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Is the New World killing Bordeaux?

Oscar Foulkes August 19, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

During Vinexpo 2003 I was invited to a wine tasting at a cru bourgeois chateau in Haut-Medoc. I very much enjoyed the elegance of their wines. Then they proudly pulled out a wine they had purposely made ‘in a New World style’, presumably with Robert Parker in mind. It even had a brand name that had little to do with its Bordelais origins.

It was a wine without any charm or enjoyment. New oak completely dominated the palate. How sad, I thought, that in responding to perceived changes in consumer preferences, they had turned their backs on what they do really well. The kind of elegance, balance and finesse that it’s possible to achieve in Bordeaux (and other parts of France) are a wonderful counterpoint to the powerful, concentrated wines the New World is able to churn out with ease.

OK, so the labelling is more complicated, and French wine producers appear to be utterly mired in bureaucracy, but it would be a terrible shame if the crisis facing their industry were to lead to dramatic changes in the character of French wines.

At the beginning of August we (Cloof) hosted a group of UK wine writers in Bordeaux for the launch of our 2005 Bordeaux-style blend (Lynchpin). To make the programme a little more interesting we hosted a mini-conference, entitled Is the New World killing Bordeaux?, and invited four Bordelais producers to speak on the subject.

I was interested to taste how they were ‘sexing up’ their wines, if at all, and to see what kind of debate ensued. I hoped that they would also give us examples of how they think a Bordeaux of the 21st century should taste.

Representing the more traditional non-cru classé – a constituency that can’t be finding it easy at the moment – we had Jean-Michel Lapalu (Chateaux Lacombe-Noaillac, Liversan & Patache D’Aux). Harking from Canada, and now a confirmed French traditionalist, we had Philip Holzberg, the owner-winemaker of the 10 hectare Chateau Franc-Cardinal.

Bordeaux Oxygéne, an affiliation of 18 young chateau representatives, sent along the vivacious Florence Lafragette (Domaines Lafragette), as well as its President, Benoit Trocard. It has to be said that they largely represent the elite of Bordeaux – this is the next generation of its aristocracy – who are having a jolly good time of things these days, thanks to the sensational 2005 en primeur campaign during which prices went up by in excess of 200% for some chateaux.

Florence and Benoit opened in tandem with a rehearsed presentation that dealt mainly with the way that Oxygéne is trying to show a more approachable, youthful face to Bordeaux. Florence particularly liked the Britney Spears analogy I’d used in the invitation, and brought along a bottle of Pink de Loudenne to show how they’ve modernised their labels. Benoit brought a bottle of his critically acclaimed Clos de la Vieille Eglise. I very much appreciated them taking the trouble to join us, but was a little disappointed that they didn’t bring more wines to illustrate the wine styles part of the debate.

Benoit correctly made the point that they seldom have bad vintages anymore, which is partly a product of employing the kind of modern winemaking techniques practised in the New World, and partly a result of global warming. Bordeaux is undeniably complex, but within this is wonderful diversity (as represented by the membership of Oxygéne).

Florence said that, as Oxygéne, they prefer to present a positive face. So, for them, there is no such thing as a crisis. It is a commendable attitude, but probably a lot easier to maintain when you’re on the right side of the sales curve, as most of their members are!

Philip and Jean-Michel did more to get to grips with the nitty-gritty of issues facing the more run-of-the-mill Bordelais. Philip explained some of the problems inherent in the system of co-operative cellars, the biggest of which is the lack of confusion around “mis en bouteille”, which leads consumers to believe that a wine was chateau-bottled, when in fact it was made at a co-op. He also showed how it’s possible to employ modern winemaking techniques, and yet produce wines that remain true to their origins.

His masterstroke was in producing a mystery bottle of Bordeaux that was the perfect illustration of a pseudo-New World wine.

Jean-Michel showed how they’ve modified the packaging of the Patache d’Aux second label, with the addition of the grape variety.

It was, admittedly, more than a little presumptuous for a New World producer to convene this kind of discussion (especially in Bordeaux!). Part of my motivation was to encourage embattled Bordelais to stick to their guns in doing what they do best.

At the end of the day, though, it was more about what I could take away from the time spent in Bordeaux.

No matter where one makes wine in the world, one’s first responsibility is to make wines that represent their region of origin with integrity. In so doing, one is also presumably making wines that are unique. It may take time for the wine buyers, ‘anoraks’ and consumers to understand your wines, but they won’t take you seriously if you aren’t doing something different.

It is diversity that makes wine a fabulous beverage, and it is our duty as wine producers to uphold this tradition. If it is true that an artist is only as good as his reference, then we all need to know each others’ wines very well.

While it is true to say that inexpensive New World wines, in general, are more approachable (i.e. wine being easy to drink and packaging easy to understand) than inexpensive French wines, there is a tendency in the New World for us to over-make our wines. It is the norm for reserve wines to have in excess of 70% new oak. Combine that with high alcohol and oodles of ripe, sweet fruit and you have something akin to shouting.

The New World may have reminded the Old World of the need to operate hygienic cellars, to be more picky about where they grow vineyards and to crop them within acceptable bounds. The Old World has learnt to appreciate and listen to its customers more. But in terms of elegance, balance and understated classiness the best French wines still have something that for most of the New World remains an aspiration.

A week later I was party to the consumption of Chateau Pavie 2003, the wine that split the world’s wine writers into fiercely conflicting camps. Despite giving the wine a thorough airing in decanter, we were not able to drink it. For our palates it was just too over-extracted and over-worked. It would have been very interesting to have had this wine available for tasting during the mini-conference.

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