Bordeaux's negociants watch as the rot sets in
You won't believe me when I tell you this, because you probably think you've heard it all before, but cynicism aside: 2000 is an outstanding vintage for Bordeaux.
If this last statement evokes the image of a cashaholic negociant falling into a foamy-mouthed fit of praise over an ordinary bottle of wine with an extraordinary price tag, then you are in the majority. Most of us have been disappointed by the hype in the past and unless the Bordelais start creating some new vocabulary, it's fair to assume that their choice of superlatives has been exhausted.
The finger is generally pointed at the hyperbole that hiked up the cost of claret in 1997, a less than brilliant year. Yet prices from the region were destined to rise this year as a huge demand is expected for bottles bearing the magic digits 2-0-0-0: no cellar would be complete without a label of such significance, just as the 1945s have become the Holy Grail for collectors.
Basically we will have to pay extra for the quality. From Medoc to Graves the weather in the summer of 2000 was just as the vignerons like it. July and August were dry all over Bordeaux and the juice in the berries became deliciously concentrated. It wasn't hot by the standards of the Bordelais but more importantly it was dry. Then, in September, the sun came out and the intensity of the juice gained more punch. However, everyone but the negociants was happy.
When picking started at the end of September, the grapes were clean and without a trace of rot and the juice that was produced was immaculately clear. And because the sun had been hot, the grape skins thickened thereby producing a wine with rich colour and tannins that have improved the wine's shelf life and potential to develop. The relevance of this, however, is applicable to far more than just the Grand Crus, the region's Rolls Royce wines.
Contrary to popular opinion, the price of Bordeaux is set by the majority of producers making wines of relatively humble AOC standard. But as a result of the fact that the Grand Crus have such eye-catchingly high prices and because the world's wine press pumps out such voluminous quantities of "wine porn" on the subject of the most expensive wines, it is automatically assumed that it is simply the great growths that are making fine wine drinking a pocket stripping experience. This is half of the truth.
I have just returned to the UK from a trip to a chateau in the very far south west corner of the region, near to the AOC frontier where I was privy to a congregation of Bordelais vignerons and businessmen working in some way or other with wine. Most of those present were representing the smaller types of chateaux which pump out the vast majority of alcohol in the wine-making state of Bordeaux.
I had arrived late from England but when I walked into the dining room at Chateaufort de Roqutaillade at about midnight I was met with a red-faced frenzy of vignerons toasting the success of the harvest. There was however a minority of negociants who did not seem to be getting into the swing of things. The reason for this divide was that the negociants see a good year like this as the harbinger of a big pinch.
In bad years, the wine-makers just want to get rid of their wine in bulk (en vrac) and are happy to sell their produce for collection and delivery in petrol-tanker style lorries on a French Francs per litre basis. It is then the turn of the negociants to make the toasts.
But in good years like this the vignerons realise that they would do better to sell their wines by the bottle after it has been matured in barrel and bottle. And with the wine in bottle at the chateaux there is less available to the negociants and market and in the classic formula, supply goes down while demand and prices soar. For those negociants that get their hands on the good wine there is obviously money to be made but for those whose supply chains are wrung dry there is misery. The owner of Chateaufort de Roquetaillade says that he has already received a series of pathetic phone calls from wine dry negociants begging him to release some of his 98s.
Although in good vintages like 2000 (I insist this is true) prices will rise as a reflection of high quality, there is also this second factor that is pushing cost up.
But while we're on this topic of good years and bad years, now would be a fitting moment to let drop a piece of gossip. There is currently a fierce internecine feud raging between some of Bordeaux's most prestigious Grand Cru chateaux over the legitimacy of a somewhat shady - if officially sanctioned - practice that is used (by those who can afford it) to increase the concentration and quality of their wines. Some say it is a practice that throws a spanner in France's almost folkloric claims to be making wines that express the 'terroir' of their God-blessed land.
At the back of the historic edifices that are the region's most revered wine sheds, there is sometimes to be found a clandestine oenological chamber where temperatures hover at a frosty -5C. Their purpose is to freeze all grapes before pressing, thereby turning excess water to ice. The theory is the same that allows the Germans and Austrians to ask high prices for their much sought after iceweins.
A region where the freezers are working at maximum capacity this year is Sauternes, the most revered of all Bordeaux's wine producing areas. For in Sauternes this year things have gone very badly wrong. Although it is a highly unattractive looking mould, the vignerons in Sauternes are mourning the absence of botrytis, the noble rot that turns the juice of the Semillon grapes to a deliciously intense golden nectar.
Instead, a malignant brown rot has come to the fore as the autumnal mists which are the traditional harbinger of the noble rot has failed to immaterialise. Needless to say, the Sauternais will be still selling their wines at prices fit to rip holes in expense accounts the world over.
Yet the shame is that there is some hugely tasty Bordeaux wines (red, white and sweet) to be had at good prices. It just takes a little imagination.
Because the 1855 classification failed to incorporate the Graves it has not had the long history of Grand Crus dragging prices up from the top. It can also be said that whereas most of Bordeaux is now producing wines to compete with the fruity philosophy of New World wines and the taste of the New World buyers, the wines of Graves have stuck to their guns and continue to produce a wine that is expressly their own.
The whites from Graves are electrically crisp and seem at times evocative of a Sancerre or Chablis while much of the red is emphatically unoaked. In fact such is the quality (without the cost) it should not be surprising if UK buyers of claret make Graves reds the most popular in Bordeaux (as I am informed they were in the post War years) when the fashion for producing wines in the image of Robert Parker dies out.
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