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Natural Bordeaux Killers?

2011 July 1
by Mike

British wine writer Jamie Goode, whose does some excellent work in the area of wine science, has a curious item on his blog. Under the title “The Coming Wine War,” Goode contends that the “fine wine establishment” is feeling threatened by the natural wine phenomenon, to the point that it may even attempt to snuff it out. The great and the good of Bordeaux are particularly nervous, he says; that’s because vins naturels expose “high-end Bordeaux for what it is: on the whole, somewhat less interesting than the newly emerging terroir wines from other regions.” He suggests the Bordelais might use their wealth and influence to buy off wine writers, wine publications, and wine educators in an effort to prevent the natural ethos from gaining any more traction (purchasable wine journalists? I can’t imagine!). “Expect to see an increasingly hostile, organized reaction towards the natural wine movement, and those journalists who support it,” Goode darkly intones. With all due respect, was he channeling Dan Brown when he wrote this? Read his piece and judge for yourself. It should be noted that Goode has a forthcoming book about natural wines, something he neglects to mention in his article.

Goode makes a number of questionable assertions, but I find his central claim especially unpersuasive, not least because he offers no evidence to support it. Now, perhaps my skepticism of the natural concept has blinded me to its subversive potential, but I really don’t think that Christian Moueix is losing sleep over the proliferation of natural wine festivals (the 2010 en primeur campaign? That might be keeping him awake at night). The top growths of Bordeaux cater to a completely different audience than, say, avant-garde vintners in the Loire, and pace Goode, I seriously doubt that the kind of people who buy Pétrus are going to taste some unsulfured vin de table and decide that Moueix has been peddling soulless, inauthentic confections (and it is odd that Goode seems to think there is an inverse relationship between price and authenticity; is La Tâche an inauthentic wine because it commands a four-digit price?)

It is highly unlikely that the “fine wine establishment” is going be upended by the naturalista insurrection. Goode mentions Champagne and the grower movement; I think the experience in the Champagne region is instructive, but not in the way Goode means to suggest. For all the (justifiable) hype about farmer fizz, the growers haven’t taken much business from the big brands. According to Terry Theise, grower bubblies currently account for 3.74 percent of all Champagne sales in the United States—“a fart in a windstorm to LVMH,” as he put it to me in an email (Terry does have a way with words). But the grower movement has influenced the grandes marques. The increasing number of single-vineyard wines, the trend towards lower dosage—these developments can certainly be credited in no small part to the small fry and their innovative ways.

It’s hardly a profound insight on my part to note that path-breaking ideas are often conceived on the fringe and adopted by the mainstream. I suspect that if the natural movement has any broader impact, it will be precisely in this way: conventional producers will borrow a few of its practices and apply them in their own vineyards and cellars. Already, some leading Bordeaux houses are working organically, and Château Pontet-Canet has even moved to biodynamic farming. Perhaps other aspects of the natural canon will catch on. However, it is wishful thinking to believe that natural wines threaten the First Growths and such. I think Bordeaux is in danger of losing its place atop the wine hierarchy, but that’s because it is pricing itself into irrelevance, not because natural wines are stealing away customers.

So fear not, my good friend Alice Feiring: François Pinault surely won’t be putting a hit out on you.

20 Responses leave one →
  1. May 9, 2015

    There’s definately a lot to know about this subject.

    I like all the points you’ve made.

  2. January 3, 2015

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  3. September 18, 2013

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  4. mauss permalink
    July 7, 2011

    As usual, when a new fashion arrives, you have always both aspects : the great and the bad.

    About “natural” wines, in the top, you have Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Leflaive, Lalou Bize-Leroy : quite some names involved in this path for many years now.
    A “cleaning” will occur soon, already started by Michel Bettane in their annual Guide.

  5. Wenglehaupt permalink
    July 7, 2011

    As an interesting side note, I just read the new book by Olivier Magny (Stuff Parisians Like: Discovering the Quoi in the Je Ne Sais Quoi) where he comments on the natural wine movement in Paris and its popularity among the young wine drinkers. He raises an interesting point that much of the “so-called” natural wine sold in Paris is in his view, seriously, technically flawed, and is sold to unsophisticated wine drinkers under the “natural” banner. If there is a ready market for cheap, poorly made wine, is there much of an incentive to improve it, let alone threaten the premier crus of Bordeaux?

  6. July 5, 2011

    Well, it certainly sparked an aweful lot of debate, which is always good, as well as entertaining as one or two of the 50+ (!) postings on Mr. Goode’s site alluded to.

    It is interesting to note, as others have, that one of the most talked of developments in Bordeaux today (aside from sky-high prices at top chateaux), is in fact their open recognition that the practises embraced during the green revolution are in fact counter-productive, a seemingly increasingly popular view.

    Consequently, far from being at odds with ‘natural wines’, minimal intervention, horses instead of tractors, natural manures etc are all being applied in vigour at many a Bordeaux chateaux.

  7. July 4, 2011

    Thanks, all, for some great comments. Jackson, I agree with Bill–a great description of Bordeaux’s function in the wine world. Historically, Bordeaux has also benefited from its maritime location, which played no small part in establishing its reputation as the gold standard of fine wine (clarets were a lot easier to export than, say, Burgundies). One shouldn’t be too harsh about Bordeaux, of course; it has produced some spectacular wines over the years. And I suppose it will continue to enjoy enormous cachet among the newly enriched. But for a lot of consumers, Bordeaux has indeed become irrelevant, and as Dan says, this dizzying run-up in prices for the top growths is very likely to end badly.

  8. Bill Klapp permalink
    July 4, 2011

    The Bordelais as a bunch of Forrest Gumps, just bumbling through the heart of wine history. This thesis has enormous appeal. More dumbass than devious. I can see it now: Michel Rolland being honored by the President of France and suddenly blurting out, “J’ai envie de pisser.”

  9. July 3, 2011

    I’ll lay out a somewhat contrarion point of view re the Bordelais. I don’t ascribe to them any sinister intent. Not to manipulate markets, and certainly not to undermine other wine regions, nor the more rustic or artisinal side of wine culture.
    I doubt that many, if any, of them know what took them to their present pinnacle, (perhaps precipice?). And if any of them do know and would like to find their way back, they would soon enough know that there is no good way back.
    I don’t see the present market for luxury Bordeaux to be anything different than the market for Cristal in the Rap fueled years. Other than their are a whole lot more Chinese businessmen with party and Party needs than there ever were monied rappers.
    Just as raging hurricanes can form from a patch of warm air in the Atlantic, so can raging markets. The perfect storm was created when the removal of duties in HK coinceded with the era of wine investment funds in Europe coincided with the USA bubble economy. And they all coincided with the Orientation of Lafite. All that we observe is rooted in Lafite; anything else that seems to be moving and rising is energized by Lafite’s strange circumstances of having become both an asset class and a class asset.
    So, by 2005 or so in this evolution the best and brightest of Bordeaux discover that they can raise more than enough cash without selling their entire annual output. They fall in love with their own supply- the classic prescription for exponential price rise in any commodity. But by 2008 or so, who could blame them? If they were to monetize all, what then to do with the money? A third jet? CDO’s? Greek Bonds?
    This is all just about the way that markets behave extremely some of the time. And some market will be behaving extremely somewhere all of the time. To personalize is a mistake.
    My opinions and I’m sticking to them!
    And no, I don’t have an opinion on where it ends, or when it ends. I do know how it ends. Badly. Always does.

  10. Bill Klapp permalink
    July 2, 2011

    Actually, Jackson, 2010 (and perhaps 2009, to a lesser extent) is something of a watershed vintage, in that there are a large number of Bordeaux consumers on the Squires wine board who appear to have neither the money to buy the 2010s nor sense. Some do have thinly veiled economic agendas , as the posters include desperate negoce and some leeches who are living off what is left of the chateaux fat for their ilk, in return for which they are pimping brands and a vintage that they will not buy themselves.

  11. July 2, 2011

    Bill

    Thanks for that.

    I absolutely agree. The discussion has actually prompted me to go digging into the economics of branding. I’m sure there’s some very basic microeconomics (if I dust off what I studied 20 years ago) which says a brand is basically a substitute for the investment of time in developing expertise. In other words:

    I can get a first growth experience with an investment of 1 hour of time reading reviews plus 1000 pounds going for a brand that has received a lot of attention

    Mike and you can each get a first growth experience (in whatever variteal….) for about 20 pounds I’m sure, but after the investment of much more time into obtaining expertise.

    The pejoritive way to put this is that Bordeaux consumers have “more money than sense”, but actually viewed as a trade off between the investment of either money and time, there will be a point at which it makes sense to swap one for the other (that point being different for all of us).

    Which is another way of expressing our agreement on this that Bordeaux will retain a function for a large number of “fine wine” consumers, even if we also agree that that is quite different from saying it’s the pinnacle of fine wine itself.

    Anyway, I’ve just cracked a German beer to greet the evening here in Europe. Absolutely awesome and it’s only three Euros! TFFT :)

  12. Bill Klapp permalink
    July 2, 2011

    “Most people who consider themselves wine lovers will probably spend their lives in the foothills quite happily. Bordeaux serves that function very well. You can get an exciting participation in things without having to be a pro and without running the risk of frostbite.”

    Jackson, what a great three sentences. I have always believed what you say. It is not that Bordeaux, and the Cali, Aussie and other Cabs that it has spawned, cannot be of excellent, even transcendent quality. But that does not happen any more often than it does for red or white Burgundy, Barolo, Champagne, German Riesling and the other great wines. Come a few feet down from the old, great-vintage first-growth peak of the mountain, and you have the world’s most successful lowest-common-denominator wine, not even saleable at the bottom rung. EVERYBODY “gets” the Cabernets and Merlot, and most people like them. And a completely untrained palate can take a sip of, say, the 1989 Haut-Brion and instantly judge it not only different, but also dramatically better, than anything had before it. I laughed out loud when Parker and the rich man’s Jeff Leve and Bordeaux pimp extraordinaire, Gil Lempert-Schwarz, laid waste to Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth, the new kid on the Bordeaux block, on the Squires board, allowing as how understanding Bordeaux has such a long learning curve and the kid would get there SOMEDAY, but blah, blah, blah. Rubbish. How many great old Bordeaux do you think that a 38-year-old lawyer for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore could afford to drink prior to his “discovery” of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage and financial success many years later? Of course, that is Parker, who sprang from the head of Zeus with a perfect palate and the ability to remember and identify blind a million wines. Rubbish redux. Parker is Everyman, and his palate is Everyman’s palate, which accounts for his extraordinary success. (Oh, and Molesworth got the 2008 Bordeaux vintage right, while Parker and Lempert-Schwarz did not.)

    While most of the great wines of the world are single-vineyard, Bordeaux is a blended product, not unlike perfume or coffee, and marketed much like perfume and Louis Vuitton bags. The chateaux now tweak (and perhaps have ALWAYS tweaked) the wines and winemaking techniques to meet fashion and popular demand. And it is a commodity more than it is a fine wine (albeit an absurdly priced one), and bought and traded as such by entirely too many people. I look around me, and I do not see many wine folk whose opinions I respect likely to get hurt when the bubble bursts. With apologies to Gordon Gekko, “Greed is no longer good. Greed no longer works.” Ask, say, Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow of Enron fame about that…

  13. July 2, 2011

    One corrrection in the last paragraph: “Bordeaux will cease to be relevant”, should have been “Bordeaux will be of less relevance”.

    I suspect most of us will still make a special trip when the magnum of 1982 Petrus is on the tasting list.

  14. July 2, 2011

    Mike

    I agree with all of that. I really don’t have anything to add, save for two points of response on the potential “Bordeaux irrelevance” thesis that you’re tossing over.

    1. Quick version: when do we all think that the luminaries of the biz are going to skip the annual Bordeaux en primeur pilgrimege? Any chance that rather than fewer people turning up in ten years, there may well be even more?

    2. Longer version: Bordeaux probably is going to become of greater irrelevance to many connoisseurs. But never lose sight of how far up wine’s Mount Everest the journey you and other lifetime connoisseurs has taken you. Most people who consider themselves wine lovers will probably spend their lives in the foothills quite happily. Bordeaux serves that function very well. You can get an exciting participation in things without having to be a pro and without running the risk of frostbite.

    It’s no different to saying most people who enjoy classical music will tend to stick with the big “Bs” and then get on with other things in their life. As it happens, it wasn’t enough for me, and I waste a lot of time chasing down the latest works of living composers (and listening to much rubbish for the discovery of every gem). It presses my buttons; but I understand it’s not for everyone.

    Bordeaux will cease to be relevant to the people like you, who in the course of a lifetime’s dedication have a great handle on the world’s wines. It will remain relevant, and perhaps of increasing relevance, for those who just want a step up into the general fine wine experience. That’s my sense anyway.

  15. Jack Bulkin permalink
    July 2, 2011

    Mr. Goode be Mr. Hypocrite. Such is the life of our present day wine writers.
    Of course, you are excluded Mike.

  16. Bill Klapp permalink
    July 2, 2011

    You do great work, Mike, but you are clearly out of your depth when it comes to vinous conspiracy. I have compelling evidence that Mr. Goode, is, in fact, correct, and has it all over you. First, let us consider this prediction from the Goode blog:

    “My prediction is that Bordeaux will seek to protect its place – and wealth – by bringing its influence to bear where it can. Already it holds leading journalists close, through quite lavish hospitality and access to rare older vintages for the privileged few. Some journalists have spotted where the money is, and for this reason have chosen to write extensively about Bordeaux. The top Châteaux’ sizeable advertising spend ensures that consumer wine magazines have a strong focus on the region. Perhaps these magazines will be discretely avoid giving coverage to the profoundly interesting (yet cash poor) terroiriste and natural wines, which come with zero advertising spend.”

    Now consider the profound and sinister implications of what happened to THIS poor naturalista blogger:

    “More science and a quick trip to Bordeaux

    It has been a busy week so far. Monday and Tuesday were taken up by the meeting I was working on about the evaluation of medical research, and which I now have to write a report on. It may seem odd for a wine journalist to be working on this sort of project, especially when I have plenty of other stuff to keep me going, but I’m keen to maintain a link to science – a field in which, until earlier this year I’d been working in for fifteen years. I have lots of experience that I don’t want to waste, and I reckon that an occasional science gig can only help keep me fresh for my wine work.

    Then for Wednesday and Thursday were spent in Bordeaux, visiting the properties of Bernard Magrez. We stayed overnight at Chateau Pape Clement, which was quite grand. On a non-wine related note, we also accompanied Monsieur Magrez to watch the Bordeaux v. Chelsea game in his private box. The coolest bit of the trip, though, was the transport. We flew from London City airport on his private jet, and then were whisked around the various properties by helicopter. Flying over the famous estates of the Medoc in a chopper is a memorable experience. Full write up to follow. Pictured above is the view of Ch Fombrauge, one of the Magrez properties, in St Emilion.

    Tonight I have to give a talk on the perception/psychology/philosophy of wine at the Athenaeum club. I need to finish my presentation.”

    And there is PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE of the influence brought to bear in this instance by the nefarious Bernard Magrez:

    Some more pictures from the Bordeaux trip:

    http://www.wineanorak.com/blog/uploaded_images/cosdestournel-783389.jpg

    Chateau Cos from the helicopter

    And Chateau Margaux, of course:

    http://www.wineanorak.com/blog/uploaded_images/margaux-750948.jpg

    And here is one of the TWO helicopters used for the wonderful chateau flyover:

    http://www.wineanorak.com/blog/uploaded_images/magrez2-755885.jpg

    And finally, here is a picture of the blogger himself, disembarking Monsieur Magrez’ private jet:

    http://www.wineanorak.com/blog/uploaded_images/magrez1-708245.jpg

    The last picture was captioned “Better than Easyjet and Ryanair!” by the abused blogger being forced to endure such “lavish hospitality”. (Dr. Jay Miller is going to turn over in his grave, and he is not even dead yet! Only ONE helicopter, no private jet, and no football match in a private box on his junket to Spain.) Wait a minute…that is JAMIE GOODE HIMSELF descending those jet steps! Jamie the Junketeering Blogger in the flesh! Oh, my! Could it be that he is one of those freeloading, “closely-held” journalists complained of in his blog, rather than the champion of the “profoundly interesting (yet cash poor) terroiriste and natural wines, which come with zero advertising spend” that he claims to be?

    You are a fraud and a hypocrite, Mr. Goode. And if I were you, I would not be quitting my wine science day job just yet. Let me conclude with a comment from one of your own readers on the pictures above:

    “At 2:26 AM, mrfroopy said…
    so much for the environment. One should not talk about Global warming and such if one is flying around in private jets and helicopters

    At 9:39 PM, Jamie said…
    Mr Froopy, that is a valid point. I appreciate your perspective. What should I do, as a wine journalist? Travel less? Or differently?”

    I cannot answer that for you, Mr. Goode. I can say only that, if you have pretensions of being a member of the Bordelais (private) jet set, and you do seem so sympatico with them, you will need to learn how to dress yourself properly. And a new Louis Vuitton leather overnight bag, filled with Moet and Hennessy bottles…

  17. Bob R. permalink
    July 1, 2011

    Talk about hitting the nail on the head: “I think Bordeaux is in danger of losing its place atop the wine hierarchy, but that’s because it is pricing itself into irrelevance, not because natural wines are stealing away customers.”
    Great insight. And I’m not being facetious.

  18. mauss permalink
    July 1, 2011

    Just in France, we have already some Groups including the word “bio” inside what they do. As always, you have some goods products (Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Leflaive, Domaine d’Auvenay) and some not so good.
    Yes, it is more than a fashion but quickly, it will find its path inside the large spectrum of making wines. No big fuss, and Bordeaux real and growing problem is quite different : how to scratch on a wall without loosing all the money put in your pocket !

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