The modern face of Bordeaux

The market for Bordeaux is changing, with poor weather hitting the 2013 crop and a surge in demand in China. But the wine itself is also changing

 Vineyard in Bordeaux, France

Vineyard in Bordeaux, France

Sat, Sep 21, 2013, 01:00

At one time Bordeaux was king in Ireland. In the 1970s the region boasted a 25 per cent share of the Irish wine market. Since then the world of wine has changed beyond recognition and our tastes have certainly broadened. Yet Bordeaux remains one of the best-known names in Ireland and still records healthy sales figures.

Media reports on the region tend to focus on the mind-boggling prices paid for the top wines at auction or in the annual en primeur campaign. These wines sell for such incredible sums that they are investment vehicles rather than something to drink; it must be hard to knock back a bottle of wine for which you have paid €1,000 (the equivalent of €170 per glass). Never having done so, I cannot be sure.

But the classed growths, the blue-chip wines of Bordeaux, account for less than 3 per cent of the region’s production. Beneath the glamour and expense of the top wines lie several tiers of lesser châteaux, many of which are struggling to make a living. The 2013 vintage seems unlikely to help their cause. Cold spring weather followed by a wet early summer means that the grapes are behind their normal ripening cycle. For some, this year has brought disaster as several devastating hailstorms last month wiped out entire vineyards in the space of a few minutes. Overall, it is predicted that the crop may be down 20 per cent on 2012. For properties affected by hail, there could be no crop at all. Those who could no longer afford expensive hail insurance face ruin.

The long term does not necessarily look too good for the Irish claret drinker either. Bordeaux is in demand the world over, with a recent surge in popularity in the Far East. Nor are people from this region simply drinking it. Over the past two years, Chinese buyers have purchased 44 châteaux in Bordeaux. Some of these are vanity buys by successful businesspeople, but more often they are a means for a Chinese importer to ensure future supply. These wines may therefore leave the international market for good.

Where does that leave the Irish Bordeaux lover? For the moment there is still enough in the middle and lower tiers to supply demand. If prices rise a little, it should ensure that decent producers continue to earn a decent living. If demand begins to outstrip supply, some of the neighbouring areas such as Bergerac and Pécharmant produce very good wines using the same grape varieties, often at reasonable prices.

The kind of wine produced in Bordeaux has changed in recent years. Alcohol levels were traditionally between 12 per cent and 13.5 per cent in most wines. Nowadays it is common to see 14 per cent and even 14.5 per cent, figures once the preserve of wines from the Rhône or the Languedoc. Add in the pervasive use of new oak and Bordeaux has changed immeasurably, from being a light, dry, sometimes tannic, refreshing wine into something altogether richer and rounder.

This is anathema to traditional claret drinkers, but newcomers to wine find the new style more attractive. Overall, however, Bordeaux is making far better wine than previously, particularly in the mid-priced range. For this article I worked my way through some 50 wines, all selling for less than €20, and I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality. There were very few bad wines, although I did come across a disturbingly high number of corked bottles.

In times past, a lot of inexpensive Bordeaux wines were fairly weedy and no fun to drink. Some of the more modern wines were certainly too pumped up with high alcohol levels and smothered in new oak. They could have come from anywhere. But between these two opposites, Bordeaux now produces plenty of well-made, reasonably priced, medium-bodied wines with good ripe fruit and a light tannic edge. These are great food wines. With autumn now here, they will provide plenty of satisfying drinking alongside roast red meats.

Mitchell & Son and 64Wine, situated less than 100 metres away from each other in Glasthule/Sandycove, received the best overall scores for their Bordeaux. They were followed closely by O’Briens, which always has a good selection of Bordeaux, and Mullingar-based retailer and importer Wines Direct. I shall feature more of the wines throughout the autumn.

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