Bordeaux: Too little, too late? It Depends(c).

My Washington Post column last week, which I posted here yesterday, generated considerable comment on the web and in emails back to me.

Steve Heimoff, Wine Enthusiast’s California reviewer, took issue on his blog with the thought that Bordeaux could ever appeal to U.S. wine consumers. He took particular umbrage at this:

A top guy at Sherry-Lehmann, one of New York’s leading wine shops, told the Post writer,“We’ve locked up the 70- and 80-year-olds. We need to convince the younger generation to drink Bordeaux.”

Wow. Why not try to interest “the younger generation” in Depends© ?

Okay, two things: Steve, I have a name, so from now on I will refer to you as “the Enthusiast blogger.” Second, do you really have to post a photo of an adult diaper to attract traffic to your blog?

The Enthusiast blogger continued:

I suppose Bordeaux’s chief selling point these days is that it’s not California Cabernet! Oh, the irony. The Post article cites a New York somm who showed some Bordeaux to her staff members, “all in their 20s.” The experience was “eye-opening,” the somm said, explaining that the staff was “shocked” to find the wines so much more “interwoven and integrated”than “powerful California Cabernets.”

To think that Bordeaux has come to this: “We’re not California.” !!! Twenty years ago Bordeaux barely deigned to acknowledge Napa Valley’s existence. Now Napa has become the focal point against which conversations about Cabernet are conducted–the way Bordeaux used to be. What goes around comes around, as they say.

Oh the humanity! This misses the point. Bordeaux is not selling itself as “We’re not California.” New York sommeliers who taste it are realizing that it offers a counterpoint to California’s monolithic, over-extracted, over-oaked, over-alcoholic style. Besides, to a great many people, “not California cabernet” is a pretty darn compelling argument.

Finally, the Enthusiast blogger concludes:

The best Bordeaux is necessarily expensive and will remain so. Ordinary Bordeaux is more affordable, but it’s also less good, and there’s no compelling reason for an American to buy a $30 Bordeaux over an Argentine Malbec, Carmenere from Chile, Cabernet from Chateau Ste. Michelle, a sound Vacqueyras or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Stellenbosch Syrah/Shiraz or any one of dozens of other world wines that frankly have more interesting stories to tell–and do not demand of their drinkers that they remove their caps before imbibing.

I have two responses to this: First, “no compelling reason” other than a desire to drink Bordeaux. Second, substitute “California” for “Bordeaux” in that paragraph and it would be just as valid.

Eric Asimov of the New York Times (did I need to qualify that?) took to Twitter to chime in with his commentary, in a very parsimonious three words:

 

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 7.43.08 PM

Maybe. Maybe not. (There – three words!)

Bordeaux is not the monolith we tend to think of. For much of the wine media, “Bordeaux” means the classified growths. These start at about $30 or $40 a bottle and go well into the three- or four-digit range for the first growths. These are what Asimov and the Enthusiast blogger are thinking of when they say U.S. wine drinkers have moved on. But Bordeaux has about 7,000 producers, the vast majority of which are Cru Bourgeois, Bordeaux AOC or Bordeaux Superieur. Many of these make delicious wines at very reasonable prices. Is quality uneven, as the Enthusiast blogger argues? Yes, but it is in California as well.

What do you think? Is Bordeaux irrelevant? Has the horse escaped the barn forever? Let’s get this discussion going in the Comments.

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About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of DrinkLocalWine.com, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (dmwineline.com).
This entry was posted in Bordeaux, California, France, Rants, Uncategorized, Washington Post, Weblogs, Wine, writers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Bordeaux: Too little, too late? It Depends(c).

  1. virginiamade says:

    Sitting back with my bowl of popcorn.

  2. Allen Clark says:

    Kinda unwarranted controversy. Bordeaux is not out, not even on its way out. It sells well enough (esp. Asia), just not so well as the Bordelais would like, esp. considering the slump in sales of all high-end wines that started five or so years ago and is now lifting. The Bordelais have simply recognized that the burgeoning generation of new wine enthusiasts (yeah, that was for Heimoff) is pretty happy with the now-higher quality of wine from most of the rest of the world, much of it at more attractive price-to-quality levels than the Bordeaux labels that usually show up here. If they can bring prices down (further) or bring in new petits chateaux that offer better quality at their usual prices, then they are smart to try to get the word out.
    Just attended the UGCB tasting at the Park Hyatt, and found the 2011 Bordeaux to be very much as advertised – a good vintage, but not more than that (except for the Sauternes, which were certainly very good). Prices are for the most part not terrible, but then I’m conditioned to the milieu.

  3. Norman Holly says:

    The Enthusiast blogger makes a good point and makes it well (the Depends anology merits a guffaw). But Dave is correct too; most California wine, like most Bordeaux, remains over-priced, over-powered, and so yesterday. The best of both is well beyond my retirement budget. So my “wine cellar” holds mostly an inexpensive 3-star red, thanks to Dave’s rave list; and a delicious dry Riesling that I import direct from an upstate New York winery, Today, other U.S., Spanish, Argentine, Chilean, even some East European winemakers have improved their products to the point where modestly priced French and Californian products are redundant.

  4. Doug says:

    Dave, I agree with Allen that Bordeaux is not out. However, the “Classified” wines have priced themselves out of many customers budgets. I have been in the business both sides wholesale and retail for over 25 years now. We stock very little of the Classified wines anymore but I disagree that these are the only Bordeaux worth drinking. There are plenty of Cru Bourgeois, AOC or Superieur wines that are delicious and affordable as others have also stated. I could pick out many to insert in a blind tasting vs their “classified” counterparts to demonstrate the point vividly. Sure quality varies with unclassified wines as it does everywhere but many of us also have consumed uninspiring bottles of “classified” wines as well. That aside, Bordeaux sales are absolutely strong in the $40 and under range in my store but there are no “classified wines” in that range retail in my area anymore. We have more Bordeaux wines (not classified) case stacked than any other category of wine and for good reason. Our clients across the board love these wines. We offer many that offer superb quality starting at $10 with many in the $15 range that can go head to head with Argentina, Chile, Washington State or the Rhone. We do well in those categories as well. In addition, the appeal of this category is broad in my store because we taste them vs other Meritage styled wines and my clients think these “unclassified” Bordeaux wines that I select offer better value/quality than any of their counterparts domestic or import.

  5. Les Hubbard says:

    Dave,
    Of course, being introduced to fine wines in the early 1960s the choices primarily were Burgundy and Bordeaux. I originally preferred Burgundies but as their prices climbed I sought values in the Bordelais wines and many were available until the late 70s, especially pre-shipment prices from DC’s Calvert wine store. My experience out here in the hinterlands of Prince Frederick, Maryland indicates a couple of problems for all French wines. I noted that at retail we have difficulty selling French wines and we do carry a very few Bordeaux under $30 per bottle. I kept asking myself Why? A local private wine tasting club offered a hint when we (the organizer a long time retired CA winery employee and I) discovered that the higher income and experienced, local wine drinkers from their early 30s to late 50s just were completely unfamiliar with French wines, despite wide experience with wines from other countries. So Eric may be correct on the barn door theory. Second among retail customers I’ve noted some antipathy toward the French, although even with leading questions, I cannot discern why this exists. Of all our imports, no other country evokes this reaction.

    By contrast, one local winery owner has a magnificent cellar holding Bordeaux vintages back to the 1970s including Laffites and Moutons. But then again he spent a portion of his youth in France. Although I agree with your comments regarding California wines, this gentleman collects Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle similar to me buying cheap wine.
    Les Hubbard

  6. Dave, there are dozens of quality Bordeaux for as little as $10 (shameless plug — my annual $10 Hall of Fame). That people would dismiss Bordeaux and overlook those wines shows a shortsightedness that I didn’t expect from Asimov.

  7. Dave,
    Good topic to bring up. There are several issues here, some pragmatic and rational, others emotional and political.

    As Jeff says, wine quality in the lower price tiers (retail trade) has improved dramatically in Bordeaux as in the rest of the world, at least in the decent vintages. Stylistically, claret is fresh and crisp but as you quoted the NYC sommelier as noting, so delicately woven together. That kind of classicism will always be welcome if pricing is to match and Bordeaux can escape dismal vintages like 2013.

    The Bordelais certainly need to take packaging and marketing lessons from the Aussies and Californians though; those labels look so stodgy and they haven’t bothered to put grape varieties on either front or back labels (until very recently) so if they can solve conventional marketing issues, and launch a campaign to win both average American consumers as well as restaurateurs in NYC (hardly an average market), there’s no reason they can’t win over more American wine drinkers.

    • Thanks for commenting Richard. I agree with your points, especially about the QPR of inexpensive BDX in an outstanding vintage. Though I wonder about the varietal labeling. The trend in the US seems to be more toward blending, and specifying the blend is common, but appears to be a soft requirement. Would BDX be adding that information just as we stop caring?

  8. Pingback: Bordeaux: Too little, too late? It Depends(c). - Vinigator.com

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