Bordeaux [BORE doe] wine: nectar of the gods for some; confusing, nightmarish morass of wine snobbery for others. I was recently sent a gaggle of 2009 Bordeaux reds to sample and, as I tried them — alone (blind) and then paired with food — I was struck with the revelation that the majority of my readers simply wouldn’t enjoy these wines. Besides being far too young and loaded with tight, mouth-drying tannins making them utterly unapproachable for those without a high level of wine appreciation, they were, for the most part, pretty damn good. The 2009 vintage lives up to the hype.
But will the average American consumer buy and enjoy wines that have virtually no sensation of sweetness and need at least an hour of air before saying hello? Methinks not. Bordeaux — and I am speaking in huge generalities as plenty of aging collectors and see-and-be-seen wine drinkers will slap me for this opinion — isn’t something 95% of Americans are even vaguely tempted to buy. Used to labels with clearly stated grape varietals and often accompanied by flowing, ethereal tasting notes, wine drinkers will have an easier time solving the Da Vinci Code than determining whether the arcane-looking French bottle contains Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. (Those, by the way, are the main grapes grown in this southwestern region of France).
Wine writers can jump up and down, throw childish tantrums and bloviate ’til they’re red in the face but once you get down to it, if one of my readers heads to the wine shop and buys a bottle of 2009 Bordeaux on my recommendation, I fear they’ll be disappointed. In general, Americans want full-bodied but they want fruit-forward, they want tannins but want them smooth and approachable — two things Bordeaux hasn’t successfully delivered from their cool, rainy part of the wine world.
In every single tasting note after the ten 2009 red wines from Bordeaux, these words figured prominently: dusty, very young, tannic, oak, black cherry, needs food.
Do I sense a trend?
Americans are now drinking wine more than ever before and I’m almost drawn to proud tears with this news. I’d like to think that wine writers/bloggers like myself and many others have helped move this needle. Sure, much of what’s being swilled is sweet, unctuous and Slurpee-like but I don’t care. It’s wine… and people are crawling outside the beer bottle and martini glass to expand beverage horizons. It’s a great time to be a wine writer. The future looks bright. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t begrudge the lovers sweet wines like White Zin and Moscato. These are good stepping stones into the world of wine. The first time I tried a dry, red wine — illegally, when I was around 20 — I almost gagged. It’s not a flavor us Coca-Cola-drinking folks swagger up to easily (especially in Atlanta where sweet tea is the house wine). One must wade into the waters of dry wine before braving the ultra dry, astringent Bordeaux at the deep end of the pool.
But maybe the Bordelaise don’t care about the average American consumer and perhaps they really shouldn’t. They’ve been making wine this way — altered slightly perhaps to please a few American wine critics — for millenia and people lay out serious cash for their wines. The esteemed “chateaux” still sell out of their stocks and many are now exporting to China — where I hear discerning drinkers add soda to their wine. I imagine the winemakers of Bordeaux cringing in pain.
So what do you think? Should the Bordeaux wine producers change it up to meet American consumer demand and capture a growing market or remain steadfast and stoic and hope we learn to love them? Your thoughts are appreciated in the comments section.
Another Bordeaux post to read
White Bordeaux: When Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon Collide
Recommended 2009 Red Bordeaux:
Vinum Natura de Chateau Vallon dea Brumes 2009 (Organic)
Tasting Notes: Dusty dark fruit of black cherry and plum, new leather, strong-brewed tea, green tobacco, high acids. Needs fatty protein (meat or cheese) to even out the serious tannins.
Chateau La Jarre Eléonore 2009 Bordeaux Superior
Tasting Notes: Needs to be decanted or poured at least an hour before drinking. Dusty, dark fruit (minimal), very young, tobacco, black tea, oak flavor is prominent, needs food.
Good point…young Bordeaux is best enjoyed while envisoning being in France during harvest…barefoot women holding their skirts as they dance around the barrels. Men in shorts stomping the grapes and drinking the juice out of old pewter mugs. The best wines evoke a sense of place which is what French wine is all about. So if your readers venture out into the Bordeaux world, they should buy the 2009, let it sit for a few years and then throw a harvest party. Cheers~
And start packing a bag!
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Gotcha on the stepping stone comment. You are quite correct that many people will never be happy with dry wines (but might pretend to be). As Tim says, everyone’s tongue is different. As you can tell from so many of the wine competitions out there, the sweeter wines always win the category, in my experience.
Well, I can be critical of this article for only 2 point. First retailers shouldnt be telling consumers to drink 2009 classified growth bordeaux now, they should point them to easy drinking AC bordeaux, or bordeaux superior to drink now and hold the 2009s for 5-10+ years.
Second, dry wines work better with most food. Only certain types of food go better with sweeter wines. Americans tend to drink wine by itself whereas many Europeans drink it with the meal. I admit, when I drink wine without food I want a slightly more fruit forward wine.
There was a time, in the not to distant past, when all wine, including Bordeaux, contained some residual sugar. Tim Hanni, MW, has done a lot of research on this and concluded that the present trend toward dry, tannic red wines only began following World War II. Prior to that, sweet wines dominated in both price and levels of consumption/production. There’s a reason why Chateau d’Yquem was in a class of its own in 1855. Check out his research.
Which begs the question – are big, dry, intense red wines merely a fad? Some suggest the resurgence of sweet wines is the fad, but perhaps its a return to the status quo?
In short, great article. The only part I take issue with is the suggestion that “sweet wines like White Zin and Moscato … are good stepping stones into the world of wine.” Why do they need to be stepping stones? For many people, sweet wines are not a means to an end: they are the end. If someone’s palette is programed to enjoy sweet wines, that is something to be embraced, rather than something out of which those people are expected to grow.
You are absolutely correct. I drink quite a lot of wine for an American, and while I can certainly appreciate a good Bordeaux, the problems you highlighted persist. Of the two mixed cases of 2000 Bordeaux I purchased in futures, only three bottles have been opened (one for a tasting party). It still needs decanting or significant time in the glass, 12 years in. I can’t possibly count how many bottles I’ve purchased and consumed while the Bordeaux sits. While a very good Napa Cab is better with some time or air, it will always be enjoyable young.
As Eric says above, we often drink wine by itself, and not with food. Our meals tend to be rapid affairs, unlike the Europeans, unless we are at a fine restaurant. Also, even the lower priced, more approachable Bordeaux lack the fruit forward flavors of American Cab/Merlot/Zin or Aussie Shiraz, and at price points under $20, are rarely as good. Can you suggest a Bordeaux red at $17 that is honestly better than say, a Chateau Ste Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon Indian Wells?