Sour Grapes

Once a royal pour, Bordeaux has lost its crown.

Oh, my! What’s happening to the king of red wines these days?

Is Bordeaux losing its crown because of some sort of senseless media assault? Are the world’s most vaunted wines, those famous first-growth chateaux such as Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour, Lafite and Mouton Rothschild, crumbling into just another famous French ruin? Can Bordeaux possibly be going the same way as long-forgotten southern French wines that it replaced as top dog some 300 years ago?

In the last year, prices of Bordeaux have dropped by as much as 50 percent, depending on the winery and locale.

Articles appearing in the foreign press, trade publications, and newsletters have cited everything form the world economic crisis to climate change to just plain not-very-good wine, as reasons for the stumble. Some have gone so far as to predict that the Bordeaux futures market, which has been an extraordinarily solid investment for two or three decades, is about to collapse altogether. Can winery bankruptcies be far behind? A skeptic must wonder.

Rubbing salt into the wound recently, the popular Wall Street Journal wine-critic duo of Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher trashed the newly released 2006 vintage, writing, “Let’s get right to the point. These wines, as a group, are the worst values in first-growth Bordeaux we’ve ever seen. Ever.”

Just look at the prices to see the face of the problem. The highly rated 2005 Lafite Rothschild sold for about $1,500 on release last year. This year’s release, the 2006, is admittedly not as good a vintage, but it’s selling for a lowly $550. That’s about as low as it has been — with an exception or two — in a decade, perhaps more. And there are lots of like examples.

So, what to make of this? What’s the correct perspective?

First, to nobody’s surprise, Bordeaux prices have been ridiculously overblown since about the mid 1990s. The price accelerator hit full throttle with the release of 2005s. So, in some ways, a course correction, as they say in stock market talk, was bound to happen sooner or later.

First-growth Bordeaux have become the Bugati or Bentley of wine, affordable almost exclusively to dot-com czars, doctors, lawyers, and those who did very well when the markets were roaring along. But when the economy went into freefall, high-end wines began suffering. First to be affected were the expensive California wines, then anything north of $50 a bottle. But until lately, Bordeaux seemed oddly immune.

In addition, the French are feeling another factor creeping into their wines, and not just in those of Bordeaux — climate change.

France has been producing noticeably riper and more extracted wines in the last four or five years, wines more like those of California — even prune-like, at times. Long, hot stretches of weather are altering the delicate balance of place, soil, and sun, and what those three factors produce collectively: “terroir,” as the French call it.

A television program dealing with climate went so far as to project, through animation, how Bordeaux might look several decades from now. It included palm trees and dusty orange groves where vines now grow.

All of which leaves the British, Scots, and others to the north of France amused and wondering if they have a future in something new.

Chateau Glenfiddich, anyone?

Some recommendations

2007 Perrin Nature Côtes du Rhône ($16):

This grenache and syrah blend is ripe, rich, and round, and an extremely good value. Nice day-to-day red.

2006 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot, Columbia Valley ($13)

Chocolate and berry flavors, good acidity and balance. A bargain year-to-year wine.

NV Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noir, Sonoma County ($20)

Consistently one of the best sparkling wines from California; crisp entry, strawberry notes, and a refreshing back palate.

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