In the interest of doing what I say on the tin, I thought it would be useful to highlight how Bordeaux fared during the Wine Future conference in Rioja.
For a start, there were very few Bordelais winemakers there. Among the non-speakers, I saw Jean Charles Cazes, and reportedly Bernard Magrez was there, although I didn’t see him personally (would love to hear what he took away from the two days though; if anyone can squeeze something useful out of this, it has to be Magrez; definitely one Twitter feed I would like to subscribe to). There was also a Pessac Leognan chateau (can’t remember which one – money well spent there, sorry about that guys) in the lunchtime tasting. I asked one of the delegates why there were so few people from Bordeaux, and they replied, ‘Perhaps they are jealous of Rioja having had the idea to hold the conference?’.
On the stage, there was one main Bordeaux speaker; Mathieu Chardronnier from CVBG Dourthe, who represented the new generation of Bordeaux (he is in his early 30s) and was speaking about the crisis. Then Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux spoke on the second day, but just in the round table at the closing ceremony. This seemed entirely fair – no one country was represented more than that (okay, perhaps the US got the most, with Bob Parker, Ryan Opaz, Gary Vayn-er-chuck (thanks Gavin at Bauduc for the spelling, very helpful!), Kevin Zraly and Mel Dick, and I’m probably forgetting others) and it was clever to have one person from the old guard and one from the new.
What did Mathieu have to say? His speech was generally well received (although he felt it was mis-represented in some media outlets afterwards – nicely illustrating Gary’s point about telling our own stories).
A few highlights: ‘Bordeaux classified wines are the Champs Elysee of Bordeaux, but also the Silicon Valley – the Hermes, but also the Google.’ He very much drew a line between the grand crus and the rest of Bordeaux in terms of the crisis – although didn’t pretend that things are rosy for anyone, talking about the exchange rate leading many sellers around the world to liquidate their stocks, and how ‘many in Bordeaux are literally fighting for their survival because were already in a crisis before the global financial issues’, and that excessive regulations have long made France uncompetitive.
But the interesting part was how he saw the future – far more ‘vertical integration’ in terms of negociants becoming producers, and producers becoming negociants (or at the very least becoming their own sales team). Dourthe are a good example of this – they are a major, Top 10 negociant house, but have an increasingly big portfolio of their own estates, and with 500 hectares are now one of the most significant vineyard owners in the region.
He talked about other good quality, emerging producers such as the Despagne Family ( blog.despagne.fr ) and Michel Lynch (cheating a little, as this is the branded wine end of JM Cazes and Lynch Bages www.michellynch.com ), and saw the way out of the crisis as vineyard-driven through quality - seeing the future of Bordeaux as belonging to premium and super premium wines. This might be tough to take for many of the small producers in little-known appellations, but it’s very likely to be true – he rightly said it is very tough for Bordeaux to be competitive at $5 because climate and cost structure don’t allow it, but it is easy for them to be competitive at $20, when buyers are looking for quality wines of character. He also pointed out that Bordeaux was badly in need of undisputed leaders in this category.
Jean Charles Cazes confirmed many of these thoughts for me afterwards, and suggested that, particularly with the withdrawal of Southern Wine & Spirits and Diageo from the en primeur market, sensible Bordeaux chateaux, even classified growths, were having to relook at the way they work with negociants and merchants in the US, and take more of a direct role themselves.
Then there was the round-table at the end of the whole thing, and Bordeaux inevitably came into play again, in answer to the question can the best of Spain compete with Bordeaux in terms of prestige and demand? The answer (from Jorge Ordoñez, an influential importer of Spanish wines in the US) talked about the Vega Sicilia auction in Hong Kong last week http://finewine.finewinepress.com/journal/?p=2243 , as proof that yes they can compete, and brought up a lively exchange that I will recreate here (as best as my notes can allow):
BOB PARKER: I am against all forms of government intervention, but I do wish that the word speculation would be banned from use in association with the word wine. To believe that you are producing a wine for speculators, or that is going to increase in value, is wrong. You should be thinking of producing a wine that people will drink, not speculate upon, and the whole idea of speculation is relevant for less than 1% of wine lovers. Even though my scores are used for the worst possible scenarios, speculation for me is a dirty word.
JORGE ORDONEZ I agree, and I also know the reason behind Vega Sicilia’s auction at Christies was for prestige and awareness of the product, not speculation as such. More and more consumers in Asia buy these wines at auction, and then drink them immediately. So Hong Kong is becoming a major centre of auctions, and the wines are being consumed, not traded. But I agree with Bob that it is not a good thing for the wine trade.
JANCIS ROBINSON, turning to PAUL PONTALLIER – isn’t it sad sometimes, as someone making one of the great Bordeaux, isn’t it sad that some of this wine will be traded rather than drunk?
PONTALLIER Certainly we don’t feel very happy about it. The bad news is that there is nothing you can do against it. The good news is that when we make it, we don’t pay attention to that. We still make wine for people that enjoy them – now, in 20, 30 and 40 years time. Speculation has affected the market in terms of price, but not affected the quality, and perhaps even pushed up the quality. But honestly don’t think that anyone in Bordeaux makes wine for the speculators. We make it for the wine lovers who will open the bottle and enjoy it’ (!!exclamation marks entirely my own).
Another part of the ‘round-table’ can be seen here (answers to the question about the leading challenges facing the panellists at the moment)
I don't think they have yet decided where Wine Future 2010 is going to be held... can Bordeaux step up and meet the challenge??