A tale of two Bordeaux: Aside from the top chateaus, the region’s producers struggle to be relevant

Perusing the selection at a Cannes wine shop, I noticed a group of Japanese businessmen. Among the shop’s selection of upscale wines — such as Cristal and grand cru Burgundies — one gentleman selected two bottles of 1995 Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s greatest wines (for just over $600 a bottle). The customer, visibly upset, explained to the clerk through his translator that he was unhappy — not with the condition of the bottles — but with the condition of the tissue paper wrapping them, which was torn.

So which was more important, the wine or the presentation?

While Bordeaux’s best wines still carry a certain cachet, their influence is far less profound than it was 30 years ago. Though other winegrowing regions have emerged to knock Bordeaux from its perch as the world’s leading wine region, its considerable economic impact, especially for the top 100 or so wines, remains.

Although the region’s top names are still able to command stratospheric prices, many of their fellow vintners have been left in the dust.

In part, its current problems stem from a notion among new American wine drinkers that all Bordeaux are grand wines that need decades to mature and are mostly consumed by the moneyed class. U.S. wine retailers who have long found Bordeaux a profitable staple are suddenly trying to figure out how to dispel its stuffy reputation.

Just a year ago, it seemed like Bordeaux couldn’t be hotter. New records were set as chateaus unveiled their prices for the superb 2005 vintage, hoping to capitalize on what the Bordelais love to call a “vintage of the century.” The 2005 Chateau Petrus topped $2,000 a bottle, with other superstars not far behind. But a year later, faced with a 2006 vintage that received a lukewarm reception from critics, wineries still insisted on asking for top dollar. Recent futures prices, in which customers order wine two years before it is delivered, for the 2006 vintage — more than $1,000 a bottle for Chateau Petrus — reinforced an image that Bordeaux is inflexible and self-satisfied. Many Bordeaux loyalists steered clear of the 2006 vintage’s high prices. And most new wine drinkers simply shrugged, bypassing Bordeaux for Italy, Spain or the New World.

Peter M. F. Sichel, who has been a prominent figure in the Bordeaux trade for the last 40 years, believes that money has distorted the market. An increasingly wealthy upper class from around the world is pouring money into the market for top names and virtually ignoring smaller properties.

“There are really two Bordeaux now,” Sichel says. “One hundred or so chateaus (less than 5 percent of all properties) are doing exceptionally well, and everyone else is struggling.”

Bordeaux wines have been revered for centuries. When consumers were learning about wine in the 1970s and 1980s, Bordeaux was the natural place to start. The wines were available — most properties made upwards of 10,000 cases a year — and largely affordable. Novice wine tasters could compare for themselves — without taking out a second mortgage — the differences between properties and learn to distinguish one commune’s wines from another.

Historically, the 1855 Classification in the Medoc served as a road map to quality. But because this and other classifications were made well over a century ago, they often did not reflect the quality of those wines today. Robert M. Parker Jr. introduced the 100-point scoring scale in the mid-1970s and his ratings rapidly replaced the dependence on these classifications. Parker’s early assessments fueled a frenzy in the futures market — not only in the United States, but in growing markets like Russia and Asia.

“Thirty years ago the only market for Bordeaux was Western Europe and the United States,” says Kees Van Leeuwen, the enologist and viticulturist at Chateau Cheval Blanc, the esteemed St. Emilion property. “Now rich people are everywhere.”

And they’re competing for less of the best wines. Cheval Blanc, for instance, produced 150,000 bottles in 1982 (at about $50 a bottle, initially), but only 100,000 in 2005 (not yet released, but currently priced at about $1,000 a bottle) and 45,000 in 2006. And many of these wines are being sought not as a prized bottle to drink but as just another trophy, like a Ferrari or a Patek Philippe watch.

Ralph Sands, a Bordeaux specialist at K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, has seen a different kind of money pouring into Bordeaux purchases: “Venture capitalists and other investors, not my usual buyer, appeared to buy the (highly acclaimed) 2005 vintage. Some people view these wines as blue chip investments, despite the price.”

But as Bordeaux’s top names became luxury icons, most other producers were left out of the limelight. These small producers, especially from less prestigious areas such as Entre Deux Mers, Cotes de Bourg or Cotes du Blaye, made wines that were never highly sought after. With so many other choices for affordable wine from around the world, they have fallen further out of favor with the changing market.

Four of the 5 Cotes — an affiliation of five lesser known areas of Bordeaux — consolidated under one AOC (official wine appellation), Cotes de Bordeaux, starting with the 2007 vintage. These and other less prestigious areas, such as Entre Deux Mers, or those labeled simply Bordeaux Superieur or Bordeaux, produce wines that are ready to drink much sooner and that are far more affordable than the wines from the grander AOCs.

Some wine retailers have seized an opportunity with these lesser-known wines. Michael Traverso, of Traverso’s Gourmet Foods and Liquor in Santa Rosa, said that his typical Bordeaux buyer is someone who’s “fed up with high-alcohol California wine. They started with local wines but have become disenchanted by over-the-top California wines and are now looking for something different.”

Over the last 10 years, Traverso’s space for high-end Bordeaux has remained constant while the “bargain Bordeaux” section expanded. At MacArthur Beverages, a premium wine shop in Washington, D.C., with a vast selection of Bordeaux, general manager and wine buyer Mark Wessels has a display of $10-$20 Bordeaux bottles from lesser areas in the front of the store to sate growing customer demand.

Wine drinkers have manifested an enormous change in taste over the last 20 years, as food, and wine, have become more about impact than subtlety. For a wine to be “heard” in this environment it must be flamboyant and boisterous — everything that traditional Bordeaux is not.

One way some lesser Bordeaux producers fought to put themselves on the map was by making New World-like wines with more extraction, higher alcohol and extended oak barrel aging. Primarily found on the Right Bank of the Gironde River that divides the region both geographically and viticulturally, these so-called garagiste wines — named because they are made at small, garage-like, production facilities — received praise from Parker, but criticism from others. Some top garagistes like Le Pin became as highly traded as the first growths.

But many still face controversy as to whether they’re overreaching. Pioneering winemakers like Jean-Luc Thunevin, whose Valandraud was one of the first garagiste hits, have had harsh words for newcomers, and traditional producers — especially the top Left Bank properties — refuse to emulate the garagiste approach, and criticize their Right Bank garagiste neighbors for distorting the style of the region.

Christian Moueix, who oversees his family’s 10 properties in St. Emilion and Pomerol, including Chateau Petrus, the maker of Bordeaux’s most expensive wine, believes that the infatuation with garagiste wines is fading as consumers discover that many did not develop with age.

Marcel Ducasse, who just retired after 23 years at managing director of Chateau Lagrange in St. Julien, was proud that he consistently made “understated” wines.

Paul Pontallier, the managing director of Chateau Margaux, opted not to include the ripe — 15 percent alcohol — Merlot in the blend of the 2005 because “it would unbalance Margaux’s elegant style.” Ironically, it was two prominent Bordelais winemakers, the late Emile Peynaud and Michael Rolland, who encouraged fleshier wines that have defined the modern style of wine for the rest of the world.

Despite their push toward plusher wines, much of the U.S. interest in Bordeaux comes because of its original strength: wines that aren’t defined by the in-your-face fruit flavors and supple tannins that consumers seem to love in wines from California, Australia and other New World locales.

The typical high-end Bordeaux still offers the region’s hallmark: the complexity of non-fruit flavors — leather, cedar, coffee and so on — that comes from years of aging in the cellar.

Few people have the patience — or the money — to wait. (If you cellar a wine that costs $200 a bottle for 10 years, it’s worth about $400 adjusted solely for what the economists call “opportunity costs,” what you could have made from a 7 percent annual return had you invested that money elsewhere.)

It’s no surprise, then, that many retailers have found a market in older wines for customers who want to trade out the taste of New World “fruit bombs” for the taste of aged Bordeaux — without the wait. “Small lots of mature Bordeaux from the great vintages of the 1980s, such as ’82, ’86, ’89, sell out in a day,” says MacArthur’s Wessels.

Bordeaux is trying to adapt, too, but has yet to find the right formula. Sichel finds it odd that the largest fine-wine producing area in the world “has never been able to brand itself” — except for Mouton Cadet, owned by Mouton-Rothschild, which remains one of the top 10 imported wines in the United States. Most other attempts have failed.

There are other problems. The complexity of the French appellation system, which recognizes 57 different AOCs within Bordeaux but won’t allow grape varieties on the label, remains an impediment. Bordeaux proprietors and winemakers are so fixated on terroir — the concept that where the grapes grow, not the variety of grape, is key to the wine’s character — that they often stumble when asked about the blend. (The proportion of a chateau’s vineyard devoted to each grape type is easily found, but how much the winemaker uses varies year to year). Bob Harkey, owner of Harkey’s Fine Wines, a well-regarded small wine shop in Millis, Mass., a suburb of Boston, thinks the Bordelais “ignored a whole generation of wine drinkers by not adopting varietal labeling.” His customers are “shocked” when he tells them Bordeaux is a blend primarily of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

As for that riper style, many major Bordeaux producers have also looked beyond France, making New World-style wines with the traditional Bordeaux varieties. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, one of the first to invest in California with Opus One, was followed by Christian Moueix with Dominus. Mouton’s presence is also notable in Chile with Almaviva and Escudo Rojo. Chateau Lafite Rothschild has Los Vascos in Chile, Caro in Argentina and Rupert & Rothschild in South Africa. Chateau Cheval Blanc has a joint project, Cheval des Andes, in Argentina.

Bordeaux still matters, but in a very different way from 30 years ago. Even though the top wines are seen more as an investment vehicle than something to be enjoyed at the dinner table, Bordeaux still produces large quantities of affordable wines. The Bordelais just need to figure out how to introduce them to American consumers who have different tastes from their parents and who now have more choices for the wineglass.

This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, July 27, 2007