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Out with Bordeaux, In with the….?

2011 December 29
by Mike

With 2011 now down to its final hours, I have been playing grape skin prophet and giving some thought to what the major wine stories of 2012 are likely to be. My guess is that the biggest story of the coming year will be the continuation of what I believe was the biggest story of 2011: the declining importance of Bordeaux. Among American consumers, there seems to be little love for Bordeaux at the moment. Left Bank, Right Bank, grands crus classés or crus bourgeois—it makes no difference. Bordeaux is completely out of fashion right now. Fairly or not, the aggressive pricing for the top growths has soured many wine buffs on the entire region, and while it is possible the diminished interest in Bordeaux is just temporary, I can’t help but wonder if something more permanent is taking hold.

While there is no question that greed (or extreme profit-maximization, to put it more delicately) has hurt Bordeaux’s image, I think Bordeaux is also suffering because tastes are changing. A few months ago, I suggested that cabernet sauvignon’s hegemony is over; for many oenophiles, pinot noir has supplanted cabernet as the reference-point grape, and this has eroded Bordeaux’s stature (Napa’s, too). An even bigger problem for Bordeaux is that because of the high prices of the classified growths, younger drinkers are cultivating their palates on wines from other places. For generations of wine enthusiasts, Bordeaux was the benchmark; the finest clarets were the yardstick against which all other wines were measured. But that’s clearly not the case for this new breed of wine geeks. For them, Bordeaux is just another region, and I doubt that will change.

With sales in the U.S. moribund, the Bordelais have been banking on Asia in recent years. But even there, Bordeaux now seems to be losing some of its cachet. China’s Lafite craze looks to have peaked, and Burgundies, not Bordeaux, were the hottest items during the fall auctions in Hong Kong. Burgundy long ago eclipsed Bordeaux as the lodestar for younger American collectors; the same thing may be happening now in Asia. Meanwhile, British merchants are already warning that next spring’s en primeur campaign could be a disaster unless the Bordelais cut prices dramatically. Is Bordeaux just in a rut, or are we witnessing an historic shift in consumer preferences? I suspect the next 12 months will go a long way to answering that question.

What do you think is happening with Bordeaux, and what do you believe the big wine stories of 2012 are likely to be? Let’s hear some predictions!

56 Responses leave one →
  1. January 6, 2012

    Hi there colleagues, good post and fastidious urging commented at this place, I am truly enjoying by these.

  2. Jay S. Miller permalink
    January 4, 2012

    Hello Mike
    You don’t need to concern yourself about Bern’s list being picked over. Some of my favorites have sold out but there are literally hundreds, probably a thousand, wines on the list that I would love to try. That’s how vast the collection is at America’s greatest wine destination. It might sound like I have an investment in Bern’s; I only wish I did.

  3. January 3, 2012

    Hi Jay, thanks for stopping by. You make some great points. It is simply amazing what has happened to prices over the last 30 years, and I agree completely–even if Bordeaux is losing some of its cachet, we are never again going to see prices and buying opportunities of the kind that were available to you back in the early 1980s. Sixty cases of top-flight Bordeaux on a $38,000 salary? Incredible. I suppose one could argue that Bordeaux was undervalued at that time; I’ve heard the same argument used to justify the price hikes we’ve seen for Burgundy over the last decade or so.

    I agree with you that in general, Americans do not start with Bordeaux; they start with California and eventually gravitate to Bordeaux and other old world regions. But didn’t the hype surrounding the 82s pull in a lot of newbies? It’s always been my impression that Parker’s enthusiasm for the vintage turned a lot of people onto wine.

    Thanks, too, for the Bern’s recommendation. I have never been there, but it appears that I’m going to be in the Tampa area in a few months, and I hope to finally make the pilgrimage. It’s too bad the wine list is so picked over, but that’s part of the same story–the soaring demand for the finest wines. And obviously, because of the price hikes that we’ve seen over the last 10-15 years, it is now very difficult for restaurants like Bern’s to replenish their cellars with top growths. I can’t imagine that they’re holding much 05 Lafite or Latour, for instance.

  4. January 3, 2012

    Zack, you make some excellent points–as I said before, Bordeaux has become a tale of two worlds, and producers on the periphery have been pummeled over the last decade or so. The 1855 classifications have obviously carried Bordeaux far, and the First Growths still enjoy enormous prestigious, but I think demand is clearly faltering, and prices will adjust accordingly.

    Frank, that’s a great question. Yes, it is true that in really outstanding years, such as 2005, there is quality across the board, and even “minor” wines can offer a lot of pleasure. Those wines also don’t require years of cellaring to show their best, as is the case with the top growths.

  5. Bill Klapp permalink
    January 3, 2012

    But Jay, fess up: you or somebody you know drank up all of the best Burgundy buys over the past decade, eh? Haven’t been lately, but hear good things about the current sommelier, and they apparently still have good quantities of less than household names, but at least from great vintages and at good prices.

  6. Jack Bulkin permalink
    January 3, 2012

    I have had the pleasure of going to Berns in the 80’s Jay when they still had an enormous selection of ancient wines at ridiculous prices. I took the wine list that resembled a full Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and I still have it to this day. Ah, the good old days. I don’t remember the strip club when I was there though. Dang.

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