March 2011 Editorial- Farewell Bordeaux?

POSTED ON 01/03/2011

We mentioned the importance of vintage in our last editorial and how the quality of 2009 in France brought home the excitement of waiting for the new harvest. As 2009 Burgundy drains the last few pennies from our pockets, Bordeaux 2010 is in like Flynn, small but perfectly formed, according to early reports. Raising its head almost indecently quickly, it will soon be challenging us to dig deeper and schmooze ever more insidiously with our bank manager (or anyone for that matter from whom we might beg, steal or borrow) to buy en primeur.


For all the excitement, and hype, of the new, there will be disappointment. Last year the first growths released their as yet unbottled wines at around £4,500 a case. Bargain yes, for the billionaires of China and Russia, for the speculators and vintage wine tax shelters. All of which takes me down memory lane to the week I attended the Ecole du Vin at Château Loudenne in the mid-1980s. Pamela Prior, the charming châtelaine charged with running the property, explained that we were able to leaven our dinners with the occasional first growth, because she could swap 10 cases of Château Loudenne for a case of Latour, Lafite or Mouton-Rothschild.

That was then. I was lucky because I got to find out what great Bordeaux was about. Today that ratio has grown to one in 25 cases as the gulf between the first growths and a satisfying cru bourgeois grows wider than the Thames estuary at high tide. As the top wines of Bordeaux have moved into the luxury goods and investment category, neither you nor we need bother thinking about buying a bottle for our own enjoyment. Does it matter?

Some might say that it's no great loss, because the depth of the Bordeaux hierarchy still allows us to pick up brilliant crus classés and crus bourgeois lower down the pecking order at reasonable prices. At almost a tenth of the price of Château Latour, Grand Puy Lacoste in 2009 was just such a wine, or Potensac at a twentieth. Others would agree for different reasons, pointing to the fact that Bordeaux has not only long since ceased to be the only game in fine wine town, but it has been virtually sidelined by the New World's emphasis on value and by an out-of-date brand reposant sur ses lauriers.

And the wine world is expanding like the universe before our eyes. Have we not just witnessed the first ever Wines of Turkey conference in London? Are we not seeing a swath of emerging wine countries such as Brazil, Croatia, Japan, Israel, Lebanon and China? Is there not a growing variety of choice of wine thanks to a widespread demand for interesting, relatively inexpensive wines of character and individuality?

Well yes, up to a point. But despite our fascination with new tastes, styles and flavours, and despite the bionic reach of the internet, new producers are up against it in their battle with the established regions for a slice of the retail cake.

Is it really is farewell then to the great wines of Bordeaux? Most of us will probably never get to drink a first growth in our lifetimes. We will content ourselves with the lesser wines of Bordeaux and we will slake our thirst for fine wine by becoming more adventurous in our choice of exciting wines from elsewhere. We will learn to accept that the greatest wines may not be made for drinking by mortals, but like ingots of gold, accumulated to satisfy an insatiable appetite for status and power at any price. We will learn to know our place and console ourselves with the thought that there are worse things under the wan Bordeaux sun than not having access to first growths.

May Spring be sprung for all of us pronto, and winter finally put to bed.

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