Bordeaux has had its fair share of criticism over the past year, with quality and price the burning issues. In an overview of the region, Chris Brook-Carter assesses whether the lesser wines can keep up with the premium market and repel the continuing New World attack.

"Nobody ever forgives Bordeaux anything," said one Bordelaise wine official earlier this year, at about the same time that thirsty journalists from around the world gathered to taste the new vintage from the Gironde region. The statement reflects the attitude among many in Bordeaux that they have been singled out for unfair treatment over the quality of their wines - after all this is the region that has given the world Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux surely we should cut them some slack over their lesser wines?

However when you are the self-proclaimed centre of the wine world, you only have yourself to blame when you cannot live up to the image you yourself have cultivated. And, when it comes to generic level, many Bordeaux wines are well off the mark - on the periphery of modern moves to improve quality at low-price levels rather than the centre.

Fortunately, for those who love this region, the noise generated by journalists, magazines and consumers has been loud enough to shake a handful of forward-thinking Bordelaise into acting to stop the slide of this region's reputation.

For a number of years now the CIVB has taken 200 bottles of wine a month from the retail outlets of France and put them through a tasting and analysis process to check on quality. In what Eric Dulong, vice president of the Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB), has called a "small revolution", a downstreaming process has expanded this effort, and it is a commendable step.

Now 200 Bordeaux AOC wines from every market in the world will be brought back to the CIVB and tested for quality. Producers that fail the standards test will have to submit their wines tank by tank at the next vintage before they receive the AOC status. Negociants that fail will have to prove to the CIVB that can produce better wines or they will have to submit every wine they export to the CIVB before they are given a Certificat d'Origine.

So when can we start to see the effects of the new system? Well the hope from the CIVB is that things will start to shape up in five years. However, as much as we may look forward to these results there are several flaws in the plan. Firstly, persuading those who want to improve to invest in quality will be easy enough. However, there are large numbers who believe they are doing nothing wrong and do not want to change the viticultural or vinification methods they have been using for decades.

Philippe Casteja of negociant Borie-Manoux gives an example of the difficulties of changing the ways of this region. "In Bordeaux we have the key to open the quality door, but we have to talk to each owner to improve the quality. This is not an easy task, to say to a producer I have tasted your wine and I think you need to do this or that. I saw a producer recently. He had a good wine at a good price but his label was dreadful. I told him we could not accept the wine unless he changed the label, but he wouldn't. He said, 'You want to change all that tradition, I don't care about selling to you that much.'"

The situation is further complicated by the fact that it is unclear what powers the CIVB will have to impose their quality controls. How much authority will the CIVB have over persistent offenders and those who refuse to improve quality? And, when a producer fails the downstream test how many years will he have to submit wines tank by tank, if it is only the following year will he not just revert to his old ways by the next vintage? These are all questions that have ambiguous answers at present. Furthermore, given that all solutions should start at the source how will the CIVB control a region of growers notorious, rightly or wrongly, for high yields?

From an outsiders point of view the most worrying aspect of the new quality controls is that this might be it. As commendable as the effort is of tasting 200 Bordeaux wines from every market, it is not nearly enough - at best it is going to be painfully slow and at worst it fails to address the root of the problem, which is that too many poor wines get onto the market in the first place.

French politics enter the equation when you try and suggest that the tasting process by which the wines receive their AOC status should be tightened up. At present a winemaker enters one sample from a blend of all his tanks for the AOC tasting. If he needs ten out of 20 to secure the AOC his sample might be a blend of a wine worth seven and a wine worth 15 and he would therefore pass. However he could then go on to sell the wine from the tank that scored 15 as his own, and pass on the substandard wine as anonymous AOC wine.

"The one way to solve our problems is so crystal clear that I can't see any counter-argument," says Charles Sichel of Maison Sichel. "Other AOCs and Vin de Pays take samples from each lot from each cellar. In Bordeaux we take one from a blend of all the lots, thus elevating what's bad and bringing down what's good."

Try to explain the logic of this argument to Bordeaux's various administrations and they will all agree that it would be a good thing. However they all give different reasons why it is not possible. The CIVB says it cannot persuade the INAO (who organise the tastings), the INAO says it needs a proposal from the syndicates and the syndicates and INAO together say the sheer number of samples this process would generate would not be feasible economically or practically.

But if Bordeaux wants to re-cement its position as the industry's flagship region something more drastic than the present situation is needed. It is hard to believe that a region so immersed in the wine industry cannot afford or organise an AOC tasting system like the one Sichel would like to see. These entry-level wines are important no matter what else a region produces because they shape opinions with new drinkers. And, if something doesn't happen quickly in the Gironde the next generation of wine drinkers and writers are not going to be travelling to Bordeaux licking their lips at the thought of the new vintage, but instead to Australia and Chile.

Price Fixing

As Bordeaux's industry is quick to point out, the region's problems do not start and finish in the vineyard and winery. If its reputation at the generic level is to be pulled out of the doldrums an understanding to raise prices must be reached through the retail chain from winemaker to consumer.

It's the classic chicken and egg situation. What comes first, an improvement in quality and the rise in prices this will allow or the increase in price that will allow the investment needed to improve quality. The hard truth of the matter is that quality will have to go up before supermarkets and negociants are willing to pay more for the wine. There is a general acceptance among the authorities that Bordeaux cannot compete at the lowest price levels on quality with the New World and while it is sold at £2.99 or FF18 the region's generic wine is benefiting no-one. However, the worry for producers is that the egg may not necessarily follow the chicken. Given the undisputable fact that a market, even if it is a declining one, exists for this cheap wine supermarkets and negociants alike may well turn round and refuse to pay more for the improved and more expensive product.

"Everyone must make an effort, owner, negociant and buyer," says one producer. "I feel that buyers in the UK, Netherlands and Germany are willing to say OK to a price increase if the quality improves." He concludes with an astounding understatement. "But if we improve our quality and then find there is no market to absorb the more expensive wine it will be complicated."

Encouragingly there are signs that for the first time this year negociants are paying producers on a two-tier level for wine, FF9,000 per 900 litres for good wine and as low as FF7,500 for anything else. The importance of this change in attitude cannot be overstated, because as Charles Sichel of Maison Sichel says: "While there are people willing to buy cheap rubbish there will always be people ready to produce and sell it."

While forward thinking negociants have taken the first step towards improvement persuading the notoriously tight-margined supermarkets of northern Europe that they should pay more for their plonk might be another matter.

"As a negociant you have no power when negotiating with a supermarket," says Eric Dulong vice-president of the CIVB. "If you refuse their offer there are always 20 others who will take your place." But a little more optimistically he said: "Supermarkets are changing. They see that there is not much in the low quality stuff for anybody. It is possible to ask 5%-8% more, it's not a huge amount but it is a change in mentality."

With the worldwide growth in the wine consumer trend of paying more for less, convincing the last link in the chain, the punter, might at first seem like the easiest of the three hurdles to cross. But apart from first persuading them to pay £3.99 for a wine that last month cost £2.99, the increase in price does create other dangers. By pulling out of the lowest price point altogether, Bordeaux risks alienating an entire segment of the wine buying public and opening the door to its competitors at an important entry level to the market.

Refreshingly many in Bordeaux think it worth the risk. "The low-end products should disappear," says Frederic de Luze of negociant LD Vins. "This does risk alienating people from the low price points. But this is better than them buying wine at £2.99, being disappointed and never coming back to Bordeaux."

As has been seen with Sherry, the strangle hold of retailers and buyers can choke the life out of a category. Bordeaux's heritage gives it more clout than those in Jerez could ever hope to muster. Let's hope that they can use this to negotiate a better deal for the generic wines to give the category the shot in the arm it needs.

Bordeaux exports for the twelve months to February 2000 in volume and value and percentage change from same period last year

Volume (hl) % change Value (Thousands of FF) %change
Germany 488,389  0 1,240,499 2
UK 336,726  -9 1,171,247 5
Benelux 372,124 -4  1,121,338  -4
US 181,903 -9  973,945 5
Japan 121,277    -48  777,271  -32
Switzerland 97,478 -5   721,858  1
Holland 184,562 -18  405,840   -13
Total world 2,138,229 -10  7,900,834 -4
Source: CIVB