Bordeaux Gets Competitive

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The New York Sun

Sometimes, Bordeaux winemakers and bureaucrats make me want to cry. Not out of sadness, but rather out of exasperation at their marketing ineptness. For years, the keepers of the world’s greatest wine region hardly responded as Bordeaux steadily lost American sales and market share to assorted upstarts, from Australia to Argentina.

One of Bordeaux’s biggest handicaps in the world wine race has been its numbingly intricate web of 56 separate appellations in an era when consumers respond to clear, varietal labeling and catchy brand names.The system, still anchored to the original 1855 classification of grands crus, begs for simplification. Instead, the good bureaucrats of Bordeaux have responded by creating even more labeling complications.

In 2003, they introduced a new, three-rung classification of 247 Cru Bourgeois chateaus below the grand cru level. This year, yet a new category, one step below Cru Bourgeois, was added: Cru Artisan. Did you know, just to pick a property at random, that something called Chateau Cantegric is now officially a cru artisan? Do you care? Does anyone care? Certainly not most American winebuyers who just want to pluck a decent bottle of merlot from the retailer’s shelf. For reasons best known to the bureaucrats, it’s all but forbidden to put the word”merlot”or the name of any other variety on the front label of a Bordeaux bottle.

Relief may be around the corner. Just when all hope seemed lost at cutting a little slack to the confused consumer, an association of Bordeaux wine growers has come up with a new and welcome initiative. Sixteen growers came to the Metropolitan Center on West 18th Street earlier this month to present 100 excellent Bordeaux wines at prices between $8 and $25. The wines were selected by an independent jury of New York-based experts from a field of 300 entries submitted by importers and retailers. All the wines were tasted blind.

“Bordeaux is best known for its grand cru wines,”president of the Interprofessional Council of Bordeaux Wine, Christian Delpeuch, said. “But they’re only five percent of the region’s production. And they’re always expensive. Meanwhile, a multiplicty of other producers are making excellent, stylish wines at a fraction of the price of the grands crus.”

Mr. Delpeuch spoke at a press luncheon during the day-long tasting through an interpreter. “I’m the only one left in Bordeaux who doesn’t speak English,” he said.

Was it a sign of Bordeaux’s stubborn chauvinism that it chose a non-English speaking wine ambassador to a world in which English is the one essential language? My guess is yes.

The 100 winning Bordeaux wines, happily, made themselves perfectly well understood. Whether white or red, they stand for balance, refinement, and good manners at the table. They leave the attention-grabbing to the flashy-fruited wines of the New World.

“We did not find any fruit bombs,” the International Wine Center president, Mary Ewing Mulligan, one of the three judges, said. “And yet, many of the wines did have fresher fruit character than old-style Bordeaux. Instead of taking a full step into a newer style, they’ve taken a quarter step.”

That appraisal was affirmed by one of the winemakers, Vincent Fabre of Chateau Andron Blanquet, a St. Estephe cru bourgeois.”We understand that we have to adapt to better satisfy our customers,” said Mr. Fabre. “We don’t have to change our soul, but we do have to adapt our style.”

Maybe something is working? Bordeaux’s fortunes are beginning to look up. Last year, after long decline, exports to America were up by 12.75%. And then there’s the genuine excitement – in contrast to promotional drumbeating that is the norm – over the 2005 vintage.Walking amidst the vines in Bordeaux just before harvest last year, I remember thinking that the grape bunches seemed so perfectly purple that they might as well have been artificial. Vintage 2005, whose white wines are just beginning to arrive here, is destined to make Bordeaux new friends and to bring some old ones who had strayed back into the fold.

Some Recommended Wines

CHATEAU ROQUETAILLADE LA GRANGE 2003, GRAVES ($15) White Bordeaux often shows its best when blended, as here, from the trio of semillion, sauvignon blanc, and muscadelle. The first gives creaminess, the second herbal thrust, and the third a dollop of luscious fruit. This lively example shows no sign of heat prostration despite 2003’s hellish temperatures.

CHATEAU LAGRAVE-MARTILLAC 2003, GRAVES ($21) This white smells of good oak and vanilla. It is complex, well balanced, with a long echo of elegant flavor. As warm weather comes, I’d prefer this with roast chicken over the reds of winter.

CHATEAU TIMBERLAY, CUVEE MARIE PAUL, 2003, BORDEAUX SUPERIOR ($16) With aromas dominated by the ripe cherry of merlot, this smooth wine has a chocolately aftertaste that once would have been atypical of Bordeaux. Do I dare to call this wine yummy?

DOURTHE LA GRANDE CUVEE 2003, MEDOC ($14) In the hands of a good negociant, a generic bottling can be better than many a “petit chateau.” In this case, Dourthe has come up with a ripe, textured, balanced Medoc that could be mistaken for a wine higher on the totem pole of appellations.

CHATEAU VILLA BEL AIR 2001, GRAVES ($20) Subtlety reigns here. Cabernet sauvignon’s backbone, merlot’s red berry tones, and a whisper of cabernet franc’s weediness create an equilibrium that is a Bordeaux trademark. Ready now.

CHATEAU ROBIN 2002, COTES DE CASTILLON ($15) Like the wine above, this can’t match the opulence of 2003, but it has poise and a pleasing fleshiness. One of the few 2002’s to make the cut to the top 100.

CHATEAU CARONNE STE. GEMME 2001, HAUT MEDOC ($19) Brilliant ruby. Not effusively fruity, but intense, with a tightly focused beam of red fruit that will carry this wine for years to come. It marries old style Bordeaux structure to the clean lines of modern Bordeaux.

The New York Sun

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