Thursday, June 17, 2010
The State of Bordeaux is on Fire
The AOC of Bordeaux is practically state-sized by east coast American standards, producing about 700 million bottles of wine per year. A very small amount of that is made up of the cherished "First Growths" and the scattering of other elite properties. These wines are sold as 'en primeur' offerings while the wines are still in barrel - long before they have been bottled. Tastings are offered, and merchants willing to pay for the wines three years before they are shipped are offered an opportunity to invest in advance. The rest of us gradually lose interest in Bordeaux altogether, because we have neither the time nor the money to really give a shit about it. I discussed this issue and the hurdles the system presents for Bordeaux in an article about Bordeaux that I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, in the wake of the last great vintage of 2005. I was lucky enough to tour Bordeaux and taste the marvelous '05 vintage Chateau Margaux and Ducru Beaucaillou while they were still in barrel.
This system produces feast and famine for Bordeaux. When the region has a great vintage, as in 2000, 2005, or 2009 (the current offering), there is a feeding frenzy for the region's greatest wines. A windfall profit that seems to convince the world that all is well in Bordeaux, but the wealthiest big names always benefit, and the lesser estates always slip further behind. It's like a study of American wages through the booms and busts of the last few decades. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
Few American retailers are willing to pay for wines three years in advance. There's a glut of wine out there, rampant discounting, and retailers aren't going to pay up front. If they won't commit to purchasing in advance, the wholesale distributors won't commit, importers balk because of limp distributor enthusiasm, and demand dried up through the distribution chain. Except for great vintages, and except for famous name Chateaux. That's why you hardly ever see wines from Bordeaux on the shelves of your local liquor store: The store wasn't willing to buy the wines three years in advance when they could buy other stuff that you were equally happy to buy.
As a result, Bordeaux is becoming progressively less relevant to American wine drinkers. Older Americans with lots of money - buyers of big name wines - are literally dying. Young wine drinkers have very little experience with Bordeaux and have little chance of coming across them in a typical retail or restaurant environment.
Today the sea of wine that Bordeaux produces is beginning to trickle back into retail shops like a starving stray dog with nowhere left to turn. Lower-priced wines are being sold closer to release, or after release, and at very fair prices. The question is whether anyone does or should care.
There's a lot of wine out there, but Bordeaux offers excellent quality and a unique take on Cabernet and Merlot (sometimes including Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot). Overall quality is quite high, and areas like the Cotes de Bordeaux, and particularly Fronsac, are capable of making superb wines for under $25 a bottle which have an elegance that you'll seldom encounter in California Cabernets or Merlots. As sturdy and age-worthy as they are, they're also incredibly elegant wines that could be served as easily with salmon as with steak.
You may have to tromp through a few lame ducks before you find an eagle, but once you've had a great Bordeaux, you'll likely be willing to pay a little more for the experience.
Tonight I was sipping a 2003 Chateau Verdignan Haut-Medoc, a seven year old Bordeaux wine that's somehow still in distribution, just to prove how slack demand is these days. It has mature aromas of cherry, raspberry, cigar box, licorice and cedar and medium-weight flavors of soy, mushroom, red currants and black olives. It offers a nice contrast to sweet, fruit-driven American wines, partly because it's fully mature and partly because of where it comes from.
It's not a wine that'll blow your mind, but it did remind me that Bordeaux has something unique to offer and that it needn't cost a fortune. Wines like this are a barely glowing ember in the American market, but I hope that they'll catch fire again. At the very least, I just want them around when I need them.
--Southside girls won't blow you away, but you know that they'll stay... (Craig Finn)