It is a cliché of course but Bordeaux does suffer from a stuffy and forbidding image. Grand châteaux which are closed to the public; gentlemen traders in impeccable suits; a restrained, difficult to understand wine style for those brought up on modern fruity wines; a complex system of trading within Bordeaux and the en primeur which baffle the outsider; impossible prices which put the top wines beyond reach … the charge sheet is long! But is that really the whole picture? My visit in September 2016, as a guest of the CIVB, the body which represents the wine business in Bordeaux, showed that there is life in the old dog yet!
Having recently been to Australia and New Zealand, I have experienced the extraordinary warmth of welcome in the wineries of these countries and the dynamic wine culture which accompanies it. While Bordeaux is not yet in that league, it was great to see that all the right steps are being made. The brand new La Cité du Vin is undoubtedly going to be a major draw for tourists, enhancing what is already a great city to visit. It is highly informative, well-organized and, well, just, fun. And occasionally a bit weird or should we say quirky? And in addition to the actual display areas it has an informal restaurant of high quality, a great wine shop (with a decent number of non-Bordeaux and non-French wines) and a visitor shop. And the châteaux are getting in on the act. Ch. Lynch-Bages has been something of a pioneer with its hotel, restaurant, craft shops and bakery but they are being joined by others. The Cru Bourgeois Ch. du Taillan offers accommodation, picnics, visits over lunch time (!) and at weekends. You can hire one of the region’s oldest cellars for weddings and the like. Bordeaux is genuinely becoming accessible to those who visit.
The CIVB has a significant budget funded by a compulsory levy on all appellation contrôlée bottles and it spends two thirds of it on marketing and promotion. Some of this is visible in the terms of advertising but much of it goes into a range of activities to engage and open the minds of the wine trade. Key themes are education (its l’École du Vin offers everything from a two hour course which you can do walking off the street to a three day program for the trade), trade relationships, consumer events (especially the biennial Bordeaux Wine Festival) and communication. For those in the trade who want to learn about the new face of Bordeaux there are lots of opportunities and the interested wine drinker is well served too.
One of the issues facing Bordeaux is the sheer number of labels on the market. The well-heeled wine lover may be prepared to drink their way through the 1855 classification and the top wines of the other appellations. But for most drinkers that classy, slim bottle with the château design on it is fine but totally exchangeable for thousands of other similar bottles. Without a great deal of knowledge there is no way of knowing which wines are likely to be really good and which merely average. There are some entry level brands available but little beyond that in terms of sign-posting.
However, there are two developments worth knowing about. The first, on a large scale, is the relaunch and revival of the Cru Bourgeois ‘brand’. This now has a rigorous quality system with the participating châteaux’s wines being tasted by an externally supervised tasting panel and with no conflicts of interest. Having tasted the recent vintages (since the 2008 released in 2010) I can say there the Cru Bourgeois badge on the bottle is pretty much a guarantee of quality in the £10-£15 price bracket. This is important as this group of roughly 275 properties are responsible for 30% of the Médoc vineyard. So you don’t need to know the reputation of the individual estate, you can rely on the Cru Bourgeois endorsement. It would be good to have the same system on the right bank and in Entre Deux Mers.Ronan by Clinet‘ brand. This Pomerol estate has impeccable credentials with the 2010 vintage getting 100 Parker points. But it is almost impossible to buy land in Pomerol and so they looked to expand their business by launching a brand with bought-in fruit from around Bordeaux. 500 metres away Ch. Clinet produces 50,000 high-end bottles, Ronan by Clinet is currently around 300,000 and could rise to half million at around £10 a bottle. The growers are supervised in both the vineyard and the winery, the wines are made in the various localities and then brought to Pomerol to be blended and finished. The wine is aged in stainless steel with the oak character being derived from staves. The style (Merlot-led, easy drinking but with a reference to Bordeaux) and positioning are clever. The two brands are in completely different parts of the market. But ‘Ronan by Clinet’ has the caché conferred on it by the château name, the personality of the owner whose first name appears on the label and the accessibility of the price. And the visuals make this connection and contrast very clear as well. Finally, the owners believe not only that this brand is helped by its upmarket parent; they also think that Ronan by Clinet leads customers to the grand vin.
Fine Bordeaux graces tables around the world but for most people in affluent western societies at least dining has been democratised and the informal is king. As a result if Bordeaux is to succeed it needs some growers to let their hair down and produce contemporary, fun, wines. Ch. Thieuley in the Entre Deux Mers has done just that. Along side it classic wines, white, red and rosé, sold as Ch. Thieuley it has produced some lively, lean and fruity wines with funky labels to go with them. No oak, no need to age the wine, just straightforward drinking pleasure. And, shock horror, they grow Syrah and Chardonnay in Bordeaux … Congratulations to Marie and Sylvie Courselle.
An obvious advantage of a cooperative wine cellar is sheer scale. We often see this from the grower’s point of view as he or she can concentrate on growing fruit and not winemaking, marketing, promotion and selling. But from the winery’s point of view they also have the capital to invest in high quality mechanisation. So you don’t just see the latest optical sorters at smart châteaux, they have already been installed at, for example, the St-Émilion cooperative. And it has the largest, fixed, crane system for moving vats and filling the fermentation vessels by gravity that I have ever seen! The cellar has 5,000 barriques and they buy 1,000 new ones a year.
In addition they have choices. For example here in St-Émilion if your grapes are the product of less than two hectares of land, they go into the cooperative’s own label blends. But if you are tending more than three hectares, they can be vinified entirely separately and appear with the label of your own château. So there is some real flexibility here. However, something don’t change, like the straggle of tractors and trailers outside the front door in the middle of harvest, awaiting their turn to deliver their precious loads.
At the other end of the market, Stephen Bolger with co-owners Ch. Lynch-Bages are providing wealthy clients with a bespoke wine experience. Viniv has entered into contracts to secure some vineyards in prime appellations. He then offers his clients the opportunity to create their own, unique, barrel of wine – with the enormous back up of the technical team at Lynch-Bages where Stephen is also chief operating officer. The client can have as much or as little hands-on experience as they want from the vineyard to designing the labels. And critically he or she has the story to tell (endlessly?) to their families and friends while they pour that wine. As the wine is multi-appellation it of course has to be simple AC Bordeaux but that does not matter a bit – it is your blend, your label and your story. Brilliant! Prize for the best personal label (in a massively competitive field) has to go to the pair of undertakers who called their bottling ‘Box bottled: laid to rest’.
With many thanks to the CIVB and to Wendy Narby who was a knowledgeable, enthusiastic and charming guide. There’s is lots to discover in Bordeaux, alongside great wine.