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Bordelaise wine: The unbearable lightness of being

Bordeliase wine is all about elegance. Yet many of today's critics demand a weightier wine. CH'NG POH TIONG urges wine writers and makers alike to lighten up.

Bordelaise wine is not light as in dilute. Nor watery. Nor light as in light-, medium- or full-bodied, but light as in brilliant, elegant and fine. Light as Mozart; light as sitting outside on a spring day; and light as being mesmerised by the moon.

Some time ago – the year, month, week and hour not exactly clear – some American wine writers declared war on Bordeaux. Not the city or the region, but her Bordelaise wine. What used to be described as elegant, medium-bodied wines were deemed no longer satisfactory. When these wines were placed on the palate, they were found to be too light. ‘Sissy wines,’ they cried.

For these weighty critics, wines have to be big. Actually, big isn’t huge enough for them. In order for wines to make a dent on their impression, they have to be more than just massive. They have to be enormous, yet ‘handcrafted’ (whatever that means). The Bordelaise wine has to score an astounding A for ‘awesome’. Which, begging their pardon, is not the same as awe-inspiring.

Poor Bordeaux. Never one for thumping a heavy hand when grace should prevail. Nor dungeon dark when ruby-red should suffice. And certainly not aiming to be voluptuous when being stately was all that ever mattered.

Let’s get it straight once and for all. Bordelaise wine was never meant to be an American wrestling version of a smack-down wine. If a wine lover truly loves Bordelaise wine, he or she would never impose such a regime on the grapes. On the contrary, it possessed all the quiet strength and time-tested patience of Greco-Roman, Mongolian and Turkish wrestling. Put another way, would you crank up the bass on Mozart? Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple by all means but not Amadeus.

I remember the answer Christian Moueix, head of Château Pétrus, gave when I asked him what he thought of châteaux making bigger and bigger wines to suit the American palate. He wasn’t impressed.


‘This is slow suicide they’re attempting. It’s like a fight where I’m a middleweight. I cannot fight a heavyweight. In America, where I have a wine called Dominus, that’s a heavyweight, because it’s a California wine. But the qualities that define a Bordelaise wine are finesse and complexity.

‘If you want the wine to be big, there are tricks you can use in making it so. My approach in the States is big and powerful, but to add some finesse. If we make big wines to suit some critics, we will lose out. The way these wines are made, you have no idea whether they are from St-Emilion or the Médoc. It’s a recipe. You just cook the wines. What, for example, would be the difference in taste, if, when comparing different potatoes, you splashed a lot of ketchup on them?’


By the time you read this, I will, hopefully, have survived the 2002 en primeur tasting. I musn’t be cynical because the en primeur tasting does offer a useful guide to the overall quality of the vintage and the respective communes. I do not, however, treat the five days as a definitive exercise. It’s a useful guide but should not be thought of as the last word on quality. Wines are like people. Sometimes they are exuberant and other times they are closed. Some simply shut up and go and brood in a corner.

If, for example, we accept that a decent, but not a great, grand cru classé is capable of ageing – and evolving – at least five or 10 years, then tasting it when it is only six months old would be like trying to size up Michael Jordan’s prowess on the basketball court when he was a mere two-year-old.

It’s amazing and humorous that we wine writers think so highly of ourselves. Would a music or art critic regard himself as being more important than Bach or Mozart, Goya or Picasso? Such a critic would need to get seriously drunk to even consider telling an artist how to compose or paint.

‘Hello, is that Wolfgang? I’m glad I caught you at home. You know, the other day, the new sonata you played, you should have gone for presto instead of largo and sped up the whole piece. And why go so easy on the harpsichord? Lose the pianissimo and just hit the forte button, man. If you don’t, I won’t be able to score your new composition 100 points!’

Yet wine writers – mostly American but now also some Australian – have the gall to swear that wine is akin to art and then actually go on to score such works of art out of 100 points.

To be fair, I’ve short-changed these self-anointed gods. They don’t just score wine out of 100, they manage to give many 96-plus or 98-plus points. Why stop there guys? Why not 96.25 or 98.79? It’s not just the wine that needs lightening up. Wine writers could shed a few kilograms of ego here and there too.

The truth, though, is that I am very envious of the power that these wine writers wield and I want some of the action too. If I’m asked again by Decanter to contribute to a future tasting, once I’ve pumped myself up with enough steroids and Viagra to be a pain to every hapless winemaker that’s ever walked the earth, I will start scoring their wines out of 10,000 points. And let’s get one thing absolutely clear. When I award a wine 9,999-plus points, you can be sure that it’s a darn serious drop.


All photographers will tell you that no photograph is possible without light. Darkness is black because of whatever little light there is to illuminate it. ‘Light’ is also an expression for something that is pleasing and enjoyable. ‘Heavy’ – not to be confused with being full-bodied, which can be balanced – is plodding and violent.

Perhaps the most powerful thing that we humans could ever do, would be to fly. To be able to do so, we would need to call upon a strength that none of us possesses. We would need to be very light.

Lightness is a strength. And the point that I am trying to make is that light can be as strong as anything in the same way that heavy can often be not so much about strength as about clumsiness. Big wines can be heavy, unbalanced and sulky. Big wines can be abusive.

Just as I cautioned against mistaking a light wine for being watery or dilute, a full-bodied wine is not automatically a big wine. It is only so when it is out of harmony.

I love the big wines of the Southern Rhône and adore Pedro Ximénez, provided they are balanced. I’m sure you’ve come across a 20% alcohol vintage port that is more balanced and light than an out-of-shape, 14% alcohol, glycerol-textured Chardonnay that reminded you more of an oil slick than a refreshing tipple.


Big wines jut out of our mouths. They are like those monster American cars that can only U-turn when they get to the Grand Canyon. On the other hand, the old Jaguar XKs were full-bodied but perfectly contoured through elegantly balanced designs. My belief is that people who make big wines basically have big egos. Instead of making terroir wines, they make technical wines.

Truly great wines are the products of a relationship between a sensitive winemaker and the terroir. Technical wines, on the other hand, are produced out of the pangs of narcissism. Drinking technical wines reminds me very much of listening to Paganini’s first Violin Concerto. It’s awfully difficult to accomplish, and strains every finger and neck muscle of the player and listener alike. The most bewitching part of this technical monstrosity is its final movement (whose saving grace is what follows it). The technical acrobatics which the ‘music’ demands of the fingers, with neither melody nor modesty to save them, were thought at the time to be playable only by a performer who was possessed.

Today, there are some devilish wines in Bordeaux, particularly in St-Emilion. A region that used to be renowned for producing wines of great perfume, charm and guile, now seems hellbent on punishing the poor wine lover with green tannins from over-extraction. And to those who say, as they draw away the glass and their lips transform into two blocks of cement, ‘Oh, they’re too young and time will soften them,’ I’m sorry to inform you that green tannins do not soften. They only get meaner, leaner and greener with time as the fruit disappears. Sticking a vacuum cleaner into your mouth would provide a more soothing experience.

It is not just wine and wine writers who need to lighten up. Wine drinkers also share a responsibility. The great wines of Bordeaux were never meant to be macho statements or status symbols.

Sure, some of them can be very pricey indeed. But at the end of the day, decade or century, when people remember the great Bordelaise wine, words such as ‘monster’, ‘awesome’ and ‘big’ are not what you will hear. Instead, we will sigh in admiration, and disbelief, as we recall how ‘fresh’, ‘fine’, ‘elegant’ and ‘delicate’ they were. For now, at least, how much they de-light.

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