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The Business and Wines of Bordeaux

Although wine geeks like us spend the majority of our time obsessing over grape variety, terroir and the latest new-age winemaking philosophy, anybody directly involved in the wine trade will soon learn that there is much more to wine than merely understanding how it is made. Once in the bottle (and sometimes, especially in Bordeaux, before it has even seen a bottle), the wine has to be sold, passing from winemaker to the end consumer. In the 21st century it is not inconceivable that the chain of supply might feature only three individuals: the producer, a middleman who acts as buyer, shipper and retailer (a European supermarket might work in this manner) and the eventual consumer, who coughs up the money that makes it all worthwhile.

In Bordeaux, however, such a simple three-person system is very unlikely. Bordeaux has evolved a rigid supply chain for the sale of wine, one which has its origins in the Bordeaux of two centuries ago. So let us look back two hundred years, to a time when the marshy Médoc had not long been opened up by the visiting Dutch engineers. Every gravel croupe began to sprout vines as the local nobility, and subsequently the merchants and lawyers who aspired to such titles, purchased land along the length of the Gironde, and set about instructing its planting. All the ingredients for viticultural, vinous and financial success were present; on one side there were good quality vineyards combined with an appropriate level of investment from the rich proprietors, and on the other a willing, solvent body of consumers eager to buy and knock back the wines. But how were these châteaux to be run? How were the wines to be sold? The solutions to these innocuous questions, put in place by the 18th-century château-proprietors, were the beginnings of the business of Bordeaux as we know it today.

The Proprietors

The wealthy blue-blooded proprietors of the grand estates that sprang up at this time – you only have to look at the likes of Château Margaux (below) to understand the wealth and status tied up in Bordeaux during the 18th and 19th centuries – had, perhaps unsurprisingly, no desire to get their own hands dirty. These were not the peasant vignerons that existed elsewhere in France. Nor were they the 18th-century equivalents of the today’s organic and biodynamically enthused viticulteurs, eager to reconnect with nature, and feel the soil between their fingertips. Their estates in Bordeaux were about something else; status, wealth and grandeur. The fact that the estate made a little souson the side selling the harvest – wine, wheat or otherwise – was probably not a major topic of dinner party conversation.

Indeed, it appears that many such proprietors had no desire to even visit their estates, which were many miles north of the city of Bordeaux. Today the Médoc is served by a well-developed network of roads, and also a single-track railway which runs north as far as possible, before it is forced to terminate by the Atlantic Ocean at Verdon-sur-Mer, right at the very tip of the sandy isthmus. Two hundred years ago, however, the roads were dirt tracks at best, the railway was yet to be built, and the land remained marshy and mosquito-infested in places. Some noble proprietors lived even more distant, in Paris especially; it was a long journey by train down to Bordeaux, and then north by horse-drawn carriage up to the châteaux and vineyards of Pauillac, St Julien and St Estèphe. Even today, the landscape north of Lesparre-Médoc has a fairly desolate feel to it, windswept, with long, featureless, tarmac-grey roads slicing through the rather monotonous paysage, the ‘hedgerows’ comprising spiky gorse that would be more at home on an exposed beach-front than the world’s most famous wine region. Little wonder then that, before the roads even existed, visits were infrequent, or non-existent.

This problem had a simple solution though; the proprietors installed a trusted employee to manage the estate. These were the régisseurs, in essence an estate manager who would oversee not only the work in the vineyard all year round, from winter pruning through to harvest, but would also look after the fermentations and newly-created wines, including their sale, all on behalf of their patron.

The Régisseurs

Although the Revolution separated many noblemen from their assets (and on occasion also their heads) Bordeaux survived, as did a market only too willing to drink its wines. The major difference was that many estates – in some cases divided into two or three smaller sections, having been broken up and sold off – were now in the hands of new money, rich bankers such as the Rothschilds, or merchants-done-good, rather than the blue-blooded nobility of old. Just like the noblemen described above, however, many of these new proprietors also regarded their Bordeaux estates as little more than a country retreat with an interesting viticultural sideline which they seldom or never visited. Thus the status quo was maintained; the name above the door might have changed, but it was still the régisseurs in charge.

These days the term régisseur is most commonly used not in the sphere of wine, but to describe a stage or theatrical manager, a character more relevant to the execution of the latest ballet than the running of a grand estate and expansive vineyard. But during the 18th and 19th centuries the régisseurs of Bordeaux were powerful figures in the world of wine; they shaped the development of the greatest vineyards and châteaux of the left bank communes. They led teams of vignerons who tended the vines, supervised the harvest and oversaw the vinifications, before the wine was run off into barrel and sold. And their frequent communications with their employers, usually by letter sent down to Bordeaux or perhaps onto their residence in Paris, are some of the most informative historical documents about the workings of a Bordeaux château to have ever been uncovered.

Today the work once undertaken by the régisseur is more likely to fall to an entire team, comprising a vineyard manager, oenologist, cellar manager (sometimes referred to as achef de cave or maitre de chai), a technical director and of course the owner him/herself. Having said that, as most estates today are in the ownership of a multinational corporations, insurance companies or telecommunications magnates (these owners having replaced the wave of bankers and merchants that came after the Revolution), few châteaux have a true owner-manager living on site, and a general manager is likely to take the place of the owner in this equation. At the few cru classéproperties that remain in family ownership, rare beasts indeed, a son or daughter rather than an employee may fulfil the role of the general manager or régisseur. And one of their roles will be to liaise with the courtiers.

The Courtiers

Having installed the régisseur, the wealthy proprietor of the 18th or 19th century then needed to address the business of actually selling his wine. There was a willing body of consumers, and also merchants ready to deal with the business of aging and distributing the wines, and so it would seem the proprietors were faced with a relatively simple task. Nevertheless, there was a problem. The proprietors were in many cases absent, and whether noble or bourgeoisie a good many of them had no wish to spend time quibbling with merchants (the négociants) who would buy their wine. This was compounded by the fact that dealing with these merchants usually meant a trek down to their offices, nestled among the warehouses on the Quai des Chartrons, the Garonne quayside. A return journey there from the château, by horse-drawn carriage, whether undertaken by proprietor or régisseur, might take the best part of a day.

Thus the void between proprietor (or his régisseur) and négociant was filled by thecourtier, who liaised between proprietors and négociants, and naturally took a cut for doing so. Their job was communicating and liaising, travelling between the négociantsand the châteaux, setting up the deals, advising on the market and the deal itself, and also guaranteeing the wine, both its delivery and that the quality matched the samples originally provided. Courtiers remain important in today’s market, not just deal-brokering but advising and informing, oiling the wheels of business, although there are perhaps fewer of them today – perhaps 100 or so in Bordeaux, maybe 500 in all France – than there were one or two centuries ago. And they are also less wealthy and influential than they once were; their slice of the action is typically capped at 2%, giving them little bargaining power. Thus, although they may oil the wheels, they have little say in how they turn. This inability to influence the trade (and particularly prices) in Bordeaux probably explains why the work of the courtier and the Place de Bordeaux, the trading system within which they work (it is not a physical ‘place’ or entity, despite the images the term Place de Bordeaux might conjure up of some sort of ‘trading floor’ for Bordeaux), remains a mysterious one, largely hidden from the public eye.

The proprietors, through their ability to raise prices, are very much in the public eye of course. As are the négociants, their tendency to lecture the proprietors on prices and other aspects of their business being equally newsworthy. It is to the négociants, the merchants, blenders and distributors of wines, that we turn next.

The Négociants

The role of the négociants was not merely to take, store and then ship the wine; a little judicious blending along the way was also par for the course. In doing so, they too made their fortunes, earning a much grander cut than the courtier; a typical négociantwould take a 10-15% slice of the action.

Nowadays it is too easy to look back with disdain at the practices of the négociantsduring the 18th and 19th centuries. Surely these were illicit vagabonds, cutting the great wines of Bordeaux with cheaper fare in order to fraudulently increase their gain? Not so, as these activities were far from illicit; the practice was above board, regulated and a major role for those involved. They took the weaker local wines and ‘improved’ them, adding wines from Spain – Alicante and Benicarlo in particular – during the 18th centuries, before moving to Hermitage in the Rhône Valley in the 19th century. The amount added would depend on the quality of the wine in question; in better years perhaps very little was added, but up to 15% (and probably much more) was not uncommon.

 

The practice was known as coupage (literally, cutting) and would be openly declared; the ‘improved’ wines were known as vins coupés, whereas unadulterated wines werevins purs. Despite the rather more positive tone of the latter, it was not a shame for a wine to have been ‘Hermitaged‘. Writing in Geographie historique des vignobles: Colloque de Bordeaux (Editions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1978), the eminent Bordeaux historian Professor René Pijassou quotes from a letter written by Lamothe, the régisseur at Château Latour (pictured above) during the early years of the 19th century, to his employer. Lamothe wrote “the help from old Hermitage we propose should compensate for the small deficiency in body“, clearly indicating that the practice went right to the top in Bordeaux.

Unsurprisingly, with little documentation or audit, and the transport of millions of litres into Bordeaux, from the Languedoc, Spain and beyond, and the transport of millions of litres out, much of the wine not yet bottled, there was plenty of opportunity for fraud. Turning again to Pijassou (Editions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1978), he cites Nathaniel Johnston as follows; “the Gironde produces an average of 2.5 to 3 million hectolitres [per annum], but the quantity sold by the département is 6 to 7 million hectolitres“. If true, then there was a huge amount of counterfeiting and illicit blending going on. ‘Hermitaging‘ is one thing, but this was full-scale fraud. In 1901 the proprietors took action, and banding together – thereby creating the Syndicat des Grands Crus Classés du Médoc, which still represents their interests today, more than a century on – they demanded improved branding of the capsules, labels and corks to cut down on fraud. With so much money at stake, the négociants naturally resisted, and the affair dragged on for years. It was difficulties such as these that prompted Baron Philippe Rothschild, of Château Mouton-Rothschild, to champion the introduction ofchâteau-bottling – starting with the distinctive label by Jean Carlu (above right) in the 1920s.

The Courtier-Négociant System

The courtier-négociant system, although rich in seemingly redundant links in the chain of communication and supply, continues through to current day. Some aspects of the system have changed though, in particular how the négociants use the courtiers to buy their wine.

Standard practice was, of course, to buy each vintage as it came along, négociant and proprietor agreeing – through the courtier, naturally – on a price according to the quality of the vintage. But this meant prices fluctuated, and keen to smooth this out, as well as hopefully get a better deal, some négociants would purchase by abonnements, a type of subscription system. In the agreement the négociant would agree to take a sequence of vintages – sometimes as many as ten in a row – at a set price, agreed in advance. This system benefited the châteaux in the weaker years, as they had a guaranteed sale, but the négociants won in the better vintages, when they received large quantities of high-quality wine secured for a song. Ultimately, with climbing prices, the system was bound to favour the négociants (especially with a ten-year agreement – imagine buying wines from the 2005 vintage at prices set in 1995!) and so it is no surprise that it has fallen by the wayside.

An equally curious system that evolved was the practice of purchasing sur souche, when the fruit was still on the vine. This was a gamble that could benefit either thechâteau or the négociant, depending on the quality of the vintage; the price was agreed and money changed hands early on during the growing season. The advantages were, for the proprietor, a cash advance, and for the négociant, hopefully a good deal. The practice fell into disuse, however, following the 1961 vintage, in which the proprietors had their fingers burned, as many were forced to honour agreements which saw wines of the highest quality, all sold for a song sur souche, going into the négociants’warehouses. The profit lined the pockets of the négoce, and the proprietors have grown uncomfortable with others profiting from their hard work. This is increasingly evident today, in the early years of the 21st century, in the release prices of recent vintages.

The courtier-négociant system has some curious side effects, one of which is that the proprietors have very little knowledge of what happens to their wines once they leave their cellars, as this is very much in the hands of the courtiers and négociants. If you intend questioning a proprietor at a tasting event as to where you can purchase his or her wines, do not be surprised when you realise that they simply have no idea. Once they have sold the wines, they lose sight of them completely. It also means that they have very little control over where their wines are sold; keen to maintain their image of exclusivity many proprietors request that their wines not be sold on to supermarkets, either in France or abroad. But classed growth claret regularly pops up in supermarkets such as Costco, both in Europe and the USA. Few proprietors are, I suspect, aware of this, although now that a number of châteaux are improving the traceability of their wines with security measures such as Prooftag, thereby opening new channels of communication with the end consumer, this blissful ignorance will perhaps soon come to an end.

place_de_la_bourse

Having completed an examination of how Bordeaux’s business system, the nebulously named Place de Bordeaux, evolved and operates, it seems appropriate to move on to look at the next step in how the wines of the region actually reach the most important individual in the selling ‘chain’, the consumer. To quickly recap, the process of selling the wines first involves trade between the châteaux and négociants on thePlace, as many in Bordeaux refer to it, most deals being mediated by the courtiers (see The Business of Bordeaux for more detail). The next step should surely be quite straightforward; all we need now is for the négociants and the world’s wine merchants to strike a few deals, and once the merchants have paid up and taken delivery they can market and sell the wine to their enthusiastic customers. As you are probably already aware, however, it isn’t quite that simple; there are peculiarities to this system, one very curious anomaly being that much of this trade is completed long before the wine is ready for bottling and shipping, a process known as selling en primeur.

In this instalment of my guide to Bordeaux I will examine this system of selling in some detail, looking at its origins and how it developed into the tasting circus we have today. I will also highlight some valid criticisms of the system, and discuss possible solutions. During the course of this instalment to my guide I will continue to refer to the roles played by the courtiers and especially the négociants in this system; if you remain unfamiliar with these terms, or need to brush up on your understanding a little, it might first be wise to take a step back to read The Business of Bordeaux.

The En Primeur System

The wines of Bordeaux have long been sold when still in barrel, but in centuries past that was because the oak barrel was the norm not only for storage but also the transport of wine. Once sold, the barrels travelled to the cellars of the merchants who had purchased them, and it was here that the wine would be bottled for sale and final distribution. Today, of course, any wine of significance is bottled at the château before being shipped, a practice which really kicked off with Baron Philippe de Rothschild at Château Mouton-Rothschild, as I have already discussed in my account of The Business of Bordeaux. We should remind ourselves, however, that sometimes what seems immutable is often quite a recent invention. Today, it is difficult today to imagine any system other than exclusive château-bottling being the norm. Baron Philippe was advocating the practice as long ago as the 1920s, and indeed many in Bordeaux have been undertaking château-bottling for decades, but it is only since 1972 that it has beencompulsory for the classed growth châteaux. Likewise, the modern method of selling en primeur, complete with the tasting and reporting circus that revolves around it, although rooted in the tradition of the sale of the wine when in barrel, is also a very recent phenomenon. To understand the circus that exists today, first I shall explore the very early years of en primeur.

The system of selling en primeur dates back to at least the 1840s, and it was for thenégociants a first chance to have a taste of the new vintage. They may have already made a purchase sur souche, or have an agreement to buy in abonnements (see The Business of Bordeaux for more detail), but these were in truth minor aspects of the purchasing system and most négociants would wait until spring in order to taste and assess quality, before agreeing a price and handing over their cash. This was how en primeur worked for well over a century; it was in essence a ‘closed-shop’ tasting which served to oil the moving of wine from the châteaux to the négociants’ quayside warehouses, with no merchants, journalists or similar in attendance. In the 1950s and 1960s the numbers of attendees may well have crept up a little, perhaps with a select band of merchants from traditional markets such as the UK or Belgium in attendance, but it was still very much a trade affair, out of the sight of the world’s slowly expanding band of Bordeaux drinkers. What wines the merchants bought would be delivered to their premises in barrel, in keeping with centuries of tradition.

 

It was only in the 1970s that the reach of the en primeur system extended to include the end-consumer, thus taking on more resemblance to the system as it is today. In part this was brought about by the arrival of universal château-bottling as described above; this shifted the responsibility for the distribution of the bottled wine from the wine merchant, who up until the 1960s would still have been bottling at least some of the wines from barrel in his cellar, to the négociants, who now took delivery of only bottled wine from the châteaux. Few consumers would have agreed to take on a barrel (I imagine!) hence the négociants marketed to the merchants, but now working in smaller volumes (cases of bottles rather than barrels) it made more financial sense – for négociant and merchant – to market to the end consumer from the outset. By doing so the merchants no longer needed to tie up capital; they had not had this option when purchasing barrels, as they needed to cellar the barrel until the right time for bottling arrived. In the new system the customers paid up front and hopefully got a good deal as a reward, the châteauxreceived a cash advance (having to wait one or two years before bottling hurts your cash flow, so this was a good solution for them), and everybody – négociants, courtiersand merchants – took their cut. It was a perfect system. En primeur had arrived.

The En Primeur Tasting Circus

And yet the history of en primeur certainly does not end here, as the system described above does not accurately represent the modern-day selling of Bordeaux. One of several problems that remained for the consumer was that nobody involved in the chain of selling and distribution was dispassionate; they all had an iron in the en primeur fire. In order to decide which wines to buy, the consumer relied on the words of the merchants, who had tasted the wines during the primeurs (as the en primeur tastings are referred to in Bordeaux). The merchant, however, may well have agreed to take a large quantity of wine, and therefore needed to talk it up and ensure it sold, perhaps overstating its quality somewhat in the process. I am sure many merchants knew what they were doing, and bought and sold with their customers in mind. But others were perhaps not so skilled, or perhaps not so scrupulous, especially as they may have needed to buy the wines despite it being a lesser vintage, in order to ensure relationships with négociants remained cordial, and that they were able to secure the stock they desired when a better vintage came along. It was perhaps only natural that consumers began looking for more independent opinion.

And this was the true beginning of the circus we know today. Soon the few dozen merchants that travelled to Bordeaux for the primeurs were being joined by journalists ready to report on the wines, and provide the looked-for opinions. And these individuals soon built up huge followings, especially US critic Robert Parker, his fame bolstered by his unwavering support of the 1982 vintage following his assessment during the primeurtastings. And realising the value of publicity (especially of the hyperbolic variety), Bordeaux has opened its primeur doors wide in recent years; the population of Bordeaux swells by thousands during the primeurs week, with visitors from the USA, Canada, Japan, China, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and more, not to mention all the traditional markets within Europe. This massive influx of tasters reflects the global nature of the modern-day Bordeaux trade, and it includes buyers, traders, journalists and enthusiasts. The trade tastings, once genteel affairs, are now heaving, sweaty bun-fights where it can sometimes be difficult to see the bottles for the bodies. And the hype that builds around the week is, as you might imagine, very much to the taste of theBordelais. Wine is for selling, after all.

The Prix de Sortie

The sale of the latest Bordeaux vintage naturally follows on from the primeur tastings, which are generally held in the first week of April. The new releases are thus concentrated in the months of April and May (in recent years, frequently rumbling on into June or even July). The process begins with the release of a wine by a château with a prix de sortie. This will be a carefully calculated figure which reflects their perception of the quality of the wine and the vintage, their perceived or actual status and that of their neighbours, the volume harvested, scores (received or hoped-for) from the big-name critics and so on. It may surprise some, but it is status or rank that has the largest effect on release price; first growths are always more expensive than second growths, second almost always more expensive than third, and so on. The release price set by peers and competitors is another important influence; as a Bordeaux proprietor, you mustn’t be seen to be pricing lower than that cousin you despise – after all, your wine is so much better.

When it comes to the impact of scores, by far the largest effect comes from the opinions of Robert Parker. So much so that many estates will not release their wine until Parker has published his scores, which gives many the impression that Parker is the only influence on Bordeaux pricing, but as I have explained that certainly isn’t true. The lesson learnt with the 2008 vintage will only reinforce the proprietors’ belief that they should wait for Parker. In this vintage, many châteaux followed the lead of Hubert de Boüard de Laforest of Château Angélus who released early and slashed his prix de sortie by 40%, believing that the vintage was not top quality (they were right, it wasn’t). But they had underestimated Parker’s interest, and when he came out with some bullish scores (they have largely been graded downwards since) the wines increased in value, and the proprietors realised they had missed out on some significant profits. So today the châteaux will usually wait for Parker’s scores before releasing (although, to be honest, a few châteaux broke with this practice in the 2012 vintage, which was a surprise to me).

En Primeur Controversies

So it is already clear that the system of selling and buying en primeur is not so perfect after all. The châteaux are unhappy when they lose out on profit. The buyers are unhappy with slow, tedious rumbling campaigns. Some of these controversies are worthy of more detailed examination.

A Disorganised ‘Campaign’

With a slightly farcical pseudo-military air, the programme of releases are commonly referred to by the merchants as a ‘campaign’. If we remind ourselves that some among their number rake in massive profits at this time though, making for a significant percentage of the year’s takings, such a militaristic approach is perhaps not surprising. Sadly for all concerned the process has nothing of the military organisation we might expect.

In several recent vintages en primeur has become a tedious waiting game, as thechâteaux proprietors and managers wait for their neighbours to test the market with the first release. Then, like buses on a rainy day, they all come at once. On one day during the 2011 Bordeaux ‘campaign’, colloquially known as Super- or Black-Tuesday (as you can see, those involved in the selling of all this wine are not averse to a little melodrama), over forty châteaux released their new wines on a single day, leavingnégociants floundering in a sea of potential deals, the merchants struggling to conjure up the appropriately frenzied emails of enthusiastic selling in time, and worst of all the consumers were left confused and uninformed. This isn’t a good end-point to a centuries-old system, nor is it a fair end to a year of hard work in the vineyard.

 

A solution to this problem is unlikely; it is exacerbated not only by the desire to wait for competitors to release, and for Parker to publish, but also by the number of public holidays that fall in May. During selling of the 2012 vintage in 2013, for example, May – which should be a busy month for en primeur sales – was blessed with five public holidays, which essentially shuts down the system. And if these holidays fall on a Tuesday or Friday, it is common to faire le pont (make a bridge) by taking leave on the adjacent Monday or Friday, making a super-long weekend. The effect of this is to concentrate the sales on the few days the Place is actually up and running. None of this is, I am certain, easily amenable to change.

Releasing in Tranches

Once a wine has been released, there are still methods by which the proprietors can maximise their return. The trick is not to release all your wine in one huge lot, but rather to let only a small slice, or tranche, out onto the Place. After testing the market in this way (and perhaps using these lower-priced cases to reward loyal courtiers andnégociants, they in turn rewarding loyal customers), the price of subsequent tranchescan be increased. It seems reasonable enough, as subsequent price rises are effectively driven by demand and the forces of a free market, but it is perhaps not really that straightforward. With increasingly small tranches, some proprietors show humility by releasing a minuscule amount of wine at a good price (the price that they will reference when highlighting just how fair and reasonable they have been), but the real selling price is much higher, as subsequent much larger tranches are sold at double or even treble the asking price of the first.

The négociants naturally follow suit, and a lucky few merchants and consumers – perhaps loyal customers – will obtain the wine at a good price, but most will pay top whack for a subsequent tranche, in a market that has been stoked up just a little bit more by that attractive first prix de sortie. The best you can hope for as a consumer is that your merchant bought all three tranches, and averages out the price to treat all customers fairly. But when you consider the amount of money at stake – a Bordeaux-focused, London-based merchant might sell more than £100million of primeur wines in a good vintage – I am quite sure such fair play is not universal.

Having said that the existence of tranches seems in modern times to be increasingly irrelevant. As the price of Bordeaux continues its climb skyward, a number of features – including higher release prices on the back of hyped-up reports and ever-more bullish scores from influential critics (some of whom fly out to Bordeaux before the primeurs in the belief that having the ‘scoop’ gives their opinions added value), increased economic affluence and the opening up of new markets – all serve to dampen the differences in prices between tranches. It strikes me that more châteaux release all their wine at the high price that would once have been reserved for the second or third tranche. This brings us to our next controversy.

High Prices

This is something we are all familiar with when it comes to Bordeaux, and indeed all wine. Whereas once the wines were sold to a few select markets within Europe, there is now near-global demand. First drinkers in the USA were infected with the Bordeaux bug, and more recently China and other increasingly wealthy Asian nations are very interested in Bordeaux. Brazil is waiting in the wings, and perhaps India too. The world’s nations, increasingly affluent, are all looking to Bordeaux for its wine. As indeed are the world’s investment fund managers, who have recognises that wine is not just for drinking, but can yield a fat profit too. In the meantime, although quality has risen across the board in the past few decades, the volumes of top class Bordeaux produced in the same time frame has not really increased.

The process of buying en primeur used to bring financial benefit for the buyer, in that they secured the wines at good prices, this being the reward for paying two years up front, providing the châteaux what was in essence an unsecured cash loan. Today, however, tired of seeing others benefit from their hard work, reaping profits from the rising prices once the wines have been released, the proprietors release at ever higher prices. On one hand this is good; it is not appropriate to expect the proprietors to release at well below the prices the market will bear, and then be content that the wine they sold for €20 per bottle is, just weeks later, trading at €50 per bottle. That is profit that should have gone to the château. On the other hand, there must be some benefit for those who buy early. The release prices are now so high – even in lesser vintages – that there is increasingly no rational reason to buy in many vintages. Most wines will be available at the same price, or even less, when released in bottle a few years later. Buy early and you could lose money. And, when the wines are physically available, you have an added advantage; by this time more robust opinions on the wines – finished and in bottle, not barrel samples – will be available. This brings us to our next controversy.

Validity

Every year, usually during the first week of April, the world’s wine trade and press (including me, of course) descend upon Bordeaux to taste these wines. This is more than a year before many of them are likely to be assembled into the final blend, and certainly a long time before the wines have finished their élevage. Thus, what theBordelais pour for tasting can only ever be an approximation of the wine to be. It might be a very good approximation, an example of the finished blend drawn from a variety of barrels, or it may be less representative of the true wine. Does it include the Cabernet Franc, or only the varieties that did well? Is it representative of the majority of the vineyard, or is it mainly from the older parcel that always copes well in better years? Does it come from new oak or old? There are many more variables in the equation than might at first be imagined.

 

It is only natural that this knowledge has led to the accusation that the wines presented in the spring primeur tastings each year are not truly representative of the finished product. There have even been accusations, from some quarters, that the wines presented are ‘dressed up’ to appeal – using the wines from the best barrels, sexing them up with some toasty new oak – and are thus not merely unrepresentative by virtue of being unfinished but purposefully and dishonestly fashioned into the most appealing sample possible. Taking this concept to its natural conclusion leads us to the inevitable –theoretically inevitable, obviously – existence of Parker barrels, and that it is the wines drawn from these, assembled so as to appeal to the palate of the influential critic Robert Parker, that may be presented to him on his visit. This would seem to be a logical practice, as Parker’s scores drive prices and markets, but the existence of such samples is vehemently denied by all involved. Nevertheless, regardless of whether this very dubious practice exists, the concept of buying based on the assessment of an unfinished product still seems faintly ridiculous.

Indeed, during 2013, in a rare glimpse into the world of the primeurs, top consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt revealed in French newspaper Le Monde that wines he shows during the primeurs have “an accelerated élevage“, going into barrel early no doubt to integrate the oak a little better, and to ensure the malolactic fermentation is complete before the tasters arrive. This hardly seems like cheating to me, but is in fact part of good ‘sample preparation’. On the other hand, it does mean that the tasting note derived is not an ‘early look’ at the wine in question, but an ‘early look’ at a different version of the wine. This doesn’t strike me as underhand, but I do feel it knocks the credibility of the primeur tastings just a little more. Having said that, even stories about Bordeaux primeurs have to be taken with a pinch of salt, in much the same way as the tasting notes generated. A story ran by The Drinks Business in June 2012 – around the same time as Derenoncourt’s revelations were made public – featured a confession fromYann Bouscasse, the proprietor of Château Cantinot. Bouscasse claimed that he poured samples from new oak for Robert Parker and James Suckling, but French critics were poured a sample from older barrels. As it turns out the piece was nothing more than exaggerated publicity for Bouscasse, who runs a minor château on the Bordeaux periphery which would not attract visits from such big-name critics.

En Primeur: Solutions?

Are there any solutions to these problems of unrepresentative samples and unfair pricing? One solution to the first of these two concerns would be to delay the event, until a point when the régisseurs have a better idea of the final blend, perhaps later in the year, or even make it a full year later. It could perhaps be staged at a time when the Bordelais were not about to take so many public holidays, which might lead to a better organised ‘campaign’. A move was once suggested by Dr Alain Raynaud (proprietor of several Bordeaux estates at the time, including Château La Croix du Gay) during his tenure as chairman of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was not an initiative that bore fruit.

Resistance to such a move naturally reflects the benefits of the system to the Bordelais. It brings in cash only months after the fruit has been harvested; thus the sooner the circus gets underway, the sooner the proprietors get paid. Having said that, the drawn-out ‘campaigns’ of recent years, which have seen some wines released three months or more after the event kicked off, perhaps suggest that some, at least, are not so desperate for the cash as we might think. The practice is nevertheless set to continue, and it is the consumer who loses out, as those of us who buy en primeur effectively furnish the châteaux, through the importers and merchants who market the wine, with an unsecured loan, in many cases for more than two years.

There used to be a benefit to this early purchase; during the two years that elapsed between purchase and delivery the wines would often accrue in value, so the consumer got the best price. But as discussed above this benefit is today minimalised, if not obliterated, by the higher release prices. A buyer must always take into account ongoing inflation, as well as the benefits of using the money in an alternative fashion, such as placing it in a high-interest account for two years, when weighing up the value of en primeur purchases. In many vintages, it is financially advantageous to wait and buy the wines three, five or even ten years after the vintage. In others, of course, like some of the most recent very successful vintages, that scenario is less likely. In addition, that unsecured loan may just turn around and bite you; the name regularly trotted out in discussions of en primeur failure in the UK was always Hungerford Wines, a business that went bust leaving many consumers with neither wine nor money. This happened in the 1980s, thirty years ago, perhaps giving false reassurance to some that this sort of thing just couldn’t happen today. Wrong. The history of en primeur is littered with the corpses of merchants gone bust – including U-Vine, Mayfair Cellars and Cellaret, all down the tubes since the turn of the century – and it is and dogged by the actions of dodgy dealers who take your money for these wines, never to be seen again. And some merchants are renowned for taking your cash and continuing to trade, but without bothering to deliver your wines. It can be something of a minefield for those new to the system. This is why each year, as part of my Bordeaux vintage review (which precedes publication of my primeurs tasting notes on all these approximations of wines) I include a section on buying en primeur, such as this one, published with my Bordeaux 2012notes.

The solution is, of course, not simple. Delay the whole process by six months, if not a year, even better two. Or scrap it altogether, and sell the wines once they are bottled, and properly assessed, and forget this business of second-guessing quality from barrel samples, and forget the provision of unsecured loans to the wine trade and the con-men that impersonate them. It sounds simple, but of course it is not. I accept that the system of selling en primeur is not immutable. After all, Château Latour made a unilateral decision to withdraw from en primeur sales in 2012, so change is certainly possible. But we should bear in mind that this was achieved with the financial backing of LVMH, and was the end-point of years of planning (in particular holding back stocks to tide Latour over the lean period until it has wine to sell again). The withdrawal will not, for this reason, spread to the rest of Bordeaux. Nor will the complaints of the critics, no matter how influential, effect any change in the system. There are, I believe, so many people who benefit from the current system, which brings early reward and profit for proprietors, négociants and all those involved, that en primeur is here to stay.

 

The New Bordeaux

Bordeaux has changed  a great deal over the last five decades. In this Bordeaux is, of course, not alone. No doubt any wine region you care to point a finger at has evolved greatly since the mid-20th century. It is not just Bordeaux that has taken advantage of the many new methods in viticulture and winemaking that have been developed in recent years. And it is not just Bordeaux that soldiers on when climate changebrings increasingly warm weather, or even more erratic climatic events such as summer storms that batter the vineyards with hailstones the size of golf balls. Thus, some (although certainly not all, before I receive any complaints) of what I have written in this particular instalment of myBordeaux wine guide may be applicable to a number of other wine regions. It could perhaps be lifted and transplanted into the middle of another guide elsewhere; just change any mention ofCabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Grenacheand Syrah, and any reference of Château Latourto Châteauneuf du Pape, and – hey presto! – a guide to the Rhône Valley.

Well….maybe not.

Regardless of how ‘transferable’ the following comments might be, one that surely has relevance to all wine regions in France, and indeed all wine regions across the planet, is climate change. Whether you subscribe to the notion that climate change is the result of mankind’s actions, or perhaps prefer to follow the belief that the planet’s weather and climate is bound to be warming up as we (hopefully) move out of the Quaternary Ice Age, there is no denying that annual temperatures in Bordeaux are much higher, on average, than they were a few decades or a century ago. The annual average temperature for Bordeaux (taken from data recorded at Mérignac, there being a meteorological station at the airport here) during the years from 2003 to 2012 was 13.8ºC, in excess of 1ºC greater than the average annual temperature for the period from 1945 to 1954 which was 12.6ºC. Any similar analysis, of maximum temperatures, minimum temperatures or otherwise, throws up the same result; modern-day Bordeaux is much warmer than the Bordeaux of old. I recall Hervé Berland, when he was at Château Mouton-Rothschild, wondering aloud whether Bordeaux – and he was being serious – wouldn’t have to look at planting other varieties, such as the aforementioned Grenache or Syrah, to cope with the heat. I personally think hell will freeze over before that happens, nevertheless it is hard to imagine continued rises in temperature not having an effect of the quality and style of wines being made. For more on climate and how it affects work in the vineyard, and the characteristics of the harvested grapes, see my page on the Climate of Bordeaux.

There is more to the story than climate change though. There are a myriad new practices and techniques that have been introduced to Bordeaux concurrent with this period of global warming. Many of them I have already touched upon in previous instalments of this guide, but it is worth pulling them all together here, in order to highlight the wind of change that has swept through Bordeaux in the past half-century.

The New Bordeaux: In the Vineyard

Work in the vineyards has certainly changed greatly; green harvesting is commonplace in Bordeaux and many regions, but was unknown only a few decades ago. Christian Moueix was one of the earliest proponents of thinning the crop in this manner, starting on the vineyards of Petrus in 1973. On the left bank, Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux claims to be first on this side of the Gironde, having started in 1986. The practice was still regarded by many as madness in the early 1990s; when Alfred Tesseron started green harvesting at Château Pontet-Canet without his father’s assent a rift developed between the two, and the dispute was only settled when the improved quality in the resulting wine was evident for all to taste. The rather laden Merlot vine below – pictured in the summer of 2012, at Château Monbousquet – is almost certainly heading for a green harvest.

Another significant change that has occurred in Bordeaux’s vineyard is the approach to ripeness. There was once a time when talk of ‘ripeness’ referred only to the concentration of grape sugars, and what this would mean for the eventual alcohol in the wine after fermentation. If too low, the fruit could be picked and chaptalised (and as an aside, although probably less common today, chaptalisation is still practised inBordeaux, as recently as 2012, and by first growth estates no less). But then an understanding of other measures of ‘ripeness’ became important, in particular phenolic ripeness, the maturation of the pips and stalks, changing from green and bitter to brown and ripe. When it comes to Bordeaux the state of the stalks is not really significant, as the Bordeaux varieties are always destemmed. The inclusion of stems, fragments or otherwise, has the potential to impart a profoundly ‘green’ taste to the wine, a phenomenon I have experienced first-hand with the experimental ‘stem-included’ wines of Château Margaux. But the ripeness of the pips certainly is of relevance, as these will be macerated in the embryonic wine for several weeks before it is run off and pressed. As a consequence, the concept of ripeness broadened to include this ‘physiological’ or phenolic target, as well as sugar concentration. The risk, however, is that as the châteaux wait for phenolic ripeness before picking, the sugar concentrations rise, leading to a greater alcoholic potential. Indeed, in some regions ofBordeaux – particularly St Emilion – there is at some estates considerable focus onprolonging hang-time on the vine, which brings the spectre of over-ripe grapes and all the baked, fuzzy style they entail to Bordeaux.

To some extent, there is also a shift in the overall ‘philosophy’ of vineyard management;Bordeaux has long been (and still is) a region that largely favours conventional vineyard management, using chemical treatments – against mildew and oidium in particular – as appropriate. But biodynamics and organics are on the rise, as seen by the introduction of these techniques at Château Pontet-Canet, Château Climens,Château Durfort-Vivens and Château Guiraud. Others will doubtlessly follow. And even those still wedded to chemical treatments are tending to use these products with more discrimination, spraying only what is required, rather than working to rote. I will not continue to explore this topic here though; for more information, see my page onBordeaux Viticulture.

The New Bordeaux: In the Chai

Work in the cellars has evolved in tandem with the new practices in the vineyard. In the last half-century Bordeaux has shifted from a region where there was minimal selection of fruit and a predominance of old and dirty equipment in the cellars (neither of these features were unique to Bordeaux, naturally), to a region blessed with fastidious régisseurs overseeing multiple rigorous sortings of the freshly-picked fruit, the manual sorting perhaps backed up with the use of mechanical or even digital-optical methods, with lesser fruit channelled into a newly-introduced second wine to ameliorate quality. And for the fermentation it is correct to say that steel has largely replaced those dirty old wooden vats, but cement and wood are still valid options, but with more rigorous hygiene than there once was (and many estates that return to cement or wood do this with new vats rather than simply recommissioning the old tanks). Temperature control is also a vital component of modern Bordeaux. Decisions regarding the maceration are also important; it can be manipulated to change the style of the wine. Allowing prolonged contact with the skins imparts more and more colour and tannin to the wines, bringing the potential for inky dark and overly tannic wines. See my pages on White Winemaking and Red Winemaking, and on Second Wines, for more on these developments.

The processes that follow the alcoholic fermentation are today much better understood than they were half a century ago. The organisms that induce the malolactic fermentation, once seemingly the work of magical faeries, are now well described; these are malolactic bacteria, particularly Oenococcus oeni and several species ofLactobacillus and Pediococcus. Understanding of the process has opened the way to manipulation; malolactic fermentation may be blocked, by various methods including lowering the temperature of the wine, keeping the pH low, adding sulphur dioxide or even filtration. More importantly malolactic fermentation may be induced, either during or after the fermentation. The latter is more commonly employed for red wines, and involves running the wine off the lees early into barrels, into an artificially heated cellar, and if necessary inoculating with bacteria. And forcing the malolactic fermentation in barrel in this way certainly has an effect on the wine; malolactic fermentation can influence acidity (obviously – this is its main benefit) but it may also change flavour and texture, and analyses show when malolactic fermentation is conducted in oak it tends to increase the concentration of oak-related substances in the wine, especially oak lactones, as well as influencing the phenolic profile and colour of the wines. Sensory studies have suggested this more fleshy, oaky style is preferred, but it is unlikely to be preferred by everybody.

Other processes have clearly also evolved; fining is an age old practice, the traditional material being whisked egg whites, but there are more modern filtration options available to complement this process and it is not inconceivable that the use of such technology may influence the style of wine. And that is even before I mention all the other technologies that are available to the château proprietor, especially water or alcohol removal by reverse osmosis or spinning cone. I have purposefully minimised any mention of these techniques here because it is all too easy to rail against such interventions, when in fact they are just a small part of the changes Bordeaux has seen in recent decades. There is more to The New Bordeaux than a quick whizz through a spinning cone.

So why bring together mention of these developments from across the other pages of my guide to Bordeaux? After all, these string of changes seem to be for the better; “there are no bad vintages in Bordeaux any more” is the common refrain, and there is truth in the statement. The effect of greater effort and more attention to detail in vineyard and chai is bound to be better wines; wines of higher quality and greater consistency, giving us good wines in years which would have previously been disappointing wash-outs, and taking advantage of the great years to give us the most impressive, mind-blowing wines that are possible. The Bordelais would tell us “you never had it so good.” They may well be right. But a lot has changed in Bordeaux since the mid-19th century, and while I would not argue that the prime concern – better quality – is admirable, is it only the quality that has changed? Is the Bordeaux of the 21st century merely an improved version of that which existed fifty years ago, or has the style of wine also changed? What does it mean for a bottle of wine to be from Bordeaux? Is the wine of any particular Bordeaux château merely a younger version of the wine made at the property fifty years ago, or have all the changes above resulted in too large a disconnect between the two? If Bordeaux had a soul, can the existence of that soul still be perceived in the wines made here today?

The New Bordeaux: In Your Glass

Those who prefer the Bordeaux of the 21st century have many strong points to support their case. In particular, the increasingly widespread availability of good quality wines from across all appellations of Bordeaux, at all levels, rather than from just a few famous and yet occasionally irregular names, like those we had fifty years ago. It is a hard argument to refute; the wines are more reliable, they say, more dependable,more predictable in terms of the experience that they will provide. The flavours areclean and fruit-rich, rather than the occasionally dirty and questionable character of more ancient wines. The tannins are riper, thanks to the attention paid in the vineyard to achieving phenolic ripeness before picking, and they are cushioned in all the flesh and texture of the wine. This means the wines drink earlier, a good thing in the eyes of many, as few today want to undertake the effort and expense of cellaring a wine for years and years before it can be drunk. Compared to the wines of decades long since disappeared, dilute efforts that they were, weak in colour and character, thin and emaciated, today’s wines seem to win hands down.

This is the stance the advocates of The New Bordeaux will take; today’s fans prefer these more modern wines, fleshy and concentrated beverages, approachable from the moment the firing pistol is started, only closing down for an optional awkward moment, a fleeting phase sometime during the first decade, if at all. It is not unusual to read of such wines being opened and enjoyed at just a few years of age, a new way to enjoyBordeaux. Many of those who remember the wines of long past decades admit that the wines were not so approachable in their youth then; they were lighter, in terms of alcohol, and they were perhaps less well stuffed, less endowed with new oak, than the wines of today. And they were perhaps more tannic, or at least the tannins were more obvious in their youth. And so they were not so enjoyable at five years of age as modern Bordeaux.

But the victor in this story is not quite as apparent as you might first think. I am aware that many drinkers of Bordeaux yearn for the wines of yesteryear. They do indeed see that Bordeaux had a soul, and that soul was constructed around wines that – although perhaps more tannic and less approachable in youth – with time evolved into fabulous, dry, savoury, food-friendly wines, a style that for some drinkers epitomised the region. These wines were, in essence, the very raison d’être of Bordeaux. The modern wines do not, in the eyes of these experienced and knowledgeable drinkers of Bordeaux, reflect their origins nor the history of the region. The sweeter and slicker fruit is more New World in style, and does not tie in so neatly with the wines of old. Bordeaux has changed, largely for the better, but I would contend that the developments described have also eaten away at a little of the region’s soul, the wines having less personality and individuality as a result. Happy as I am that I can drink well-made modern wines from Pauillac to Pomerol, wines of The New Bordeaux, I do also miss the Bordeaux of Old.

 

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