With my 2020 vintage Bordeaux report just round the corner, and with an expected focus on great value for money, I thought I’d do a quick recap, both to help those who find it confusing (myself included), and to explain my thinking and theories behind my Bordeaux philosophy.
Bordeaux was once described to me as “France’s most forgotten wine region”, and whilst at first I was derisive and sceptical, I do see a lot of truth in the statement. Bordeaux doesn’t have the minuscule quantities and luxurious reputation of fine Burgundies, nor as many cult wines as, say, the Jura, nor indeed the volume of Languedoc, the party of Champagne, or the mass-market pinks of Provence. It doesn’t even have the ‘undiscovered gem’ vibe that smaller AOPs or backwater IGPs base their marketing on.
Sure, at the top end of the market, Bordeaux still represents the majority of investment-grade first growth wines (albeit a declining share), and at the bottom, I just read that over 1% of all the wine in the world is sub-€3 Bordeaux. That’s either a lot, or absolutely nothing, depending on how you read the figure. Something like 90% of Bordeaux (by volume) sells for less than €10 a bottle, much of it no doubt from high-yielding plains in the entre-deux-mers, sold simply as bulk or semi-bulk “Bordeaux”or “Bordeaux Supérieur” in supermarkets the world over.
But where the ‘forgotten’ vineyards come in is, I believe, the plump middle of the market. I think this is probably a segment best recognised in France actually (which, as always, confounds and confuses in its consumer habits). These are the wines bought by the case or two at foires a vin up and down the country. These are the wines I predominantly covered in my 2019 Bordeaux report, and the ones I find the most interesting to both drink and work with.
Sometimes, the price is driven by high lofty aspirations and a tenuous tie to an archaic neighbour who had a good year in 1855 (a fair few of my 2019 en primeurs were €80 with the quality of €15 due to the owner’s prestige rather than the wines themselves, and I suspect the 2020 will be the same). Sometimes, also, the quality is driven low thanks to uneducated consumers forking out extra cash merely for the Bordeaux label, even when it’s bulk wine from some Gironde backwater. A high price does not guarantee high quality.
Equally often, however (and this of course is an argument often used to defend second wines), is that Bordeaux is an area with centuries of experience, a well-developed style, an easy-going climate, and a competitive market full of underdogs with their own compelling story. Fixed costs such as labels, bottles and oak barrels are the same everywhere, if not lower in Bordeaux. Sifting between competitive underdogs is, of course, a skill and a challenge all its own - but I think that it is no harder in Bordeaux than elsewhere, and there are plenty of extremely good wines at competitive prices.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are wines low in both price and quality. I’ve seen euro bottles of generic Bordeaux in supermarkets before, and I have on my to-be-tasted rack a handful of sub-€10 Bordeaux (including, tellingly, some entre-deux-mers whites in Bordeaux AOC) which I suspect will be a medley of disappointment, the reds jammy and unripe, and the whites simply uninspiring.
Naked Wines rose to prominence in the UK in part because they promised to deliver this value-for-money sweet spot, where most of the dollar-dollar went to the wine rather than duty, bottling or shipping costs. I think they gave this sweet spot as £7-12 in the UK, and $12-15 in the US. There’s the classic bottle-filling-up infographic that magically suggests that that’s the only price worth paying for any wine, but it does have some value.
Taking into account oak barrel costs, etc, it has some merit. After those fixed costs (plus oak barrels), that’s roughly the price at which I expect to see 90+ wines from Bordeaux during my En Primeur tasting next month.