Living Up To The Label

  • Tuesday 2 November 2004

Bordeaux Supérieur is just one step up from generic AC Bordeaux, but you
can find some great value wines. JAMES LAWTHER MW introduces
the category, and picks his top 10.

Bordeaux Supérieur: It sounds like a grand category of wine, but superior to what, exactly?

In Bordeaux’s hierarchical pyramid of appellations, Bordeaux Supérieur is actually ranked just one rung off the bottom end of the ladder, outranking only generic AC Bordeaux. It’s an ambivalent status – both a handicap and a plug for richer rewards which may convince the average consumer without specifically stating why. In reality, the classification is a minefield in terms of quality. Yet at its heart lies a band of passionate producers who offer some of the best value drinking wines to be found in Bordeaux.

Geographically, the delimitation for Bordeaux Supérieur is exactly the same as for AC Bordeaux. In other words, the wine can be produced throughout the Gironde départment in virtually every corner not demarcated as a regional or communal zone. This is a vast and varied area. Along the Gironde Estuary there’s the flat, silty-clay palus where pockets of red Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur are produced. Elsewhere, in the major enclaves of production, the Libournais and Entre-Deux-Mers, rolling hills offer a mix of sand, clay and silty soils with outcrops of gravel and limestone-clay.

Putting a statistical perspective on Bordeaux Supérieur is not always straightforward as producers often make both Bordeaux Supérieur and AC Bordeaux. In 2003 there were 922 submissions for the Bordeaux Supérieur agrément compared to 2,808 for AC Bordeaux rouge, meaning there are probably around 850–900 vignerons producing Bordeaux Supérieur rouge. Between them, they turn out just over 500,000 hectolitres of wine from 11,800ha (hectares) of vines, compared to over two million hectolitres of AC Bordeaux from 44,000ha.

The vineyard area has increased in recent years, either from new plantings or a move across from Bordeaux to Bordeaux Supérieur. In 2003, there were 11,800ha under vine, up from 9,000ha in 1997. Actual volume, though, has remained relatively stable.

Since there are no specific geographical directives, what then are the rules pertaining to AC Bordeaux Supérieur? First, it requires a minimum alcohol of 10°, a half degree more than for AC Bordeaux, as well as a slightly lower maximum yield.

The determining factor, however, is the submission for the agrément. The new wines are tasted the year after the harvest in March, later than for AC Bordeaux, and are not allowed on to the market until September, eliciting a longer period of ageing. ‘The tasting panels look for wines with a richer constitution than regular Bordeaux with better colour, structure and fruit,’ explains Alain Vironneau, president of the Syndicat des Bordeaux et Bordeaux Supérieur.

Initially, these quality controls seem relatively loose, but they do influence production in two ways. Firstly, the normally acquiescent tasting panels – usually the producers themselves – can be harder on Bordeaux Supérieur wines, knowing that a wine that is refused the agrément will probably find acceptance as AC Bordeaux.

Secondly, the year’s delay in marketing the wine is a point of consequence in this economically delicate end of the market. Those that take the step up to Bordeaux Supérieur will have first reflected on the financial implications – such as holding stock, and the investment required in the cellars and vineyard – and the style of wine that has to be produced, and made the decision to improve. This is highlighted by the fact that 75% of production is bottled at the property, the reverse of AC Bordeaux.

So how is the appellation bearing up, given the crisis in French viticulture? ‘The category has managed the situation well but the growers are feeling the pinch,’ states Vironneau. Stocks held at properties had risen to just under a year’s production prior to the 2003 vintage, indicating a slowdown in sales. On the positive side, however, volume prices for Bordeaux Supérieur have reached the same level as those for the Côtes, selling at E900–E1,300 a tonneau (900 litres) for the 2002 vintage, a clear margin ahead of AC Bordeaux at E800–E1,067 a tonneau. The better châteaux also report a regular demand for their wines.

What is it that the better properties are doing right? In some instances, new ownership and massive investment have reaped relatively quick rewards. Both Château de Seguin in the late 1980s and Château de Reignac since 1990 have undoubtedly benefitted from their acquisition by, respectively, Danish company Chris-Wine and businessman Yves Vatelot. The consequent injection of capital has led to improved technical and marketing know-how.

In all instances, though, good vineyard management, including identification of the best parcels of land, has been a key factor, leading to greater ripeness and more fruit-friendly wines.

The story of Patrick Carteyron at Château Penin illustrates the evolution of a modest but successful domaine. In 1982, after studying for a degree in oenology, Carteyron took over the 13ha family property. At the time, half the production was vinified by the local cooperative and half at Penin, in old wooden and cement vats. His first job was to repair and insulate the cellar roof and find the means to invest in up-to-date equipment such as new presses, filters, and harvesters. This he did through a system of shared ownership.

By 1990 he’d re-equipped, built a temperature-controlled cellar and come out of the cooperative system. ‘The difference in quality from 1982 to 1990 was all down to oenology and having a proper cellar and equipment,’ explains Carteyron. He’d also started travelling and prospecting for markets in Belgium and Germany – a rarity at the time – and made contacts in the US. Exports now account for 60% of sales, with the rest coming from a mix of French restaurants, independent wine merchants and direct sales.

Development since 1990 has centred around the vineyard, now expanded to 40ha. Fertilisers have been ditched and grass cover introduced to curb vigour in the vines, while leaf plucking and green harvesting have become regular practices. Planting densities in the vineyard have gradually increased from 3,300 to 5,000 vines/ha as parcels have been replanted.

Above all, analysis of the gravelly-clay soils has given the team at Château Penin a better understanding of its terroir. ‘We now know which parcels are best for rosé and claret and which are suited for the different cuvées of Bordeaux Supérieur,’ says Carteyron. ‘We’re also able to keep yields more constant.’

The final factor is that Carteyron has understood the need to reply to the demands of the consumer for supple, drinkable wines. ‘Bordeaux Supérieur must be richer than generic Bordeaux and more elegant. It’s not a question of toughness of tannin as some people think,’ he says.

As an appellation Bordeaux Supérieur really is an open book or as Alain Vironneau says ‘a state of mind’. The rules remain open-ended to allow flexibility in the economic climate that reigns and look unlikely to change. Those that have taken the qualitative step seriously are worth searching out and deserve recognition. The rest are destined to tread a more anonymous and difficult road.

James Lawther MW is a Decanter contributing editor.

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