Without a doubt, the style of Bordeaux wine is evolving. JAMES LAWTHER MW asks if winemakers are pandering to American tastes.
The biggest trend I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been in Bordeaux is the move towards riper grapes,’ says négociant Bill Blatch of Vintex SA. And there lies the crux of the matter: fruit or, more specifically, riper fruit. with smoother, riper tannins. There’s been a steady evolution in this direction over the years, partly as a reaction to modern taste. The picture, though, has sometimes been blurred by vintage, terroir, cash flow and the desire in some quarters to produce Bordeaux wine of a richer, more powerful dimension.In the modern era of winemaking, the watershed vintage for any debate on style and trends in Bordeaux has to be 1982. It was a big, rich, ripe, generous vintage, a rarity in Bordeaux, and was also the first really decent vintage in over a decade. The consequences of this manna from heaven were threefold. It provided much needed cash for investment, a benchmark for a new, seductive style of Bordeaux and relaunched the en primeur market in a big way, particularly in the United States. The 1980s continued to indulge this evolutionary process with a string of successful vintages: 1985, 1986, 1989 and 1990, in particular, helped advance the notion of a richer, riper style of Bordeaux. Investment in the cellars multiplied with the addition of gentler, more efficient destemmers, pneumatic presses, systems of temperature control, stainless steel vats and a greater percentage of new oak barrels. In essence, increased revenue provided the tools to enhance quality and help fashion wines to a modern ideal.
The more perspicacious producers also realised that to produce the quality and ripeness they desired required a reappraisal of the vineyards. And so they conducted a thorough study, with a return to old systems of cultivation like ploughing and leaf plucking, a reduction in yields, analysis of soils, rootstocks and clones and a more limited use of fertilisers and chemicals. This vineyard movement gained momentum throughout the 1990s but as with investment in material for the cellars, it has been governed by ambition and cash flow. Hand in glove with these changes has been the transformation of consumer taste. ‘People generally want a fruitier style with less aggressive tannin,’ comments Sebastian Payne MW, chief wine buyer for The Wine Society. This can be attributed to a number of reasons. In reality wines are now rarely cellared for any length of time and are drunk younger and younger, demanding a softer, more accessible style. Eating and drinking habits have also changed, with wine drunk either without food or with stronger, spicier food. In both cases a supple, fruit-driven style prevails. Finally, the New World has reinforced the idea of riper, fuller flavoured wines.
In some of these sociological trends the influence of an American way of life can be seen, but this is very different from saying that Bordeaux is being made specifically with the US market in mind. ‘There has been a qualitative progression due to improved techniques and ideas and, of course, there are exceptions but no, Bordeaux is not being made for a perceived American taste,’ says Jean-Marie Chadronnier, managing director of négociant CVBG Dourthe-Kressmann. Wine critics and the way wines are assessed do, however, play their part. As the consumer base has grown so has the demand for information and instruction on wine buying. A number of magazines, newsletters and commentators have come to the fore, the most prominent being Robert Parker and his newsletter, The Wine Advocate. The 1982 vintage is Parker’s ideal of what great Bordeaux should aspire to and was also the vintage that launched his career. His predilection for dramatic flavours has been well documented and clearly there is a penchant for wines with ‘gobs of fruit’, but he also has a notion of elegance and finesse as seen by his attachment to wines like Haut-Brion and Ducru-Beaucaillou. Overall he has astutely interpreted a trend for greater ripeness and precision through a simple system of points and notes which everyone can understand. ‘Robert Parker expresses the style and quality desired by the consumer and underscores the fact that aggressive, underripe, vegetal wines are no longer permissible,’ says Chadronnier.
Closer to the scene it can be argued that Parker has had a more direct influence on the style of Bordeaux. On the Place de Bordeaux it is his tasting notes that drive the en primeur market and clearly a good percentage of the châteaux owners have this in mind when they fashion their wines. ‘The crus classés have to stand up to each other on a tasting table, and so have to look impressive,’ says Blatch. The choice can be as subtle as the blend with a little less Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc and a little more Merlot, a grain of finesse being substituted for the impression of greater weight and substance. But is this purely Parker’s taste, or even American taste, or is it indicative of the way wines are judged today? If you take the time to look around at the tasting notes from other sources, often the wines that distinguish themselves are the same as those that receive a high Parker score. Another phenomenon associated with Robert Parker is the advent of cult (or ‘garage’) wines. These highly concentrated, low-volume, Merlot-dominated wines are found mainly on the Right Bank and are synonymous of the revolution taking place here. Their brazen style has caught Parker’s eye and the combination of a 90-plus note and rarity value has hurled them to the fore. Buoyed by their initial success the numbers have grown, but to suggest that this is the Bordeaux of the future or, as one American writer would have it, that these are the wines ‘much of the world would prefer to drink’ seems an exaggeration. ‘The spotlight has been placed on these collectors’ items to the detriment of lots of other wines and in this instance Robert Parker is not speaking for the whole of Bordeaux,’ explains Jasper Morris MW of Morris & Verdin.
The best will survive and generally these will be the wines that manage to combine concentration with balance and character. Their market is small but there are enough collectors around the world to pay for this sort of exclusivity. In the cold light of day excessive extraction has few followers.