The members of K&L’s Bordeaux team (Clyde Beffa, Ralph Sands , Alex Pross et al) have just returned from Bordeaux after spending the past week at the annual en primeur tasting, an event that attracts wine industry professionals, critics, and bloggers from all over the globe.
They tasted barrel samples of the 2014 vintage, wines that will be bottled and released in two years time. The en primeur system allows these wines to be sold on a futures basis, improving cash flow for the negociant firms, and – in theory – allowing consumers to lock in lower prices than they might otherwise pay two or more years later.
The early word on 2014 is that it was very nearly the fourth in an almost unprecedented series of very challenging vintages, but was saved by unusually warm, sunny and dry weather throughout September and October. The hope is for a solidly good, though not exceptional, vintage that will be well-priced and attractive to consumers. The fear is that chateau owners will offer their wines at prices over and above what consumers are willing to pay, straining relations with their negociant partners, and threatening the future of the entire en primeur system.
Over the past few months, members of the wine trade have repeatedly warned chateau owners – publicly and privately – of the importance of “getting prices right” for 2014. Now, there is nothing left to do but wait anxiously to see if the message has been heard. The current concern over the success or failure of the 2014 en primeur campaign takes place however within the context of a much broader and longer running discussion about the future of the Bordeaux region itself.
There was a time not long ago when Bordeaux occupied an unassailable position at the center of the fine wine world. A wine atlas published in the 1970s would have featured prominently the wines of France, with special emphasis on Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, and perhaps Champagne. German wines, Rieslings mostly, would have followed. Spain and Italy would have been included only to the extent of highlighting one or two famous producers. The New World? Virtually nonexistent. California might have earned a single page.
Today, however, Bordeaux finds itself in competition with wines produced in seemingly every corner of the globe. The “Bordeaux” blend may owe its name to the region that birthed it, but its offspring can be found today in California and Washington State, in Australia and New Zealand, in South Africa, Spain, Italy…well, you get the picture.
Fortunately for the region, those who have been drinking Bordeaux for many years tend to remain loyal. It is still at its most popular among those over the age of 50. However, there is a kind of pitiless arithmetic to buying and aging fine wines. Bordeaux purchased at release can take 20 to 30 years to reach maturity. At some point even the most avid collectors stop buying new vintages and switch to drinking up their cellar. No point in leaving it for the grandchildren.
If Bordeaux is to have a future, it must appeal to younger drinkers. For a number of reasons, this represents something of a problem for the Bordelais. In marketing their wines, particularly here in the United States, they have relied very heavily on the publicity generated by favorable scores awarded by influential critics such as Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate. The youngest generation of drinkers – the so-called millennials –are apparently much less likely than their parents or grandparents to be swayed by the published opinions of an acknowledged authority. They prefer the recommendations of their friends and peers, often shared via social media.
The Bordelais also rely on the fame and prestige associated with their wines and with the region as a whole to generate sales. Millennials, however, are more impressed by a good story than a famous brand. A tale of a fifth generation vigneron farming a few hectares of grapes with his son and making wines in a cramped stone cellar underneath their two hundred year old farmhouse will capture their imagination. A photo on the cover of Wine Spectator of the owner of a famous chateau in a pair of thousand dollar shoes and an immaculate, tailored suit is more likely to provoke disdain than excite interest.
The public perception of Bordeaux as the source of some of the world’s most expensive wines keeps many consumers from ever exploring the region. From a marketing standpoint, it’s a double-edged sword. The wines are famous, yes, but as a luxury good out of reach of those looking for wines to drink every day. Millennials, who tend to spend less per bottle than their older counterparts, are even less likely to consider Bordeaux.
In light of all this – competition from other wine regions and a failure to appeal to the youngest consumers – the future begins to look a bit bleak for Bordeaux. Therefore, as someone who loves Bordeaux and drinks it regularly, I would like to extend an invitation to those of you who have yet to try Bordeaux, especially if you are under the age of 30. If you will oblige me with just a few minutes of your time, I believe I can make a good case for why you should do so.
Though it has weathered many ups and downs over the course of a history which spans centuries, Bordeaux remains today the foremost wine region in France. It is the largest by a considerable margin in terms of the number of hectares of vineyards planted. And while more than half the wine produced in Bordeaux is consumed by the French themselves, much of it is sold abroad. In 2014, Bordeaux accounted for nearly 40% of France’s global wine exports by volume and nearly 50% by value, over $4 billion in total.
The Bordelais today are making better wine than at any other time in their history. Over the past twenty years there has been a virtual revolution in terms of improvements in the vineyards and the cellars of Bordeaux. Although they do not often publicize it, some chateaus have even adopted the same biodynamic practices that typically characterize “artisanal” or “boutique” wines, the darlings of sommeliers and wine geeks everywhere. Don’t waste time regretting never having tasted famous vintages of years past. The diffusion of modern winemaking techniques combined with massive investment means that the wines you taste today, and the wines you will taste tomorrow, are the best that Bordeaux has ever produced.
While it is true that much of the prestige enjoyed by Bordeaux derives from the very high prices commanded by its most famous estates, these account for a very small percentage of the total. The Classification of 1855 encompassed a bare five dozen chateaus in the Médoc and another two dozen or so in Sauternes. The Graves and Saint Emilion each have their own classifications. All told, however, these “classed growths” represent fewer than 200 of the more than 7000 estates in Bordeaux, accounting for less than five percent of the region’s total production. More than half the wine produced each year is sold simply as AOC Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur at prices ranging from $10 to $20 on average. Also, unlike virtually every other wine region of the world, prices in Bordeaux vary quite a bit from year to year. While you may pay a premium for wines from the very best vintages, you will generally pay less, sometimes significantly less, for wines from “lesser” vintages, which while not among the “great” vintages may still be good to very good. Moreover, these “lesser” vintages may age at a more rapid rate than the much heralded ones, reaching maturity sooner, meaning you won’t have to wait as long to drink them, incurring fewer cellaring costs.
Unique Availability of Vintage Wines
And if you don’t have a cellar, don’t despair. The structured nature of the Bordeaux marketplace – chateaus sell to negociants, who then sell to wholesalers, importers, or large retailers like K&L Wine Merchants – means that Bordeaux is one of the very few fine wine regions of the world that can offer the consumer a consistent supply of older vintages of perfect provenance.
Do this. Go to our website or visit one of our retail locations and purchase a bottle of the 2009 Chateau Caronne Ste-Gemme, Haut-Médoc $22.99. This was one of the best wines in the $20 range when the 2009’s were first released three years ago; we just received a new supply from one of our negociant partners in Bordeaux. I liked it so much I bought a case. Perfectly ready to drink now or hold, if you prefer. If you are curious how it might taste with a few more years in the cellar, try the excellent 2005 vintage. We still have a few bottles left at $24.99. If you enjoy either, or both, send me an email at email@example.com and let me know. I will be happy to make some further recommendations. Toujours Bordeaux!