The Wine Media Guild’s January lunch featured a vertical tasting of two Bordeaux chateaux, d’Issan and Rauzan Ségla, troisième and deuxième cru Margaux respectively. This event quite unintentionally highlighted the present dilemma of Bordeaux.
The chateaux were represented by their general manager/winemakers, John Kolasa for Chateau Rauzan-Sègla and owner Emmanuel Cruse for Chateau d’Issan. Both men spoke with sincerity and apparent passion of their and other Bordeaux producers’ devotion to the idea and ideal of Bordeaux wines, “the benchmark,” as they both agreed, “by which all other wines are measured.”
Except, as WMG members were quick to point out, they aren’t. At least not any more, they’re not, and not for most younger wine drinkers.
It is certainly true that for wine drinkers, especially wine professionals, of my generation, Bordeaux furnishes the benchmark. That’s so for the simple reason that it is the wine most of us cut our teeth on. It was the wine par excellence for cellaring and aging, the wine to choose – suitably aged, of course – to grace your most important dinners and most solemn occasions, back when wine was French – period. Germany was sweet, Italy was inchoate, and California was yet unborn. Australia and New Zealand, Oregon and Washington, South Africa, Argentina and Chile weren’t even yet gleams in the eyes of their soon-to-be producers.
So France set the standards, and the most consistent segment of French wine production, the most coherent and understandable French wine area, the region with the longest continuous history (not unimportant, a history intimately tied to the London market) was Bordeaux. Ergo, Bordeaux became for us of a particular age the benchmark wine, the all-but-official measure of what wine ought to be.
It is still largely (but no longer exclusively) so in Great Britain, but not in the US. Most younger wine lovers here – I suspect also many younger wine professionals – are simply not very familiar with Bordeaux wines. They count as one option among many that confront wine drinkers, and probably not the first or even second thing they think of when they’re choosing a special wine for a special occasion. Somebody at the WMG tasting remarked that for younger drinkers, the benchmark was Stags Leap. Would that it were, I thought: It’s more likely to be Yellowtail, or even some wine in a box.
Why? Why has a wine so long revered dropped so far down in the consciousness of American wine lovers, at least? I can think of two reasons: price and the nature of the wine itself.
Most young Americans have long been priced out of the Bordeaux market, except for the very lowest rungs of its quality ladder. Consequently, most have never had an opportunity to drink a first growth, and especially not a properly aged one, so they haven’t the faintest idea of what all the fuss is about.
When I was first seriously learning wine, as a spanking-new assistant professor earning a staggering $6,000 a year, Bordeaux wines were affordable. Even on that budget, I could buy a bottle of Chateau Margaux or Chateau Lafite once or twice a year, and lesser crus far more frequently than that. In the late 60s, when my salary had doubled, I remember buying Chateaux Gloria and Brane Cantenac for $3 a bottle – less with a case discount. First growths cost about $6 or $7 a bottle.
I’m not terribly numerate, but I think that would make a bottle of Lafite about one two-thousandth of my then annual pay. How much would I have to earn now to keep Lafite in that same proportion? I’ve seen 2005 Lafite listed for over $2,000 a bottle: I think that means I would have to earn about $4 million a year to keep it the same fraction of my income. Medical costs may be climbing faster than inflation, and higher education may be too, but neither is a patch on the way the cost of classified-growth Bordeaux has outstripped every other economic category. And the Bordelais wonder why their sales are falling? Because no one on a salary can afford to even begin exploring their wines.
And why have the prices gotten so high? You get one guess. Here’s a hint: Listening to the Bordelais discussing the possibility (remote) of cutting the price of even a middling vintage is a little like hearing Mitt Romney tell us he’s unemployed.
The nature of the wine works against its continuing popularity as well. Both Cruse and Kolasa spoke with real feeling about the glory of Bordeaux, its ageability – meaning not simply its capacity for surviving in bottle and cellar, but its amazing steady improvement over the decades until it emerges as the elegant, deeply complex and moving wine that justifies all the hype. They spoke of the pleasures of drinking 40- and 50-year old bottles – but who except chateau owners and fabulously wealthy collectors (a term and category I abominate) will ever do so? Even putting aside the cost, the world has become a different place. People no longer live in the same house for generations: they change jobs and cities, even countries – and they can’t haul a cellar along with them.
And they can’t drink the wines young. The fact is, young Bordeaux of classified-growth caliber is not very pleasant to drink. It tends to be tannic, its fruit is hidden – and these days that’s almost a kiss of death in itself. It takes years to come round. Only after a decade is a good-quality Bordeaux in a decent vintage starting to be drinkable, and its best still lies years in the future. In a world of instant gratification, of Me Now, that kind of wine is only ever going to be the preserve of the few with patience and motivation – and means – to keep it. That’s sad, and I mourn it, but it may well be that we are watching the passing of a whole great category of wine. From benchmark to niche luxury market: sic transit gloria mundi.