Master of Wine and scientist Benjamin Lewin’s non-fiction book What Price Bordeaux has a title that, unlike many non-fictional works, is meant to convey a series of meanings or themes that are touched on at some point in the body of the work itself.
In this case, What Price Bordeaux refers, at turns, to
- The skyrocketing prices of wines from Bordeaux’s top chateau, while its minor AOCs are in such crisis that they are forced to sell their wines for distillation in order to avoid bankruptcy.
- The maddening opacity of Bordeaux’s wine business, which Lewin investigated intensely in the writing of his book, and where simple data points, such as the average price of a bottle of red Bordeaux in 2007, were hidden from him by the area’s professional organizations.
- The 1855 Classification of Bordeaux’s top producers, which organized the “best” wines by price in the Medoc (Lewin boldly offers an updated, new classification in What Price Bordeaux, which contains some shockers in terms of who now ranks above whom in current Bordeaux market prices).
- The loss of Bordeaux wines’ identities in favor of an “International” red wine style currently more popular with consumers and influential wine critics – resulting in skyrocketing price increases and occasional price crashes for high-end Bordeaux wines.
What Price Bordeaux contains enough fodder for a month’s worth of wine blog posts, but that would deny you the pleasures (and shock) of reading it (which I recommend that you do). Instead, it’s the last point above that I want to talk about, concentrating on Chapter 10 (“The New Bordeaux”), which alone is worth the price of the book.
After reading Chapter 10 in Lewin’s book, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that Bordeaux wines are becoming more and more like those of the Napa Valley not just because they are chasing the elevated scores that wine critics give to that style of red wine, but also because they may have no other choice…
Let’s do this by the numbers, since that’s really how Lewin makes his strongest arguments for the changes in Bordeaux in the last few decades.
- First, the plantings in Bordeaux certainly support the idea that there has been a growing (ha-ha!) trend to create wines that are more accessible and more easily drinkable earlier. Between 1985 and 2007, in the classified growths, Cabernet Sauvignon plantings have decreased about 5%, Cabernet Franc decreased about the same amount (and overall represents only about 5% of the overall total), Petit Verdot remains a very minor player, and Malbec and Carmenere barely register when graphing the plantings. During the same time frame, plantings of the lush and easy-drinking Merlot increased nearly 10% – suggesting a move towards more Merlot to soften the wines and make them more accessible earlier.
Booze & Acids
- Between 1970 and 2005, potential alcohol levels in Bordeaux grapes have increased 15-20%, while acidity has decreased about 10% per decade and is now at roughly 75% of the 1970s levels. This is in-line with the International style of high-end reds (less acid, more booze, more up-front fruit).
So far, this still looks like the classified Bordelais growths are chasing the bombastic, high-point-scoring (and therefore high-price-demanding) style.
BUT… take a look at the climate numbers before you totally condemn the Bordelais for giving up their terroir-inspired legacy in favor of the almighty dollar.
- Over the past 50 years, the average temperature in Bordeaux has climbed by nearly 3 degrees Centigrade, closer to the average temperature of the Southern Rhone in the 1950s. This means that grapes ripen differently than in the past and have to be harvested earlier – about 13 days earlier on average.
- During the same time, the average growing season temperature has risen in Bordeaux, and is now roughly equal to that of the Napa Valley. Rainfall in the same timespan has fallen 3mm per decade.
Maybe Bordeaux isn’t just chasing the big points after all – maybe Bordeaux is trending towards an “International Style”of higher alcohol and greater fruit extraction not just out of economic incentive, but also because climate change is making that style inevitable.
What price Bordeaux, indeed.