Time for life beyond Bordeaux

10 December, 2010

Here we go again. The high octane excitement surrounding the 2009 Bordeaux vintage has only just abated, but four months before the next en primeur campaign kicks off, 2010 has already been talked up as yet another brilliant harvest in the Gironde. The wines may indeed be very good, but how will the Bordelais market them to a public that gorged itself on the 2009s? It’s an interesting question.

The term “vintage of the century” has become as worn as an old picnic blanket: by my reckoning we’ve had half a dozen of those in the past 30 years and two in the past five. Maybe the Bordelais should copy Nigel Tufnel, the lead guitarist in the spoof rock band, Spinal Tap, whose amplifiers could be turned up to 11 because it was “one louder”, and introduce a new term: vintage of the millennium perhaps? The American wine critic Robert Parker famously gave out a number of 100* scores for the 2009s, risking self-parody. Will he use 100** for the 2010s??The top 2010s will surely be in big demand. Over the past decade, the leading 50 wines from Bordeaux have become the international currency of wine. Just as the dollar is used from Argentina to Vietnam, Syria to China, so Lafite, Latour, Cheval Blanc and Pétrus are traded all over the world. At some point in the future these wines will be drunk, mostly by the very rich, but that’s not their raison d’être any more. Fine Bordeaux is mostly about investment and speculation these days.

What people tend to forget is that Bordeaux is a large region whose best wines account for no more than 10% of what it produces. The cream disguises what is often a rather stale, flavourless cake below. There has been very little trickle down here. Punters and investors want to buy wines from the top châteaux; they are not really interested in the vast majority of claret, some of it very drinkable, much of it far less so. The star names have detached themselves from the rest of the region, becoming luxury brands in their own right. Lafite is the new Cartier or Ferrari.

If these wines are becoming unaffordable for most people, what will replace them in our fridges, wine racks and cellars in the future? The world of fine wine’s pecking order, as I argued at a conference in Ribera del Duero in Spain earlier this year, has barely changed since 1855. It is still dominated by Bordeaux, with Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône, the Douro Valley and a handful of wines from Italy, Germany, Australia, the US, Australia and Spain making up the numbers.

This doesn’t reflect what is happening in the vineyards and cellars of the world, where the old order is being challenged as never before. There is more great wine made today than at any point in history, much of it at approachable prices.

Just consider some of the wines emerging from regions such as Salta in Argentina, the Elqui Valley in Chile, Canberra and the Yarra Valley in Australia, Hawkes Bay and Central Otago in New Zealand and the Swartland in South Africa, not to mention lesser known European areas such as Dão, Etna, Campania, Pfalz, Roussillon and Bierzo. They are just as good, and sometimes better, than wines from classic European regions.

There is also an acknowledgment by many young winemakers and wine drinkers that the range of 10 internationally planted grape varieties is way too narrow. Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Viognier are all very well, but what about Grenache Gris, Assyrtiko, Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, Fiano, Cortese, Aglianico, Tempranillo, Mencia, Touriga Nacional, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese? These are all wonderful grapes that could be grown successfully all over the planet, enriching the diversity of the wines we drink. So-called alternative varieties don’t need to be excluded from the mainstream for ever.

Could it happen? Or are we too wedded to the classics, both in terms of grape varieties and regions of origin? One hesitates to use FIFA as a good example of anything, particularly taste, but the fact that football’s governing body can award the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar, albeit for questionable reasons, shows that the old order (the UK’s PR dream team of David Beckham, David Cameron and Prince William were humiliated in Switzerland) doesn’t always triumph.

Am I alone in applauding this fact? I am no fan of FIFA’s executives, but change can be liberating sometimes, in football as in wine. For all the hype surrounding the latest Bordeaux vintage, maybe now is the time to drink some great wines from elsewhere.

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