|Of all the wines of the world, no other style has had as significant an influence over the South African wine output as that of Bordeaux.
It will indeed be hard to make an argument of superior influence for any other French appellation on all new-world producing countries, and even much of the old world. No other wine has inspired as many parallel expressions – with apology to hard core Burgundy fans – as that of Bordeaux.
Apart from being a region in southwest France (the Gironde department), with the significant port city of Bordeaux as its capital, Bordeaux is France’s largest (by total production) wine region, and produces more of the world’s most expensive wines than anywhere else. The total quantity of wine produced each year, vintage depending, just about matches that of South Africa’s entire wine production. It has a history of wine production dating as far back as 300 AD, and claims spiritual residence to some of the world’s most known and noble varieties.
Although somewhat complex in its classification, the menu of wines on offer from Bordeaux is actually quite simple. The region produces the top, arguably close to the bottom, and everything in between of: medium to full-bodied red wines from one or more of only five allowed grape varieties; elegant, floral dry white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes only (most often blended); rich and complex botrytised sweets from the same white varietals (among which are the famous wines of Sauternes); and even some fine brandies. None of the other categories, however, match the significance of the red wines.
As in all of France, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée (AOC) system applies in Bordeaux, regulating styles, volume and grape variety in accordance with physical site, or ‘terroir’. The five (and only) red varieties grown and used are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Carmenere was traditionally also used, but is now negligible. Thus, any red wine made from one or more of these varietals in another part of the world can correctly be referred to as a Bordeaux-style red.
Note that it doesn’t have to be a combination of all five, or even a blend at all, as is commonly mistaken locally. Although a major factor in the success of their wines is their mastery of blending, a 100 percent Cabernet would be at home in Bordeaux, and therefore a legitimate Bordeaux red.
Of further importance is the river Gironde that flows through the area, moderating the microclimates of the vineyards, influencing the soil, and geographically dividing the growing region into the right and left banks. The left bank, which is closer to the Atlantic, is known as the Médoc, and hosts the famous Cru Classé Châteaux, with wines dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. This small strip of land (no more than 12 kilometres wide) stretches from the edge of the suburbs of the city of Bordeaux in the south and along the left bank of the Gironde for all of 70 kilometres to the Bas Médoc close to the river mouth in the north. The Bas Médoc district producers are allowed the Médoc appellation on their labels, and the wines from here are generally inferior to those further south, known as the Haut-Médoc, which hosts the famous communes of Pauillac, St Julien, Margaux and St Estèphe.
On the right bank, the communes of Saint Émilion and Pomerol use Merlot as the primary grape variety for their wines. This is Merlot in its richest and purest form, and the top expressions certainly are worlds apart from the ‘light and fruity’ tag that the new world has assigned to the cultivar. St Émilion has also had an official classification in 1955 into what’s known as the Grand Crus of St Émilion. Some 13 Bordeaux wines from St Émilion boast Premiers Grand Cru Classés status, with Château Ausone and Cheval Blanc leading the pack. Historically this town is the most noteworthy and picturesque in Bordeaux, built on a network of 8th-century caves carved out of the cliffs and having UNESCO World Heritage status because of it. In next door Pomerol, the prestige is associated with brands or producers, rather than site, and thus not geographically classified. Many will recognise the names of Château Petrus, whose wines fetch prices to match (and sometimes even higher) those of the 1st Growths of the Médoc, along with Le Pin and Lafleur.
Onto the classification. In 1855, the French authorities, in line with growing trends in the industry to assign distinctions to the fruits of the vine, divided the premium vineyards of Bordeaux into categories ranging from 1st to 5th Growth, with 1st being top of the pick, down to the 5th, and leaving the unclassified rest of the growers in their wake. The idea was to help regulate the market in terms of allowing certain producers to justify higher prices for their wines than others. The Bordeaux brokers (echoed mostly by that of the market) formalised what were their own ratings of relative quality of the leading Châteaux of the Médoc (along with one from Graves) into a five-class classification of 61 growers. This system has been highly criticised ever since, with the argument that some growers lower down the ranks can, specific to vintage and some even consistently, outperform some of their ‘superiors’ in quality, while others that haven’t been included in the initial classification can make strong arguments for now deserving a spot. Very few would care, naturally, if the market wasn’t as strongly influenced in their buying decisions, and willingness to dig deep, by the classed growth of an individual Château.
Regardless of opinion, the fact is that apart from a couple of very strong brands created elsewhere (some 2nd Growth Châteaux are for instance known as super-seconds), the top prices are fetched by the five Premiers Crus of the Médoc. You needn’t be a wine aficionado to have heard of Château Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild or Haut Brion.
The English refer to red Bordeaux wines as Claret. It’s only right that they have their own term for it, for if perhaps soon no longer, the English have been Bordeaux’s largest export market for 900 years. It would be fair to say that they have largely shaped it to its current form.
Perhaps Bordeaux’s biggest accomplishment has not been the heights of quality reached by the best of the best, in the great vintages, but rather the sheer volumes that they produce at this level. Many other wine regions, including South Africa, can and have produced red wines from the same, or other, grape varieties to match the finest from Bordeaux. None however, have matched the consistency and the volume. Keep in mind that as all vineyards are classified and producers are as quality conscious as ever, the volumes are, allowing for vintage variation, finite. In the past 20 years, production in the great estates has been the same, or down if there’s been a difference at all.
These are the wines that the Far East is queuing up for on auction. Larger transparency around the mythical world of wine has opened new markets, with probably more to come. The wines appreciate more in equity than many other investments (with correct buying, of course), and the wines that age like a good human being, reach a sophistication that is hard to match.
With prestige comes demand, and with its very good supply, classified Bordeaux dominates the lucrative global fine wine auction scene. Wines are sold on an en primeur basis, which means you buy a slice of the pie before it’s out of the oven. In this case, wines are traded by brokers who have their hands on ever more hard to come by allocations as ‘wine futures’ before they’ve even been bottled. Often a wine will change hands numerous times before landing in a cellar where its hosted purpose is consumption. This does not mean that the wine has to move around physically. An investor can buy and sell a parcel of wine, still in bond (duties and taxes not levied) while it stays put at a bonded warehouse, snugly unaware of its change in fate. Only the final buyer will, upon release from bond, have to settle duties and taxes, and of transport.
In current market austerity, high-end Bordeaux has been on the up. Value of the fine wine market has increased fourfold since 2004. In a recent presentation on the fine wine investment market at the Hong Kong (fast becoming the leading auction address) International Wine and Spirit Fair, James Miles, director of Liv-ex.com, a global trading platform website, made strong arguments for a wine egg in one’s investment portfolio. Of all other SWAG (silver, wine, art and gold) investment forms, the return on wine has been the best over the past 20 years, also with lower volatility. There is also the perk of being able to drink it if the investment doesn’t pan out.
Influential wine critic and Bordeaux authority, Robert Parker, made an accurate prediction some 10 years ago that the top-end from Bordeaux will get even more expensive in time. To quote Parker directly: ‘Competition for the world’s greatest wines will increase exponentially. The most limited production wines will become even more expensive and more difficult to obtain. It is simple – the quantity of these great wines is finite, and the demand for them will become at least 10 times greater.’
With the very illustrious 2009 and 2010 vintage sales behind us, this prophecy has certainly been realised already, with more to come. As with any investment however, good choices are rewarded while bad ones may be punished. A case of Mouton 2000 purchased en primeur in 2001 for less than €100/bottle can now fetch close to €1000/bottle, while others vintages of the same wine might have stagnated or dropped in value. As it is a natural product, one also has to bear in mind that it doesn’t keep appreciating regardless, and we have to look to commentators and brokers with feelers in the market to guide us in terms of the development of the wines. When buying with the purpose to resell, providence of the wine is also very important. This means that we have to be wary about who we buy from, and make sure that wines are stored in temperature-controlled, bonded warehouses after release from their cradles at the Chai in Bordeaux.
Although Bordeaux is not the area one would look at when searching for value wines in France, there are some great buys around from lesser known, unclassified or satellite vineyards and communes, often under Bordeaux Superior or Cru Bourgeois AOC status. These take a bit of legwork to discover as they can be hit-and-miss, but we’ve included some great relative value in our Bordeaux recommendations in the article ‘The French Connection’ in this issue. Wines like these would not have resell value, but then wine is made to be drunk after all.
As with any other artform, influence from the benchmark is inevitable, and carbon copying is detrimental. South African wine producers know this, and good producers produce wines with a sense of place and identity of their own. However, if we’re looking forward to great fine-wine consumption in South Africa, we need to go full circle in our relationship with Bordeaux wines, and take further notice, not only as producers, but also as a market.
Of all that’s been learnt from one another with regard to vineyard practices and winemaking techniques, one distinct difference has remained the global market’s view on Bordeaux as opposed to any other region. One cannot underestimate the influence of demand on a product’s evolution. Look at what en primeur has done for Bordeaux. Climate and nature play huge parts, but the main reason Bordeaux still produces austere and restrained wines demanding maturation in bottle is perhaps because of the market for it. This in turn allows producers the luxury of making wines with the capacity to age. This means that the sale of wine as a future allows growers to finance a crop that will only be ready for consumption in a decade or more.
While bold and fruit-forward red wines that are ready to drink soon after bottling certainly have their place on the table, for the beautifully long-lived Bordeaux grape varieties, a mature bottle in its drinking window certainly is the pinnacle. With a rich heritage of red Bordeaux-style winemaking in South Africa, we can and do make such wines here. The survival of this style just depends on the market’s willingness to invest in it. So go on, dig in!
This article first appeared in the printed Autumn 2012 edition of WineStyle Magazine. Please visit www.wine-style.co.za for more pictures and to subscribe to the magazine.