Has Bordeaux become irrelevant?

Bordeaux Wine at Forks and CorksIt’s strange to feel sorry for one of the most profitable, well-known wine regions in the world, but I do. “Normal” people may have heard of “Bordeaux” but they don’t necessarily drink the wines. They are the drink of snobs, collectors and sycophants; untouchable and unbeknownst by the common folk. Expressing this sentiment might provoke some annoyance – people are profoundly proud of their Bordeaux collections (and wax at length about them if you are misfortunate enough show interest) but I simply don’t get it.

A couple of weekends ago, I attended a truly impressive wine festival… one I’ll pimp like the Shamwow guy, but it was THAT good. I praise it for: the off-the-chart wine selections, impressive organization, unique educational components and a bellyful of delicious indie restaurant fare. And it was in little ‘ole Sarasota, Florida. Make a mental note for next year, and create a weekend around it: Forks and Corks. (See my photos)

One of the sit-down seminars presented a panel of eight famed Bordeaux producers (see the list). Great people plus legendary wines = sold out seminar of around 100 people (at $95 bucks a pop!) Each winery representative plugged their wares on the podium, but as we wrapped our ever-drying tongues around the tannic cabernet and merlot blends, I began to see a disconcerting pattern.

Bordeaux producers simply don’t make wines for the average American palate. Nor do they want to; nor, to that end, should they. Sure, plenty of people in that room ooh’ed and aah’ed over the selections – we tasted a comparison of the 2000 and 2006 vintages. And I, like so many other wine geeks on this planet, can appreciate a beautifully aged-into-submission wine. But how many of us *really* want to wait ten years for something to be drinkable?

And is that how long you have to wait? Someone from the audience asked the panel: “How do you know when a Bordeaux will be good to drink?” The ironic, borderline smirking answer: “The best thing is to buy a case and continue to drink it year after year.” Does that bother anyone else? Not even the producers know when their wine will be enjoyable.

Add to that confusing labeling. The laws governing Bordeaux wine production prevent listing the grape variety on the label, so you have to know that sub-appellation Saint Emilion is mostly merlot and Saint Julien makes cabernet-predominant wines.

Add to that the whims of Mother Nature. More laws handcuff producers against watering their vineyards (with few exceptions) and weather is unpredictable, so vintage knowledge becomes a necessary chore when buying. The Bordelaise called 2006 a “classic” vintage, indicating normal weather conditions. The 2000 vintage, however, they described as “perfect,” with the right mixture of heat to ripen and rain to nourish the grapes. Sounds similar to the 2009, except better – last year’s harvest was been declared “exceptional” and in the same league with celebrated 1929 and 1982 vintages. I suppose exclamations like this help sell wine, right? I’m just sayin’… when was the last time the PR people said a vintage sucked?

During the tasting, I was supposed to swoon over the 2000s, like the majority of the attendees in the room, but I didn’t. My favorite among them was the Smith Haut-Lafitte Rouge (a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc) which tasted classy and regal – dark fruit, characteristic dust, white pepper, leathery tannins with no touch of sweetness. But it was too tight, austere, and selfish with the fruit. The tannins soaked the moisture out of my mouth like bankers soak up bonuses. I wondered if, even after ten more years of aging, fruit would ever jump from the glass and be social? Maybe. Sure, I appreciated it, but would I sit around and drink it with friends? No. Drink it with food. Maybe. But for $180, it needs to do a striptease and massage my feet.

Two wineries stood out in the 2006 vintage: Chateau Bouscaut Rouge (predominantly merlot from the Pessac-Léognan appellation) and Chateau Beychevelle Rouge (predominantly cabernet sauvignon from Saint Julien). More accessible with bright fruit and sweet cherries, the tannins were decidedly present but weren’t chafing like the crotchety old guy at the corner coffee shop. Both wines, by the way, can be had for $50 and $80, respectively.

But here’s my Bordeaux confession: The whites impressed me the most.

Maybe it’s because I can drink them now, while they’re fresh, young and vibrant. The flavor and structure of the sauvignon blanc/semillon blends are truly unique to this region. Loaded with earthy minerality, bright lemon/lime and high acidity. These beauties should not be the wallflowers at this party — they could be the only thing keeping Bordeaux on the normal consumer’s mind.

The French, and especially the Bordelaise, wallow in tradition – their winemaking dates back to early Roman times. So changing the game in Bordeaux would be like successfully fixing the American political system. (They scoffed at using screwcaps too). There’s absolutely still an audience that will buy these wines at mind-stunning prices, sit on them for a few years and look sophisticated when they reach into the cellar in twenty years. These are the same people who are thinking at this very moment that I have pedestrian, American taste. I can live with that.

But the question still remains: With frugality winning over luxury and immediate pleasure on the minds of most, is the patient, Bordeaux-buying audience shrinking?

P.S. 2/18, 11:46. For those who might wonder (and I’ve just received a flurry of tweets), “Doesn’t this dingbat know about affordable Bordeaux Supérieur?” Well, yes, I do. I’m writing specifically about Cru Classé Bordeaux but most of the points apply to those too… except the drinkable now part.

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