After hearing so much about your region in the news throughout the year (weather, winemaking controversy, China buying up everything that’s not nailed down, and most unfortunately and uncalled for, other general bashing by some people in the American wine press), I have to write, to make a plea to you of sorts, in hopes that you will consider some of the issues at hand seriously. As you know, Bordeaux is what I and many other oenophiles in the world love most about wine but things have been changing slowly over the years, almost imperceptibly at times, but changing nonetheless. A few points on which to ruminate:
1. It seems that many châteaux are moving ever further away from traditional Bordeaux winemaking by producing very ripe or overripe wine that requires little, if any, aging upon release. I know that weather is part of the problem but adopting the notion of late harvests will not ameliorate this. Also how is this possible to once have created very structured wines that suddenly are so quaffable without the use of micro-oxygenation or nano-oxygenation? Why does Bordeaux want to compete with Napa? It is the difference from Napa that will keep you on the wine map for the long-term, not the similarity. Making big, dense, high alcohol, over-the-top wine that lacks finesse and will not age well or ever develop greater complexity is not the right direction for such a spectacular wine region. Human intervention is already producing soft-drink-like wine. By homogenizing wine using available technology, eventually it will have no identity of its own or any of the great characteristics from its terroir that sets it apart from any other wine. Embrace that you’re different from Napa wine or any New World wine and take the time and effort to educate people and emerging markets about those differences. Get back to your roots, what made Bordeaux great to begin with, and remember the unforgettable lessons learned by Coca Cola and others that tampered with their recipes or their fundamental identities, much to their regret. Employing interventionist techniques is not a good direction for this amazing wine region that needs only good vineyard management and honest winemaking. I don’t want to taste through any Classified Bordeaux vertical and not be able to distinguish the difference between vintages. Bordeaux is far, far better than that! Help make consumers understand the difference between the wines you make, and the rest of the world.
2. China is not your future (and it never has been). So you followed the rainbow to the end and it paid off. I understand the concept of ‘make hay while the sun shines’ and that, you have definitely accomplished, I think beyond even your own expectations. However, I believe the windfall is over. Now it’s time to get back to your primary markets, which is the UK, America, and the rest of Europe. There is not the availability of Bordeaux wine in the US like there was before the China boom on either the primary or secondary market, partially because prices have gotten so out of reach for many Americans and the rest of the world. Now that you’re seeing a slowdown in China’s growth for your product, what are you going to do? China doesn’t even drink wine nor like wine compared to the Brits and Americans! A considerable amount of your wines sold in China were bought for gifting, showing a certain status to friends and family, or as investments. Chinese admit that they know little or nothing about wine. Consumption there is very low per capita and as many other of the world’s wine regions try to gain market share there, it’s going to get even more difficult for Bordeaux. Also factor in that at this point the Chinese are wary of buying Bordeaux because there is such a huge sea of counterfeit wine in the market, and this country’s contribution to your future bank account suddenly looks bleak.
3. No one I know of is resentful about anyone making a fair profit, and that certainly goes for Bordeaux too. You are, of course, entitled to make whatever the market will bear but you really need to re-engage the markets that have supported you for centuries (UK), and for at least the past hundred years or more (US). You all but abandoned these major sources of wine lovers and revenue to make a quick Euro. Simply adjust your prices because you should realize by now that those very high prices rolled out in the past decade are not sustainable, and if your loyal consumers turn elsewhere, they may not come back at all. This is a risk already deeply in play and it will take effort on your part to fix it. You made your money, now get back to where you can enjoy long-term stability. If you want to keep your margins as high as possible, start dealing with importers and retailers directly and bypass Bordeaux brokers and négociants (sorry guys, but your time is coming to an end eventually in these ‘modern times’ of internet and technology; your services, once essential to the Bordeaux trade, are quickly becoming irrelevant). Eliminating an unnecessary layer between you and the consumer will ultimately serve you and us better. I still think that Château Latour has it right for many reasons and I hope that others will follow suit. There is a way to do this without having to take a financial hit for fifteen years by gradually eliminating the amount of participation in en primeur campaigns. You and your clients will benefit.
4. As mentioned above, educating current wine consumers and upcoming generations is key to your continued success. Loire Valley did an all out assault on America a couple of years ago. The Rhone, Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon regions have really come on strong in the past several years not only because of their relative value, but because they have worked hard to reinvent themselves and market their wines by educating people. This is not an easy or inexpensive undertaking but certainly is paying off by anyone’s measure. You can stand still, beat on your chest and proclaim, ‘yes, but we’re Bordeaux!’ while other regions pass you by. Or you can recommit yourselves to your core markets and stabilize your revenue instead of watching it bounce around like a yoyo. By the way, how well are you sleeping at night these days?
You have one of the classiest and most beautiful cities in the world, I’m not kidding (and unfortunately for people that are looking for an amazing place to vacation, it seems that pretty much only the wine trade knows this)! The resources available to you in terms of vineyards and winemaking talent are truly remarkable, beyond words, and have been for hundreds of years. Embrace what makes you so very special and forget about trends. Clearly some changes are in order, but please put the values back in place that made you a world leader in the wine world to begin with.
Very truly yours,
Photo: Just a glimpse of the Bordeaux City Center, a really high-end beautiful city throughout; it would be a great place to live!