Wine: Bordeaux Blues

Steep prices and over-hyping of vintages have flattened the sales from France’s top wine region

You have to wonder what’s behind the listlessness in Bordeaux wines here and whether, or why, a portion of the wine-drinking American public has begun to turn off to France’s premier wine region.

Although there aren’t a lot of reliable sales numbers to explain why (at least, not that I can find), looking around the Internet and talking to a few owners and managers of large wine stores last month revealed agreement that, yes, sales of Bordeaux have flattened out.

One clear reason is price. There isn’t a lot of attractive pricing in the lower-quality categories of Bordeaux Superieur or Cru Bourgeois. You’ll find some in the $9 to $15 range, but not many. What we see primarily is the pricier stuff in the $30- to $40-a-bottle range, and thus, out of range when compared to similar wines made from the same grapes coming from Chile, Argentina, and northern Italy, and cooler areas of California, Washington, and Oregon.

This downward trend was first noted in England in 2009, where French wine sales dropped 6.5 percent, according to a British wine-trade publication. France fell into third place in wine sales behind Australia and California and with Italy nipping at its heels in fourth place.

Another reason suggested for flat sales has been that Bordeaux promoters have vastly over-hyped one vintage after another in Bordeaux as “the best of the century.” That issue was raised a year ago in the British daily The Telegraph, where wine writer Charles Metcalfe noted, “Only 11 years into the 21st century, and we’ve already had four ‘vintages of the century’ from the Bordeaux sales machine — 2000, 2005, 2009, and 2010. And that’s not counting 2003, where Robert Parker, guru to the American wine-drinking public, did the work for them.”

The French themselves seem to be fed up with the hyping of Bordeaux, the subject in part of a hysterical, biting, almost vicious Tin-Tin-style book, called The Seven Heady Sins of Robert Parker, in which a gang of hooded knights of Bordeaux kidnaps the American wine writer and puts him on trial for ruining Bordeaux with sloth, greed, lust, and the rest of those naughty acts.

Most of the anointed vintages have turned out to be anything but vintages of the century. The overall quality of Bordeaux wines has been moribund for several years, even as prices continue to rise.

Try to find even a deuxiéme or troisiéme grand cru Bordeaux (second and third growths) for below $75. If anything, you’re likely to spend more like $100 to $150.

The once-upon-a-time good deal second labels of Château Lafite Rothschild, the Carruades de Lafite sells for $300, while the second label of Château Mouton Rothschild is around $150.

Metcalfe says the price of most wines released so far are 10- to 20-percent higher than 2010’s opening prices, despite warnings from the wine trade in Europe and the United States that such increases could put off buyers.

“The French have lost out for all sorts of reasons,” Metcalf writes. “Champagne has too much bling, and the rest of France’s wines are too complicated. General de Gaulle’s famous line about France being ungovernable because it had 246 varieties of cheese pales into insignificance beside French wine’s 1,376 different appellations of origin — and that’s just the top level of official ranking.”

Bordeaux may not have reason to be too worried, however.

In China, where its wines have suddenly become all the rage in nightclubs and expensive new restaurants, people are buying Bordeaux by the pallet. And if merely a million Chinese like their wines already, and are willing to pay those prices, think of what they can do with such a huge, unconquered market still to go.

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