Bordeaux, as a city is the second most visited in France after its capital, Paris. As a wine region is huge, in fact it’s colossal and covers a vast area mid-way on the Atlantic coast between Brittany and the border with Spain producing both white and red Bordeaux.
This region covers 120,000 hectares and is home to 60 different Bordeaux appellations, each attributing their individuality to the vineyards’ different types of soil and terroir.
Within the 60 appellations there are 7,375 châteaux/ vineyard/ winery properties averaging 17 hectares of vines each, resulting in over 10,000 different Bordeaux wines with each annual autumn harvest in September-October.
Consolidation of vineyards is a trend that has been consistent for over the past twenty years. In 1995 there were 14,000 active growers. Twenty years later, that number has almost halved to 7,375 growers. You would guess that this consolidation of larger and presumably more cost efficient vineyards with greater economies of scale would result in a growth in production. You would have guessed correctly. In the 1960s Bordeaux produced 500 million bottles of wine, mostly red. Today that number has almost doubled to 900 million bottles of wine, mostly red. To put that ocean of wine in context, that represents 15% of all of France’s wine and 1.5% of all the wine in the world produced.
In terms of value, that is €2 billion worth of Bordeaux wines annually. I am reminded of 25 years ago when I was studying my WEST Level 2 (then called the Intermediate Certificate) and a video shown during our class on Bordeaux highlighted that every three seconds someone somewhere was opening a bottle of Bordeaux wine. The stopwatch might not make it to three seconds today.
This next fact might shock you. The fabulous prices that some Bordeaux wines fetch are legendary achieving three, four and five digit numbers per bottle. But that is the tiny amount of rare and old wines from premium or classified vineyards that received the high profile press coverage. In reality, a quarter of all Bordeaux wines sell for less than €3 a bottle and 71% sell for between €3 and €15 a bottle.
The French are the biggest customer for Bordeaux wines, accounting for 60% but decreasing to their lowest levels of wine consumption ever as they are drinking less and less each year. Stricter drink driving regulations and the smoking ban in restaurants have had their effect in France as in Ireland. However, the French tend to drink the inexpensive wines whereas the more prestigious and costly wines are exported.
Reds reign with almost 90% produced and most of that from Merlot at 62%, Cabernet Sauvignon at 25% and Cabernet Franc at 12%. That means that just 1% of Bordeaux red wine is made from a combination of Malbec, Petit Verdot and a whiff of the almost extinct local, Carmènere.
Of the 10% of wine production that is white, Sémillon remains the most widely planted at 54%, Sauvignon Blanc at 35% and the aromatic Muscadelle at 7%.
I remember reading an article on Bordeaux just three years ago in WineBusiness.com by Roger C. Bohmrich MW (one of the first Americans to qualify as a Master of Wine). The article indicated that Bordeaux was falling short of satisfying the American market and he highlighted some worrying trends in Bordeaux’s marketing that has been less than remarkable.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that the wine producers are product-driven, focusing only on what they want to sell – tradition and terroir, rather than listening to their customers as to what they want to buy. This is in stark contrast to the marketing savvy Australians who constantly keep their finger on the pulse of the consumer and respond accordingly to changes in taste e,g, for less oak or lower alcohol.
A classic case was the Bordeaux Wine Council’s (CIVB) marketing campaign in the U.S.A. Not heeding the marketing intelligence where Nielsen research shows that a massive 80% of wine volume is for wines under US$11.99. Supporting these findings, America’s Wine Market Council highlighted that “the most influential factor determining the purchasing decisions of American consumers is an exceptional price-value relationship.”
The CIVB’s marketing campaign in the States was aimed at wines with prices up to US$55 a bottle.
A one-time sometime sweeping criticism of generic red Bordeaux was that they could be thin, acidic and tannic, lacking fleshy fruit and flavour. That has changed distinctly in recent years thanks to the warmer influence of climate change in the vineyard in this cool and damp maritime region; and also due to both a better understanding of polyphenolic maturity and more rigorous scrutiny on the sorting table in the winery to remove unripe or rotten grapes.
This improvement in fuller flavoursome wines with more rounded alcohol levels and more balanced acidity with less astringent tannins were supported by a surprising ally. The happy change in the 2008/2009 European Union legislation permitted grape varietals’ names to feature on front labels of wines of controlled appellations. The grape varietals’ names are often more recognisable to the consumer than an appellation location or a château name.
When choosing a Bordeaux red in the higher price levels, my must-have companion for reference is the Bordeaux section in the annual Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book, an annual publication for 40 years. It gives tips on the past 20 vintages or so and a star rating and comment of many of the main châteaux. Available annually from November and retails for around €12, published by Mitchell Beazley.
Best recent vintages: 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2015.
If selecting a simple generic Bordeaux, check the alcohol level. When 13.5% and above can indicate that the grapes were riper and therefore have more flavour. Riper grapes mean higher sugar levels, that when fermented, create higher alcohol levels. However, one caveat, Bordeaux Superieur does not mean actually better, it is governed by a ruling that includes having a higher percentage of alcohol. While it is best if achieved by harvesting riper and tasty grapes, it can be achieved also by adding sugar during fermentation (chaptalisation) to enhance the alcohol level a little.
Here are three examples chosen for their typicity representing the classification of Bordeaux.
Château Pierron 2012, Bordeaux Supérieur
12% ABV – €9.99 at selected Spar, Eurospar, Mace and Londis nationwide (on offer from €10.99)
Maturing ruby colour. Subtle vegetal scents of leaf and green bell peppers.
Very fresh and crisp acidity with gentle tannins. A lighter-bodied style and alcohol level than usual, showing what a very challenging vintage 2012 was due to erratic weather conditions. Simple and understated with a sappy and woody finish.
Food friend: a plate of salami for the high acidity to work on.
Château Bois Pertuis 2014, Bordeaux
€11.50 at Dunnes Stores nationwide
Youthful purple colour.
From a very good vintage. A fuller bodied style with black plum and a little spice and pepper from the oak aging. Straightforward and unpretentious.
Food friend: classic match with roast beef.
Château La Nauze 2012, Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux
13.5% ABV – €16.95 at O’Briens Wine nationwide (on offer from €19.95)
As with most of the generic appellations in Bordeaux, made with mostly Merlot. A worthy winner of a Silver Medal at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in 2015. Delighted to have been on the judging panel that year. Classic bouquet of pencil shavings in a typical restrained style. Yet, a palate that is intense and focused with dark fruits, supportive tannins and finishing with a vegetal note.
Food friend: a carnivore’s wine, grilled steak with a peppercorn sauce to match the subtle oak influence.
The Wine Cellar Insider
Roger C. Bohmrich MW, WineBusiness.com
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.