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Why do we keep coming back to Bordeaux

The great Atlantic-influenced region in France’s southwest consistently produces wines that are hailed as the global benchmark by wine lovers and producers alike. But what is it that pulls us back time and again to these reference points?

My sixth decade of wine exploration beckons. The thickets of wine-world diversity and difference are as tempting as ever, but you need a benchmark to make sense of them. Throughout the last 50 years, red Bordeaux has been my base camp.

When I set out, with a rucksack full of books and high hopes, Bordeaux was the region which provided fewest disappointments. Those times seem almost pre-historical now. Rioja was a new arrival on supermarket shelves; Hugh Johnson and Miguel Torres were rhapsodising sweet-contoured Chilean Cabernet; while my first wine job was selling case after case of plummy, tea-scented Bulgarian Cabernet. Aussie reds were still a novelty, and still tasted of salt and leather.

Bordeaux often seemed more ‘difficult’ than these beguiling alternatives – but once you fronted up to those difficulties, the wine proved, somehow, rewarding and satisfying, like settling down to a literary novel after bingeing on a paperback page-turner. Time is needed to acclimatise yourself to the more demanding style and narrative flow, but the rewards are great. The Rhône, by the way, was still rustic back then; my first 1970s Burgundies were sharp, odd and thin.

When I acquired a little money, I bought (as an experiment) some top Bordeaux. True, my timing was lucky: 1982. But those wines were unbelievably good, horizon-expanding and not difficult at all. When nature turned generous, it seemed, so did Bordeaux. I stored a few bottles for 10 or 15 years, and discovered how compellingly Bordeaux wines could age: they grew warmly fragrant and their structures softened; harmony set them glowing. Thus inspired, I tried ageing all the ambitious wines I bought. Some quickly tired and tumbled from their perches, while the rustic ones lost their way (brett and worse, though I didn’t know about brettanomyces back then). Hard wines stayed hard; fat, soft wines fell to bits; sweet-fruited wines dried out and lost their charm. The best non-European wines didn’t decline but seemed to stand still, losing the bloom of youth as they did so. Bordeaux remained base camp.

It still is. I keep homing to Bordeaux; I keep liking what I find. The durability of the Bordeaux market, both among collectors and drinking or non-collecting enthusiasts, suggests that I am not alone. Why?

Château Latour’s famous vineyard tower overlooking the Gironde estuary. Credit: Hervé Lenain / Alamy Stock Photo

Who drinks Bordeaux?

Bordeaux’s 111,000ha of vines make it the biggest appellation area in France, though ‘collectible’ Bordeaux (properties classified in one way or another) are no more than 5% of this total. Two-thirds of all Bordeaux wine is sold by the Place de Bordeaux – a kind of merchant-operated stock-exchange. Its disadvantage is that it is impersonal; its advantage is efficiency and a wide reach, selling to wine merchants in 170 countries.

Most Bordeaux is still drunk in France (typically 56% compared to 44% exports, according to CIVB annual data). The biggest export markets are China and the US, and here recent figures seem encouraging: Bordeaux sales in China increased in 2021 by 10% in volume and 16% in value compared to 2020, while Bordeaux sales in the US increased by 24% in volume and 67% in value. The Chinese figures, though, were skewed by the sudden and almost-total disappearance of Australia from the market, while American figures were flattered by the demolition of the ‘Trump tariffs’ imposed in late 2019 by the then-president, and the arrival of Bordeaux’s 2018s and 2019s.

Figures for the demographics of Bordeaux drinkers around the world are hard to obtain, but I did ask The Wine Society’s Bordeaux buyer Tim Sykes about the age profiles of those buying Bordeaux, and these were close to the percentages of its active members overall (just under 17% of purchasers are below 45). The Wine Society loves Bordeaux as a whole – it’s ‘the largest single area in terms of revenue’, he says, and the Society gets ‘very positive feedback on Bordeaux’ in general, with accessibly priced Bordeaux wines (cru bourgeois and similar) ‘hugely popular among members’.

Thomas Parker MW, who works for merchant Farr Vintners (where Bordeaux has dropped from 75% of sales to 50%, thanks to the rise of collectible Burgundy and Italian wines) and who was the youngest Master of Wine when he passed the exams in 2018, says that ‘Bordeaux takes up much less of the younger generation’s attention and collection than before’; while 35-year-old Colin Grandfield of The Sourcing Table in Peckham, selling mainly to 20- to 40-year-olds, says that he is surprised by how little Bordeaux he sells.

Among the problems both Parker and Grandfield drew attention to are a dislike of tannins among younger drinkers; the perceived need to age Bordeaux without the wherewithal to do so; the fact that red Bordeaux doesn’t lend itself to chilling; the fact that even top wines are in good supply and that the region therefore lacks the FOMO [fear of missing out] factor of Burgundy or the Jura, for example; as well as its general un-trendiness and the way that its bottles and labels look dull and have little Instagram kudos.

Grandfield’s 20-something sales assistants consider Bordeaux bottles as ‘dad wines’. Was it ever thus? Many younger drinkers, of course, will become mums and dads one day…

Red Bordeaux aesthetics

Gravelly vineyard soils at Château Lafite Rothschild. Credit: Mick Rock / Cephas

Most of us are familiar with the concepts of the Golden Mean or the Middle Way: the ancient yet enduring notion that beauty, truth and wisdom are found in the avoidance of extremes. Bordeaux strikes me as wine’s Golden Mean or Middle Way.

Choose any scale you wish by which to measure red wine, and you will usually find Bordeaux loitering somewhere in the middle, and keeping well away from the extremes. Raw power to finesse, for example; sweet-fruitedness to dryness and austerity; structure and grip to softness and silkiness; unction and lushness through to vivacity and freshness; stoniness and ‘minerality’ through to lyricism of fruit; reductive broodiness to enticing perfume; even, nowadays, the scale between an evident oakiness to something unoaked or impalpably oaked. This assured centrality between different potential forces in wine is one definition of balance and harmony – and these two qualities in turn form a gateway (though not the only one) to two other precious wine assets: drinkability and the ability to age. The best red wines of Bordeaux age beautifully and reliably, and are indeed supremely drinkable (though ambitious Bordeaux needs time to acquire this drinkability).

Perhaps the blendedness of Bordeaux on both the Left Bank (Cabernet-dominated) and Right Bank (Merlot-dominated) is a factor; almost-equal blends are a speciality of Pessac-Léognan and the Graves. It’s hard, though, to assign it to the grape varieties themselves, since they perform so differently (and in Merlot’s case often so disappointingly) elsewhere. Bordeaux’s soils, both gravels and limestones, are easier to credit, though contrasting subsoils (and notably sustaining clays at depth beneath free-draining yet heat-retaining gravels) deserve just as much consideration as gravels themselves.

Bordeaux’s gentle, luminous, deeply maritime climate may be still more important. It’s notable that the great Australian vine scientist John Gladstones suggests (in his 2011 Wine, Terroir and Climate Change) that the steady ripening provided by warm summer nights is, in the end, more beneficial for quality than the often-vaunted contrasts between hot days and cool nights typical of continental climates (at least for Bordeaux’s grape variety set). Bordeaux tannins today are often exceptional in quality, and the finesse with which these are now extracted is one of the greatest achievements of the region. Tannins of this quality – in terms not just of texture but of flavour and perfume, too – are hard to find elsewhere and surely never bettered. This textural sumptuousness has given the best red Bordeaux a new approachability in youth, though there is no sign that it has ceased to age well. And all this – in quantity.

A few small-production cult wines aside, any of us can access whatever Bordeaux wine we might wish, and choose among vintages, too. Agreed, the price for the most-sought-after Bordeaux wines is dissuasive – but it is, for better or worse, both market-driven and reality-checked, which is no longer true for serious and cult Burgundy or serious and cult Napa wines, both of which have largely surged past Bordeaux (with Champagne racing up behind). Prices dip when the market backs off, even for first growth Châteaux Lafite, Latour and Cheval Blanc. These are not ‘icon wines’ whose price is propped up by a proprietor’s vanity; nor are they tiny-production, on-trend rarities where Instagrammable ownership matters more than aroma and flavour. Hundreds of cases of every château wine will be scrutinised at meal tables by tens of thousands of palates every year. If you’re rich, you want the best; if you’re not, you want value for money. We’re all looking, hard. Disappointment has consequences.

Bordeaux, challenged

Are these, though, the tastes of a fossil? I surveyed younger drinkers, with testimony from Japan, Hong Kong and California as well as London’s wine community – and the criticisms of Bordeaux came flooding in. Bordeaux doesn’t meet every drinker’s tastes and aspirations, and the region unquestionably needs to address its tired and ineffective public interface, its discourse and its image. Generational differences are outlined in the ‘Who drinks Bordeaux?’ box, but other, structural problems emerged.

I assumed that Bordeaux was relatively easy to understand. Apparently not: the plethora of Bordeaux appellations (65 APs), the torrent of château names and a chaos of classification systems dissuades many drinkers. The best Bordeaux bottles and labels have a conservative elegance, but their uniformity does nothing to charm newcomers, who would prefer more creativity, diversity and design flair.

Burgundy’s incandescent success, too, challenges Bordeaux. Burgundy is predicated on terroir differences, top to bottom; whereas only geeks and wine students succeed in unearthing the complex, half-hidden terroir messages in Bordeaux. Moreover, the Burgundy pyramid enables most drinkers to taste a little of the region’s terroir panoply, even if you never go further than village level. Bordeaux has no equivalent. The Burgundy profile, too – lighter, more perfumed wines structured more prominently by acidity than by tannin – seems to have more intrinsic appeal to many non- European (and especially Asian) palates than does forcefully structured Bordeaux; it accompanies Chinese and Japanese foods more responsively, too.

Many American consumers, meanwhile, whose notion of great red wine is formed by bottles of Caymus and Silver Oak from Napa, still find serious Bordeaux just a little too dry and reticent, and its lack of varietal labelling disconcerting.

Back to base

For all that, I remain convinced that future generations will keep coming back to Bordeaux, just as I always have, whenever a dependable, satisfying and complex midweight red wine of attractive price with (if wished) outstanding ageing potential is required.

As an enthusiast, I’ve enjoyed buying and drinking good Bordeaux more than any other wine category. There’s a huge amount to choose from, especially at the en primeur/pre-arrival stage, and the Left Bank/Right Bank division promises (and delivers) subtly differing pleasures.

The wines are assiduously reviewed by critics, if you want a helping hand with your choices. En primeur is fun; you can notch up terrific value at that early stage. You can also (merchant allowing) choose your format – so everything I have bought in recent years has been in half-bottles, which look chic, come round sooner than full bottles, don’t demand a special occasion to open, and seem (though of course this is illusory) to be more attractively priced than full bottles – €8.10 to €13.13 per half-bottle delivered in France for my 2018 and 2019 buys (Châteaux Siaurac and des Annereaux from Lalande de Pomerol, Poujeaux from Moulis and Capbern from St-Estèphe – all variously delicious). UK prices would be a little higher because of duty, but not by much.

The wooden boxes most of the wines come in are attractive and sturdy – useful if you don’t have a perfectly racked cellar. The wines remain food-friendly, while the Bordeaux ageing trajectory still strikes me as closer to clockwork, and delivers more as the years pass, than anything else you will find in the wine world. Above all, that sobriety and seriousness of scent and flavour is still evident in the best Bordeaux – as it is in the paintings, the music and the literature that we cherish. Beauty, dignity and gravity combined.

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