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Opinion 3

Big Bordeaux is Beautiful, Bordeaux guard your strength!  (12-04-2003)

I used to be a strong admirer of Bordeaux wines, both red and white. That has changed dramatically during the last ten years. What I liked about “old fashioned” Bordeaux was the incredible combination of power, elegance, complexity and depth. A combination rarely found in wines from anywhere else in the world. Every time you drank the same good Bordeaux you encountered new aspects and new impressions. Bordeaux, especially red, was nearly always a bit restraint, difficult to approach, you had to work to discover the symphonic complexity, work through the tannins and the acidity, that is why these wines did shine with food (meat).

The biggest problem with Bordeaux one or two decades ago was that you had next to the few good wines so many mediocre or even bad examples that only provided you with unripe tannins, tart acidity and a great hole in the middle of the taste, lacking body and extract. Not to mention the aromatic disasters of faulty barrels, rotten fruit, nasty yeast cultures, uncontrolled fermentation temperatures, etc. Buying Bordeaux was less tricky than buying Burgundy, but a lot could be improved.

The technical development of the last twenty years and the implementation of these techniques and know-how has decimated the inability of many wine producers to produce a sound product. Now making a good wine is more dependent on motivation, mentality and vision than on financial and technical resources. The average quality of Bordeaux increased, the style changed into a more accessible one. No one could complain, but there was another strong influence on the style: blind tasting and tasting scores.

high scores - high prices
The high quality wines form Médoc, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol that received high tasting scores did very well during the “en primeur” campaign, fetching high prices. - You can buy (Bordeaux) wines in spring after the harvest (“en primeur”), before they are ready. The wines still need up to two years before they can be bottled. These wines are then shipped to the buyers. This is only attractive if the wine is scarce and you want to be sure not to miss out a vintage, and / or if the price of the wine is significantly higher after bottling compared to the “en primeur price”.-

Tasting “en primeur” wines on offer is very difficult and hard work and above all not possible for most of us, so experts do the job and evaluate the wines. You need a lot of experience to be able to predict how the infant wine will develop. Using these evaluations as a guide there is no need to base one’s buying strategy on reputation of certain producers only. Thus minimizing risks in buying.

the norm: Parker
Robert Parker was the first and most extensive “en primeur” taster for Bordeaux using a "100 points scale". With the increasing wealth and world wide growing interest in wine, many novices entered the market. His marks out of 100 became the standard for many of the new buyers. As you can read in tasting notes and scores, scores are not so objective as one tends to think. Scores are always a reflection of a personal opinion of a (undoubtedly) highly experienced and capable wine taster. To use the scores safely you at least need to know the tasters’ criteria and standards on which he bases his judgement.

How consistent and objective Parkers’ judgements may be, he has a preference for concentrated, rich and wood aged wines. There is a strong need for wines to score well during the “en primeur” tastings in spring in order to be able to enter the market with a high price. These “en primeur” tastings are based on unfinished wine samples drawn from one or more barrels in which they mature. The same wine from each barrel tastes different as each barrel is (more or less) different. With the selection of the sample barrel(s) the wine maker has some influence on the tasting scores. There are rumours producers know which barrel should be used to sample wines for which taster. There is also a strong tendency to produce wines for the “market” it is to suit the pallet of the most influential taster. Vin Parkerisé is a well known expression in Bordeaux. By the way, we should not blame Mr. Parker for this phenomena, but the producers, or even more: the buyers.

bigger wines
So there have been a tendency in Bordeaux to produce more and more wines in the full-bodied and powerful style. The more refined and elegant wines do not have the same chance in gaining high scores in tastings, even if the wine critic has a preference for this lighter style. In blind tastings of 50 or more wines, powerful wines with mild acidity and ripe and sweet tannins and vanillin from new wood (barrel ageing) it seems that elegant wines with firm tannins and a high acidity miss concentration and ripeness.

With such blind tastings and scores of Parker the more elegant species will gradually become extinct. The power of economy has introduced power in Bordeaux wines. Big is beautiful, bigger is better.

Big and bold are easier to understand than understated power and refinement, elegance and balance. The world is becoming faster and more superficial, however there are some hopeful signs the “old fashioned” values are being rediscovered. I like to contribute to this movement, this web site is an expression of my concern with the loss of these invaluable elements in wine.

If you want a opaque, strong, powerful, hefty wine, packed with earthy tannins, loaded with dark fruit and spices buy a good Madiran for a fraction of the price of a Médoc, if you want a blockbuster with warmth, richness, power, cooked and jammy spicy fruit buy a Gigondas or Châteauneuf, these wines are better in it than red Bordeaux. If you are looking for something more refined try to find a high quality Bordeaux. Even some "old fashioned" Bordeaux are being produced, but you have to look very hard to find them and most of them are expensive, but there are still surprising exceptions.

I Still remember the scandal some twenty years ago when in a blind tasting wines from outside Bordeaux beated the big and reputed names in Médoc. The reaction of the Bordelais was: you can not compare a young Médoc with such bold, superficial non-terroir wines from Spain or California. Impossible to taste these wines against each other, these flashy show-offs with obvious toasted wood, easy impressers, no history and depth. Horrible!!.In fact they were right, it is not fair to compare different wines in different stages of development with each other, but this tasting proved that Bordeaux did not have a monopoly on top quality wines. In fact that was the shocking message for the reputed producers.
The Bordelais have learnt their lesson since, the same style of wines, the easy impressers and even non-terroir wines from Saint-Emilion (Valandraud) are heralded as French finest. It is a difficult to fight type of virus: money. Even the Bordelais got it. Like the Phylloxera this virus is moving vast through the vineyards of the world, and Bordeaux is not spared from it that is for sure.

back to the roots !
But maybe there is a cure. Go where the problem is as with Phylloxera: go back to the roots ! Terroir is the solution for top wines. Every year, read the soil, grapes and vintage carefully, not only the market or the scores of a few wine experts, and make the wine accordingly.

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