Fine wine starts with Bordeaux

19 February, 2010

The hype in Bordeaux began before a single grape had been crushed. The 2009 harvest, according to several ch?ateau owners, was one of the finest they’d ever seen. Seasoned Bordeaux watchers could be forgiven for rolling their eyes towards the back of their heads here. The world’s leading fine wine region seems to declare a “vintage of the century” at least twice a decade.

Is 2009 better than 2005 and 2000? It’s too early to say, but in one sense it’s irrelevant. The public perception, building unstoppably from Singapore to Los Angeles? and London to Cape Town, is that 2009 is supremely “collectable”. For UK fine wine merchants? who haven’t had much to shout about since the 2007 Rhônes, the prospect of selling the 2009s en primeur is palate-watering. Even if the prices are high (and they will be, given the demand), the 2009s will provide much needed cash flow.

You could argue that Bordeaux needs the fine wine trade as much as the fine wine trade needs Bordeaux, but this would be untrue. Without Bordeaux, there would be no fine wine trade. If you look at the Liv-ex 100 Fine Wine Index?, which tracks the movement of 100 of the “most sought-after fine wines for which there is a strong secondary market” each month, other regions are almost absent from the list. Take away a few bottles from Burgundy, Champagne, Tuscany and the Rhône, and the top 100 is essentially a who’s who of Bordeaux.

If you doubt the power of Bordeaux as a brand (at least at the top end), you might like to visit the Far East, where people with money drink virtually nothing else, despite the fact that a tannic red wine is the last thing you’d want to quaff with Asian cuisine. I was in Hong Kong recently and came across a small, back?-street off-licence in Kowloon. In the UK, an equivalent store would specialise in cheap branded wines on promotion. There the cramped premises were stacked, floor to ceiling, with classed growth clarets.

Why does Bordeaux dominate the fine wine scene to such an overwhelming extent? The answer is a combination of high quality, marketing, tradition, hype and lazy drinking. More important still, Bordeaux attracts (and rewards) investors. The value of the Liv?-Ex? 100 Fine Wine Index rose by 2.7% in January 2009 and 17.4% over the past year. Contrast that with the meagre returns you’d get from a savings account and you can see why investors, some of whom couldn’t tell a Pétrus from a Chilean Merlot in a blind tasting, are so keen to buy claret.

It’s hard to see anyone else getting much of a look in. It’s never been truer that, as the old adage would have it, money talks and bullshit walks. But let’s not kid ourselves that Bordeaux is the only source of great wines on the planet. Time after time, starting with Steven Spurrier’s 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, the top wines of Bordeaux are regularly mistaken for and “beaten” in blind tastings by wines from elsewhere?.

The same is true of other classic French wine styles, too. There are many great alternatives to the wines of Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire, Champagne and the Rhône produced all over the world. Someone once said that to beat the French, you need to provide twice the quality at half the price.

Well, that’s exactly what’s happened in the past 20 years. Everyone has upped their game.

A few non-French icon wines have infiltrated the wine world’s investment portfolio. One thinks of Penfolds? Grange, Pingus, Sassicaia and Dominus, among others?, but these are the rule-proving exceptions. France may be losing market share at the bottom end of the market, but it still bestrides the world of fine wine like a colossus.

The fact that you can find cheaper non-French wines of equivalent quality is self-evident to people in the trade. But it’s not a mainstream view by any means. When people think of fine wine, they think of France or, at a stretch, Italy and Spain. The fine wine market is the most conservative, tradition-bound and risk-averse of them all. It reflects the laws of supply and demand first and wine quality second.

As journalists? and wine merchants prepare to head to Bordeaux to taste the 2009 clarets? next month, maybe we should pause to consider our role in the narrow, but lucrative world of fine wine. We should recognise and, where appropriate, praise the 2009s for what they are, but we should remember it’s primarily investors, not wine lovers, who await our verdict.




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