The Dilemma of Bordeaux

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.”

Left, John Kolasa. Right, Emmanuel Cruse

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.

10 Responses to “The Dilemma of Bordeaux”

  1. sakib Says:

    Tom,
    Very nice blog,really liked it.
    The present condition of bordeaux wines(especially first 4 growths in the ladder) is sad,at least for me.And we all know its not quiet true with whole France.Once and only once till now i got a chance to taste that approx.100 ml of latour(1996 if im not wrong), thanks to my wealthy wine mentor.
    Needless to say,the elegance,the complexity,the quiet taste and the heavenly feeling that i encountered in every sip is still lingering in my mouth.Personally i have been a great enthusiast of wines from this specially blessed piece of earth and i feel no Napa or Stag’s can replace it.But the rising prices has often compelled me to be satisfied with only one glimpse at the bottle of Margaux or haut-brion in pictures or names listed in Reserve selection of a wine list in an expensive restaurant.Hope(though not very confidently)that one day will come when either the soaring prices will see the earth or my finance will touch the sky……………………….
    till then i am more than happy with my californian and south american though sometime and not quiet often burgundian wines which are reasonably priced and value for money products.

  2. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Tom, I was not able to attend and missed the event. Your write up shows me what i missed. A very interesting piece,

    Jonathan

  3. craig underhil Says:

    Thanks great thought-provoking blog!

  4. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Tom:

    Once again a piece that cuts to the core.

    I am deeply saddened by the Bordeaux problem. The last vintage I laid down was the 2001 and a smattering of 2003. By the time the 2005s were released, I was priced out of the market.

    I used to drink wines like Lynch-Bages and Duhart-Milon regularly (of course, after raising them from pups); now these wines are $200 the bottle. I will drink the last of my 1st growths from the 1990 vintage this year, and that will be the end of my experience of the likes of Lafite and Margaux.

    Young wine lovers will no longer be able to save their pennies to lay down a vintage of Bordeaux in honor of a child’s birth, a wedding anniversary, or other notable milestone. I feel so fortunate to have opened a 1985 Leoville Las Cases with my daughter on her 21st birthday, a 1988 Rieussec on my son’s.

    You are right: in a very real way, Bordeaux has become irrelevant. It is a brave new world. And the great wines of other parts of the world have not come to the rescue; the wine makers outside of Bordeaux have also found happiness with their riches, and a market that so far has not been fickle to them.

    Kevin Zraly recently told me that he thought the best price-quality rapport occurs at the $30 the bottle price point. Clearly he was not referring the Bordeaux.

    Let me know if you will be on Long Island any time soon and I’ll pull the corks on those 1990s with you.

    Bord

  5. Donn Rutkoff Says:

    Yes, 1st growth Bord used to cost around 7 or 8 or 9 times the minimum wage. Or 2 bottles for an hour of a skilled welder or machinist. I love French wine but I blanch at the prices. And if you have seen the effect of the Euro, blanch some more. (Blanching is a precursor to actual disgorgement.)

  6. Francesco Bonfio Says:

    Mr. Maresca,
    thank you for these very interesting thoughts.
    Do you think top italian wines are now a better value than they were against to french or the same or a lower value, compare to, let’s say, 30 years ago?
    My best regards

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Signor Bonfio:

      The situation of Bordeaux is not true of all French wines: there are still many that are fairly priced in relation to their quality (the wines of Alsace, many Rhones, even village and some Premier Cru Burgundies). That said, I do think that most top-quality Italian wines – omitting the few that are way out of scale (you can probably guess who I mean) — are excellent value in and of themselves, and especially so when compared to the prices of Bordeaux. But that is also true of most of the wines of Spain and Portugal as well.

      I hope that answers your question: I’m not trying to be evasive — I just want to give the whole picture.

  7. Bordeaux lunch (January) « Wine Media Guild of New York Says:

    […] takes on the wines and the Bordeaux industry itself, please see articles from Chris Matthews, Tom Maresca, and  Charles Scicolone. Lunch reports    Video from Hall of Fame dinner – […]

  8. Ed McCarthy Says:

    I just wrote a column for WiineReviewOnline on the same topic. But trying to be positive, I offered some moderately priced Bordeaux as an alternative. i particularly agree with your conclusions in your last paragraph.

    Ed

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Ed:

      Thanks for the comment, Ed: I appreciate your judgment. Perhaps I should have stressed more how much I love these wines: I really do consider this situation a very sad loss, for myself personally and even more importantly for young wine lovers who will just never have the chance to know how glorious the wines of Bordeaux can be.

      Tom

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