Bordeaux (Baby) - On Business
This week we studied all things Bordeaux in my WSET Diploma class. I like to think I'm super pro French girl. I did, I don't know, live in Bordeaux working for a wine negotiant? I also, totally almost speak French, really, pretty, sort of, mostly good. I also drink a lot of it. And sell a lot of it. And tell all new hairdresers to style me like a French newsboy. #truestory
So I'm like, the readings! Before class! What Ever. I am so smart and cool, I clearly do not need to do this. Then I'm sitting there with like 6 other people listening to Canada's only female Master of Wine Barb Phillip who is one 1) super smart, 2) super funny and 3) super good at teaching.
Anyways, so Barb is talking and the first thing she asks is 1152 - what happened and why does it matter for Bordeaux? Crickets. She looks at me, new Toronto kid! Totally worked in France! Also work for an agency as an apparent expert! Crickets.
Long story short, it is so easy to know something, while knowing nothing at all. In general, I feel like the higher I get in wine education, the more incompetent/ uneducated I feel because there is SO MUCH TO LEARN. I want to share my 'aha moment' (ugh 'aha moment', did I really? I did.) because Bordeaux is a big deal: it is famous, expensive and easy to misunderstand, but really delicious when done right.
So, 1152. This is the year Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine beginning the strong connection between Bordeaux and England. In 1154 he became the King of England, also commanding Eleanor's vast territory. Bordeaux wines were easy to access by ship and given tax breaks on arrival. As a result. they were cheap and plentiful throughout England (plus tasty!). The Brits noticed - by the 14th century most of the wine consumed in England was from Bordeaux - and as a commonwealth country, that matters to us and our culinary heritage too.
Trade levels over time fluctuated with war, politics, more war, vine disease, more politics and bad harvests. But the main ticket, is that the English got a taste early and never forgot.
But back up: easy to access? tax breaks? favourable pricing? This is not sounding very #romantic.
And this, my friends is the key thing that reallyyyy clicked for me this week.
Bordeaux is a region that was developed and expanded with an eye to export. Yes that's right, grapes were grown not to express terroir, but to make dollars.
While monks in Burgundy were making the smallest batches of the finest wines to celebrate God, crafty well-dressed layman were making the largest batches of the most sellable juice to make a good profit.
(okay: not sure if they were well dressed, but it makes for a better narrative so just go with it. also: imagine mustaches.)
Not that this is bad! Really, it is not a value judgement in the slightest, as Bordeaux makes undeniably great wines. It is just such a key point for understanding the fundamental differences between these two famous regions.
Take the next big Bordeaux date: 1855. 1855 was the year of the famous (mostly Medoc) Classification system that to this day has a tremendous effect on price and quality. This ranking system was developed in preperation for the World Expo in Paris; Napolean III wanted to use the Expo as an opportunity to showcase the finest wines of France, but first he had to find them.
Brokers were tasked to rank the leading 60 Chateaux. They did this based on the prices these wines historically commanded in the market. There were 5 tiers - based on price - with wines ranked within each tier - based on price.
There were no soil analyses. No blind tastings. And no talk of heaven. Traders made a list of price brakets and ranked wines within price brackets (by price). #creativity
But despite this seemingly cold calculation, those of us with the smallest bit of wine knowledge know these rankings well.
The First Growths: Lafite, Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild.
The Seconds: Things like Pichon-Longueville, Leovilles Les Cases and Cos d'Estournel.
Even fifth growths like Lynch-Bages certainly do have a ring to them.
This makes sense! Often things that cost more are better. But, not always. And here in lies the problem with Bordeaux. Just because a wine cost a bunch in the mid-19th century doesn't mean it tastes good now.
Another problem: these rankings have remained (almost) the same for 250 years despite changes in management, ownership and precise property boundary. Where as in Burgundy, wines are ranked by their land, a thing that does not change, in Bordeaux wines are ranked by their chateau, a brand name of sorts that is mutable. This means, that even when a chateau changes ownership, changes winemakers or even buys and sells parcels, their classification does not change. This is totally weird, right?!
And yet. It is undeniable that the top growths perform better than most other wines around the world in blind tastings and that they are really something special to experience. Interestingly, as Jancis Robinson points out in her wine tomb, this makes total sense as the classification acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wines that cost more were ranked higher. Their high rank solidified their perceived value, which drove up their demand and price. This extra revenue funds research and development, the newest equipment and the best staff that lesser chateaux cannot afford. And the rich get richer.
There are other very unique businessy things in Bordeaux. The en primeur system is bizarre and cool to read about. The Chinese explosion of interest and subsequent 'hangover' ("hangover" really, guys? but totally if I wrote that I would be lol-ing at myself for days, so that's cool, own it) is another fascinating topic and trend to watch. But one thing to always consider when buying Bordeaux: it is business baby. There is value and quality and delicious products, but at the top level, you are buying a luxury brand not a piece of dirt.