There’s more to Bordeaux than pricey red wine

David Cobbold  discusses recent trends in Bordeaux and what they mean for the consumer

generic-wineWhat comes to mind first when one thinks of Bordeaux and its wines? Most probably a classic image of a large and impressive building, called “château”, and red wines that are equally classical and impressive, firmly camped on their tannins and aged in oak barrels. On the price front, such wines are also seen as being expensive, and sometimes very expensive. In other words, Bordeaux has a conservative and up-market image that suits those who look for reassurance and a specific style of wine. Regarding this matter of style, we should also bear in mind that it is this style of red wine, built for ageing and travel, that has constructed the commercial success of Bordeaux since the late 17th century.

Now whilst this image is true enough for a good part of the wine production of the region, with considerable fluctuations on the price scale, it fails to take into consideration both the wide spectrum of wines that come from what is, after all, the largest fine wine producing area in the world, as well as several recent trends that have emerged in Bordeaux over recent years.

Considering the stylistic spectrum, not all of Bordeaux wines are red. This basic fact tends to be forgotten by many, such is the domination of red wine in today’s total production from this region. It sometimes surprises people to learn that, historically speaking and even as recently as 50 years ago, white wine production surpassed red wine production in Bordeaux. It is the very decline in sales of both dry and sweet white wines that has induced those producers who continue to produce such wines to innovate in several ways. The most significant trend has been a move from sweet to dry, and, within the sweet category, towards the production of a lighter style of sweet wine than the traditionally rich style prevalent in Sauternes, for example. In this respect the French appellation system has often acted as a constraint that has prevented many producers from reacting to market realities.

Simply expressed, sweet wines do not sell as well today as they used to. The obvious answer to this would be to shift production towards dry wines. But the French appellation system often links geographical areas to wine type. For instance, within the Bordeaux region, several appellations only allow the production of sweet wines : Sauternes, Barsac, Cérons, Cadillac, Sainte Croix-du-Mont, etc. A producer within these geographical regions who wants to produce a dry white wine with the same grapes, or a red wine, will lose the more specific and presumably prestigious appellation and have to label their wine with the basic “Bordeaux” designation. This may not matter too much for a small production from a well-known producer, but it will cause some marketing headaches for most. In this sense, wine legislation lags behind market trends and tends to slow innovation.

But if we look at technical aspects that do not impinge upon the legal framework, there has been considerable innovation in Bordeaux over recent years. According to many, this process begins in the vineyard with forms of innovation that, to some extent, is actually a return to previous practices. For those concerned with the permanence of vineyards and the health of their soils and the people who work them, viticulture has become far more conscious of good environmental practices than 20 years ago. One should also remember that, due partly to its size, Bordeaux’s wine trade and institutions invest more money in research than any other wine region in the world.

Some of the spin-off from this is long-term, but there are also shorter-term results that account for a number of significant improvements in the quality of wines across much of the price spectrum. For example, the use of sophisticated sorting techniques that can measure size and density of grape berries, thus preselecting the best, the most concentrated or whatever. Such processes have saved many a wine in what are considered to be poor vintages such as 2013,  but  have also tempted many lesser known producers to aim for the higher ground with cuvées of top quality that, in some cases, can rival with prestigious growths at much lower prices.

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Another technical innovation, which was first experimented further south in Madiran, but has become widely used in Bordeaux, is the so-called “micro-bullage” technique, used during the maturing process after fermentation. The idea here is to aerate the wine without resorting to long sojourn on oak barrels, which cost money and also alter the flavour. The objective is to preserve fruit flavours and soften tannins. To do this, very small quantities of oxygen are slowly diffused in a tank of wine. The gas is rapidly absorbed and helps to soften the tannins. It also stabilizes the colour, which explains the much deeper colour of many Bordeaux wines than used to be the case. It does necessitate healthy grapes at harvest time, and so links in well with other technical innovations such as the use of sorting tables and better vineyard practices.

When most of us think of red grapes from Bordeaux, we think almost exclusively of the two dominant ones: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. But Bordeaux has a wider palette at its disposal, with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère also on the authorized list. One of the important current trends is the rise in the proportion of these varieties in blends. And whilst blending is the general rule in Bordeaux, one can now occasionally find 100% Malbec wines, for example.

One of the main causes for this shift is the increase in alcohol levels over recent years, and the resulting quest for varieties that achieve full ripeness with lower levels of sugar than Merlot, whose alcohol levels can go over 15%. Both Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot offer such an advantage and one sees their proportions in blends gradually increasing, the former on the right bank, the latter on the left. For white wines the story is slightly different. Sauvignon blanc has been gradually replacing Sémillon as the favoured varietal, to the point of becoming almost a standard. As all actions provoke reactions, I have recently tasted several very good pure Sémillon white wines and one or two made with the rarer Muscadelle. These small pockets of resistance could grow to produce another trend in white wines from Bordeaux.

As with most traditional wine-producing regions, Bordeaux tends to be very staid (I would even say boring) in its approach to labeling. But this too is beginning to change and one sees increasing numbers of labels that have a more adventurous graphic approach that an engraving of a house with some gothic lettering around it. Market forces are never to be underestimated however, and, for many traditional markets for Bordeaux’s wines, the conservatism may lie with the consumer as much as with the producer. This is clearly the case on the closures issue. A few daring producers have released their wines under screw-caps, but many of these have had to either abandon this or reduce the numbers of bottles closed in this modern way, despite its many advantages. They say that they are in favour of the screw-cap, but that consumers still associate cork with quality in the bottle. The battle against ignorance has yet to be won!

So what is the result of all these trends for the consumer? The most important one is a gain in the general quality level and this is particularly noticeable at the lower end of the price scale. The second is greater diversity in styles. Finally there has been a huge improvement in the value-for-money of Bordeaux wines at the entry level for this region. International competition has played a major role here, because the lower-priced and lesser-known estates in Bordeaux have mostly woken up to the fact that they are competing on shelves against wines from Chili, Australia, South Africa or wherever, that are made with the same grapes. And that quality is the only way to go. Bordeaux now offers some of the best buys in French wine, alongside the great names which can be wonderful, but not accessible to most of us. And the vast majority of its wines no longer need to be cellared for ten years or more before they become pleasant to drink.

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