foot, and there’s also a modern tram service. It’s predominantly a low-rise city with long, straight roads, and is based around attractive buildings made from limestone. Many of these limestone buildings have been cleaned, and they look quite beautiful.

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As a wine region? Bordeaux is the world’s largest fine wine region, and the most important. Simple. But there’s more to Bordeaux than just the celebrity wines. There are a lot of winegrowers who don’t make much money, producing cheap wines that no one really wants all that much. Somewhere in between there’s some pretty good wine, and that’s a story not often told. There’s also quite a bit of decent white wine made in the region, as well as some great sweet wines.

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I like the business model of the typical mid- to high-end Bordeaux chateau. The focus is on making a Grand Vin, and in some cases a second or even a third wine. But the main story, and the bulk of the volume, is a single wine. This makes it a region that normal people can understand quite well. Because many of the properties are quite large, there’s also quite a bit of this Grand Vin produced. This means it can spread across many markets, and people can try it more easily than they can, for example, a top-end Burgundy. So we wine lovers can talk of the 1996 Leoville Barton, and compare it with the 2000, because there’s a good chance we can get hold of it and we may well have tasted it several times. This makes Bordeaux a rewarding region for collectors.

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This simplicity is a key aspect to the broad appeal of Bordeaux wines to the trade, collectors and drinkers. It’s actually this last group that is most important, because someone has to drink the stuff. I worry slightly that too much Bordeaux is traded, kept in large warehouses, and treated as an asset. Unless someone is drinking it, it’s a bubble in the making. A bit like the Amsterdam tulips of the 18th century, it could be developing a value aside from its practical purpose as a drink.

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Finally, a comment on the Primeurs and the Place – the way that Bordeaux is sold. It’s an incredibly efficient system for distributing wine. Without it, Chateaux would find it much more expensive to sell their wines, and the system would be much less efficient. Prices would rise. Yes, some of the top Chateaux are selling less at Primeurs, holding some production back. But only a few can afford to do this. As long as prices for 2015 are sensible, I think we’ll see the Primeurs return to health this year after a few shaky years. It won’t be plain sailing, though.

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1 comment to Bordeaux: some reflections

  • Richard

    Unfortunately, word coming out of Bordeaux seems to be that price levels will be equivalent to 2009/2010.

    If true and allied to a weaker pound, this will make for a rather expensive vintage.

    There are also rumours that the wines, although possibly the best since 2010, are not quite as good as the initial hype may have suggested.

    I can see the vintage garnering some interest but without sensible price decisions, we’ll be looking at another quiet en primeur and another vintage to somehow be stuffed into the over-flowing cellars of the negociants.

    PS – whilst the primeur system is effective, especially for the smaller chateaux, the prices on the Place bears little or no relation to the reality of what wines are selling for outside of Bordeaux.

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