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Garage wines face troubled times

The market for the so-called ‘garage’ wines of Bordeaux is dropping, with Valandraud 2004 selling for less than €100 – a fraction of the price of earlier vintages.

Garage wines were once the epitome of avant-garde winemaking style. Coming from hitherto unknown plots of land, mostly on the Merlot-dominated Right Bank of Bordeaux, they were richly extracted, made from very ripe grapes, fermented and aged in 100-percent new oak.

Five years ago they fetched higher prices than established high-end wines from Bordeaux. A 1996 Valandraud made by founding garagiste wine maker Jean-Luc Thunevin, sold for €750 a bottle on the French Website 1855.com – twice as much as Chateau Cheval Blanc, a Saint Emilion premier grand cru.

Now the 2004 Valandraud, for example, is selling for less than €100 on futures markets. Cheval Blanc sells for up to twice the price.

‘I think they were always too expensive for their own good,’ said Michael Aaron, chairman of Sherry-Lehmann, one of the best-known wine retailers and importers in New York City.

‘There is a trend away from higher alcohol, super-extracted wines. The focus is coming more toward food and wine pairing, and these big wines are limited with potential matches,’ added Aaron, who did not buy any garage wines in 2004.

UK wine writer Jancis Robinson said, ‘As I understand it, it [the garage wine market] has shrivelled considerably in recent years.’

David Kohl of Prestige Chateau and Domaines in Florida said, ‘I think a lot of these wines are oak and fruit driven, and the terroir is not quite noticeable as much as the traditional wines, so the identity has not yet been discovered. The problem with a lot of these wines – Valandraud excluded – are they taste a lot alike, and that is the problem with California, a lack of individuality.’

Meanwhile Thunevin and fellow garagiste pioneer Jeffrey Davies blame current garage malaise on the market.

‘The real limit with garage wines is their price: too expensive,’ said Thunevin, on the bulletin board of erobertparker.com.

Davies, who launched or co-launched many of the garage wines of the Right Bank including Valandraud, Lusseau, La Gomerie, Gracia and Lucia, in reply to Thunevin blames ‘troubled economic times in the post-9/11 period, the war in Iraq, and the damned Euro.’

And Parker himself notes the wines are ‘here to stay,’ and that the market would determine which would last. ‘Only the best will survive.’

One garage wine maker has observed demand for more classicism in the current wine market.

‘Perhaps we went too far in the use of new oak,’ said Gerard Bécot of Château Beau-Séjour Bécot in Saint Emilion, who also makes a garage wine, La Gomerie. ‘Customers want more classical style wines, and we, like chefs, must respond to their desires.’

Finally, Decanter’s consultant editor, Steven Spurrier, wrote in his introduction to the magazine’s coverage of the 2004 En Primeur tastings, that garage wines were ‘a fad’ and would be a certain casualty of the difficult economic climate.

‘The belief that ridiculously low yields make better wine has finally been exploded by the quality of [the abundant] 2004, as it should have been by 2000, 1996 and 1990. Goodbye to a fad.’

Written by Panos Kakaviatos in France

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