The wine business on Bordeaux’s Right Bank is thriving. The wines are uniformly good and the people making the wines seem to be aware of the challenges facing their industry. The tales of doom and gloom facing French wine – including overproduction, sinking sales, and a declining reputation -- seemed quite distant during a string of gorgeous fall days.
This is not to say that there aren’t problems, or that my 5 1/2-day visit made me an instant expert. Overproduction, especially in the south of Bordeaux in the Entre-Deux-Mers region, must be dealt with, and that means pulling up vines. The weak U.S. dollar is clobbering mid-tier producers, whose $12-$15 wines in Europe cost $30, $40 and $50 in the States. In addition, many less well-known producers, whose wine is more than acceptable, are finding it increasingly difficult to get import and distribution deals in the U.S. There are so many wines from so many parts of the world that just being from Bordeaux isn’t good enough any more.
But these problems don’t necessarily mean the world is ending. They mean Bordeaux competes against the world, just like everyone else. And the winemakers and chateaux owners that I met seem capable of handling the challenge.
They understand what’s going on, and they know they must change the way they do business. Gerard Milhade, whose family operates six chateaux, uses screw tops for his inexpensive white wine and his labels are modern (though, thankfully, they don't have any livestock or bad puns). When I asked him about this, he made the point that his competition is not just from Bordeaux or even France, but from the rest of the world. And that means doing things differently than his father and grandfather did them. Though the Milhades are fairly young in the business -- they've only been doing it for 70 years.
Progressive ideas abound. Emeric Petit, whose family owns several properties, including Chateau Tournefeuille, peppered me with questions about wine growing in the States. His solution for the oceans of wine flooding southern Bordeaux? Create the French equivalent of a company like Kendall Jackson, which can turn those grapes into acceptable wine at a fair price. (The French call wines like K-J technical wines; that is, wines made to certain specifications, instead of wine made by what the grapes will give. This is not a pejorative term, by the way, which made the Wine Curmudgeon quite happy. Yes, the French do appreciate cheap wine.)
Anabelle Cruse Bardinet, the winemaker at Chateau Corbin, told me that another problem, often overlooked, is the Wine Magazine hype that sends prices for the elite chateaux into the stratosphere. If wine drinkers think that the only good wine from Bordeaux costs $400, who is going to pay $40 for a bottle of Chateau Corbin?
It's a point well taken. We tasted the 2001 Cheval Blanc, which (if you can find it) costs around $400. This, incidentally, is a bargain for Cheval Blanc, one of the top 10 producers in Europe, if not the world. The 2005 will run around a grand.
The 2001 was fabulous wine. The finish went on and on, and the tannins were fine and delicate. There were layers and layers of flavors -- a subtle cedar, a bit of blueberry and even dust (thanks to the great Robert Whitley for the last one). It's one of the best wines I've ever tasted, and in 20 years it will be even better. But who can buy it? Only the wealthy. I'll be lucky to ever taste it again, and I do this for a living. Hence the possibility that Bordeaux is pricing itself out of existence.
What about the wine?
As noted, it was almost uniformly excellent. We tasted red wine from more than three dozen producers (including 13 in an epic three-hour Sunday afternoon banquet that's probably worth a short story in its own right). Only a couple were less than satisfactory, an impressive percentage.
A couple of things struck me about the wines. First, that they did reflect Bordeaux and the right bank in style and taste. That means less fruit, less oak, and less jammy flavors. (In fact, trying to explain what jammy meant was beyond my almost non-existent French.) This is not a bad thing, no matter what some people in California might think. Second, that the wines were modern; that is, that the winemaker had adopted a variety of New World techniques to improve the quality. They weren't stuck in the "We've been doing this for 500 years and we're never going to change" mindset that the French are so often accused of.
The following are the highlights of what we tasted. Prices for almost all of them will start at $20 or $25, and go up from there, unfortunately. I also can't vouch for vintage or availability in the U.S., so check with your local retailer:
• Chateau Guibeau. World class cheap wine (8 1/2 euros), which is the highest compliment the Wine Curmudgeon can pay.
• Chateau Mazeris. The business has been in the family since before the French Revolution. Jean de Cournuaud is the ninth generation of his family to make wine on this property.
• Chateau Tournefeuille. I stayed on Petit's property for a couple of days, and it was as lovely as the wine.
• Chateau Canon. It's owned by the same people who own Chanel, which means that not only was the wine excellent, but it was the most beautiful winery I have ever seen.
• Chateau Lyonnat. Milhade opened a bottle of the 1964 for our group to taste, and it was splendid -- a wonderful Bordeaux nose, lots of fruit left, and fine-grained tannins.
• Chateau Beauregard. One of the most pleasant surprises. It has a fine reputation, and the wines we tasted (especially the 1998) will only add to that.
• Chateau Junayme. A good example of what's happening in Bordeaux -- a classic wine, but clean and fresh, made with New World techniques.
• Chateau Clos Fourtet, Chateau Beau Sejour Becot, and Chateau Figeac. These were the banquet's final three wines, and illustrate an important point. Each is a classic Saint Emilion label, and each tastes different from the other. You might like one better than another (I preferred the Figeac), but that doesn't mean one is actually better than the other. They're just different. I dare anyone to taste these three wines together and then to score them -- it's not possible. It's just another example of why scores are useless.