BEHIND BORDEAUX

This article was originally published in The Vintner magazine in October 2023.

Chelsea Vintners’ Buying Director Giles Cooper and Head of Trading Oli Bartle have spent a lot of time in 2023 thinking about Bordeaux. From an invigorating en primeur tour (if you don’t include the wet sandwich lunch in a supermarket car park) to an inspiring team trip over the summer, their noses have been to the ground all year seeking out the best that this classic region has to offer. For this issue of The Vintner, Giles and Oli sat down to discuss the many changes that Bordeaux has experienced in recent years and why for them this will always be one of the world’s greatest wine regions.

 

Giles and Oli hard at work in the Château Figeac tasting room

GC  When I first started getting interested in wine, Bordeaux was held up as the wine region that all others should aspire to. Coincidentally, it was also my first wine tourism experience, and visiting all those famous châteaux I’d only ever seen on wine labels was quite amazing! I had my little Hugh Johnson pocket wine book and happily wandered around the estates and wine shops with this in hand. As a result, Bordeaux has been front and centre in my wine brain from almost the very start.

During my time at Bordeaux Index (which was of course a great education on the subject!) I sometimes worried that I was falling out of love with the region, simply because I drank so much of it, and we had such great access to such incredible bottles that it was easy to become oversaturated. However, every time I thought I was really bored, I would have a particularly good bottle and it would be so expressive, balanced, digestible, everything that a great Bordeaux wine should be. The more that I’ve considered it over the years, the more I realise that for me it is also about the sharing of knowledge and experience, alongside the wine. There is so much wine made in Bordeaux that many people have the opportunity to enjoy it, which naturally results in more of a shared community experience than regions with significantly lower production such as Burgundy. When you also consider that the wines are five or six thousand pounds a case versus the same price per bottle in Burgundy, I think you find that people with great collections will typically drink them more frequently because they can top their cellars up much more easily – so Bordeaux drinkers are usually far more open to sharing and opening bottles!

OB  For me, Bordeaux wasn’t the first region I ever visited, but it was the first proper wine trip of my career. This was back in 2016, when I went across for the 2015 en primeur campaign. It was incredibly enticing, and I’ve never forgotten that first time! The châteaux open their doors up and welcome you in with open arms, and I’m glad to report that Giles and I had that same experience when we went back for the 2022 EP earlier this year. I think part of the appeal for me is also that from where we are in London, it’s so accessible – just a short flight and a quick drive away – and it’s brilliant to have such a world-famous region almost on your doorstep, so to speak.

Right now, the region is moving in a very exciting new direction. There is an incredible energy from a new generation of young gun winemakers coming in and running estates after gaining masses of international experience. It’s a very different place than it was even five years ago, and we are seeing the likes of Troplong Mondot and Beauséjour (Duffau-Lagarrosse) all listening and learning and making their wines more expressive and interesting. The team trip we took in June of this year felt particularly refreshing and honest for this reason.

Price-wise, when you compare Bordeaux to top Napa or Burgundy it’s always very good value. There are a few anomalies like Le Pin, Pétrus and Lafleur, where higher prices are chiefly due to smaller production volumes, but when you look at p laces like Léoville Barton or Lynch-Bages you really are getting so much quality winemaking for great value, and we are seeing more and more excitement and innovation from the region with every en primeur that passes.

GC  I agree – and en primeur is such a good way to appreciate these changes. It’s a remarkable process, really, that time where the eyes of the wine world are all firmly fixed on just one region for a few weeks each year. Any other wine region in the world would kill for a moment where hundreds of merchants and critics come and give them a platform and then report back to the entire world. However, for the wine trade it’s also a perfect opportunity for us to see what’s changed and to understand fully shifts in culture and mentality. This has never been more clear to me than when we first started returning to Bordeaux in person after the two Covid-19 releases (2019 and 2020) … so much had changed in that time. All of a sudden, people were casually mentioning things like organic and biodynamic principles, all kinds of new approaches, when five years ago they were all pointing at the likes of Château Palmer and laughing and saying you can’t be biodynamic in the Médoc! There had been some seismic changes in those years, and nothing is quite as good for your own understanding as being there.

St-Emilion at sunset

OB  Exactly. I think to really appreciate the depth of this change it’s important to remember that the original purpose of en primeur was to create cash flow for châteaux – buyers simply got a good deal. I think sometimes those origins are forgotten as EP is a completely different game now, and almost all estates that sell their wine en primeur don’t actually need the quick cash. What it gives producers now is exposure and a platform to talk about their wines. As Giles said, it’s an incredibly focused period when everyone talks about Bordeaux, and without EP that conversation just isn’t the same.

I also think in terms of the styles of wines we are seeing now at en primeur, there really has been an incredible shift over the last five or ten years … but Giles, you probably have a wider perspective on that than me. I wonder whether you think that Robert Parker’s retirement has played a part?

GC  That’s a great question. Until this year I never heard anyone in Bordeaux admit that the way they made wine was influenced by one critic’s palate, but now … producers may not have admitted it on behalf of themselves but there was certainly a level of general acknowledgment that at a point in time there was a culture of chasing Parker points. Everyone knew it, but admitting it is a different thing and I think it shows how far the region has come.

That being said, Robert Parker removing himself from the critical network was definitely one trigger, but there are plenty of other factors, particularly the changing climate, that have affected the way things are being done and the resulting style of wine. It’s not just about what happens in the cellar but also the fundamental ability to grow grapes successfully in a changing climate. It’s important to remember that this change is not just about temperatures but also extreme weather events – storms are now able to move further across the Atlantic and bring more strong winds, hailstorms and complex weather patterns to Bordeaux. This means that winemakers are having to think so much more about smart vineyard management and how they give their vines the best chance of withstanding the weather. Bordeaux is still a marginal climate, but perhaps for different reasons than it was in the 1960s and 1970s when it was simply a case of it being cold.

OB  You can absolutely see the impact of the change in climate every time you go back. When we visited the region with the CV team in early June, there were lots of comments about how unseasonably warm it was for that time of year. I remember Jean-Phillipe Delmas at Haut-Brion telling me about the blazing hot 2003 vintage and having to call his father Jean-Bernard back from holiday in August to start picking. Jean-Bernard thought they were joking! At the time, that felt like a real anomaly but now twenty years later I think we will see picking in August become the norm more often than not. There will always be producers who don’t want to change their mentality and narrative because they’ve done it that way for so long, but there are also a huge number of innovators, and I think we will see in a few years’ time who will come out best. The number of interesting things that young winemakers are experimenting with is great. In June I particularly noticed how much more Cabernet Franc had become part of the conversation, especially on the Right Bank.

GC  The savvy winemakers are paying close attention to the vineyard and the varietals that they are planting – and on that topic, another thing I think is curious is Malbec. It was one of the original Bordeaux grapes, but those at the top of the wine trade can be a bit sniffy about it and it’s been out of fashion for a long time. However, when you look at the top end of what Malbec can achieve, particularly with high altitude and the right soils, it can make breathtaking wine. There are multiple Bordelaise families who have interests in South America where most of the world’s top Malbec is made, but we have seen an increase in plantings in France and I wonder whether people will want more of it. There is a lot of anxiety about the impact of climate on late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and early ripening Merlot – could hardy Malbec plug that gap? It’s more resilient and has the potential to fill in some blanks, so I’ll be interested to see if it’s a fad or if it plays a bigger part in the wines going forward.

Climate change aside I think that Bordeaux generally has such a fantastic spirit of enterprise and innovation now and has really started to transcend its traditional reputation and offer something new.

There is an incredible energy from a new generation of young gun winemakers coming in and running estates after gaining masses of international experience  OB

 

OB  Absolutely, and for me St-Émilion is the best example of this. When I first started in the wine trade, it was by far the least interesting appellation of Bordeaux and now it’s got a whole new energy that I think makes it completely unrecognisable. This is of course great for wine lovers as well, and it’s a very interesting time to be building a collection, of both modern and back vintages.

From a collector’s point of view if you’re going to do modern Bordeaux properly it’s about establishing relationships with people who understand what you’re looking for. From a Chelsea Vintners perspective, we make it our priority to give balanced, impartial advice, not just in terms of wine character but also prices. Giles and I both came back from en primeur this year loving the 2022 vintage but even so, there are always those wines which aren’t worth the money. We aren’t afraid to say to clients that we think that they’ll love a wine, but EP is not the time to buy it.

Château Beauséjour

GC  We certainly have the ability to take our time and think carefully about our approach. As a broker we can talk honestly and independently on pricing. If a wine is good and people want to buy it, we can be open about the fact that en primeur is not always the best time to do this.

OB  If I were a collector at this point, I wouldn’t rush. There is so much Bordeaux around that you don’t have to scrabble for tiny allocations like you do with Burgundy. Understanding the style you like best is important; we can all go online and search by top scores, but to get the best for your own personal collection when there is so much wine on offer you have to be very clear on your own personal preferences. With Bordeaux you can afford to take time and ask the right questions.

Investment-wise, Bordeaux is absolutely worth the effort, but you need great advice when it comes to price. Investment involves a very different mindset than that of someone who wants a drinking collection. Returns are not necessarily vintage driven – for example, the 2013 vintage was one of the most difficult in recent years but many people have made good money on it. It’s not just about seeking out the best of the best, but about being clever and buying at the right price at the right time.

GC  That’s 100% right. Quality relative to price is really the question. Take 2017 for example, which has seemed to be a vintage in limbo. The wines were not hugely well received by merchants across the board because that year followed two glorious vintages in 2015 and 2016 which were both real standouts; so, when 2017 came out the prices didn’t look super smart, and it struggled due to a lot of consumer chat around the early frosts in that year. Many people see spring frost as something catastrophic which fundamentally affects quality – which it doesn’t at all. Neal Martin’s article on the vintage was called ‘The ‘F’ Word’ for that very reason! However, we’ve since tasted a lot of ‘17, particularly on our recent team trip, and found it to be a very classic, digestible vintage. It doesn’t have oodles of stuffing so potentially it won’t have super old bones but it’s beautifully balanced and very drinkable.

OB  2017 also struggled during en primeur and didn’t show particularly well. I have always thought that it was a very decent vintage but has taken some time to grow into itself. On the whole, it was very expensive on release, a bit like 2014. Now, however, ‘14s are looking like really good value and are showing that these things do come around, which brings me back to my point about investment. I wouldn’t have recommended that anyone buy 2017s for investment en primeur but now I’d recommend them entirely. The prices are still very close to the original release numbers whilst the wine is only going one way and really coming into its drinking window. Now, I would absolutely put money into ‘17. We saw the same thing with ‘14s and many investors have done well on those.

GC  Absolutely, and let’s not forget that this principle of vintages growing into themselves also requires a few corks to be pulled! There are two major industry tastings that follow the progress of Bordeaux vintages and draw a lot of critical attention. One is the Southwold Group tasting run by Farr Vintners with the likes of Neal Martin, Jancis Robinson and Lisa Perotti-Brown, and then both Bordeaux Index and Farr do major ‘ten years on’ events. There used to be a perception that you couldn’t really tell what was going on with a vintage until the wine was at least a decade old because they were tough and would only start to open up at ten, so many people don’t open bottles too much until that point. As a result, prices will often appreciate to a certain point then plateau until the ten-year tasting comes around. I’m particularly excited about this happening with the 2016s as I think at that point this vintage will be seen as the real deal, one of the truly great modern vintages. As soon as this happens, people are on the phone the next day wanting more and more even if they have a cellar full already and the vintage will start to disappear from the market. I think 2016 is a very smart buy right now.

However, vintages aside – Oli, are there any producers that you have your keen eye on at the moment?

The Chelsea Vintners team at Les Carmes Haut Brion

OB  One of my favourite properties currently is Les Carmes Haut Brion. They are disrupting the industry in a positive way and completely changing the game. Their technical director Guillaume Pouthier is creating something mind-blowing and making so much noise for such a small property. It’s incredibly authentic, too – when the CV team visited in June 2023 it felt like a little piece of paradise, they were so open and welcoming and really wanting to throw the gates open for business. Otherwise, I’ve only visited Troplong Mondot once, but they have also had a huge shift in mentality and style. They used to be known for massive, high alcohol, high tannin wines, but from 2016 onwards they have shown such a transformation. I don’t think you’d be able to taste a Troplong wine from twenty years ago alongside a modern vintage and confidently say they were from the same producer. In my opinion they’ve never looked better.

GC  I’d also add Château Canon to that list. They are similar to Les Carmes in terms of the message that they have nothing to hide, which is such a lovely shift in mentality and something we’re seeing all over the region. Of course, Canon has had some huge investment, but I also think that everything their winemaker Nicolas Audebert touches turns to gold. Elsewhere, I have to mention Rauzan-Ségla; for me this is increasingly the second-best wine in Margaux and is pushing Château Palmer super hard for that spot. Palmer is a unique style and if it’s for you, you love it, but for disciples of classic Bordeaux, Rauzan is just about as classic a Margaux as they come.

Finally, it might sound ridiculous, but I think Lafite is doing great things at the moment. You would assume that this is the kind of place that is all about that image of the ultimate serious, traditional ‘old school’ Bordeaux style, but Saskia de Rothschild has completely changed that mentality. She is a fantastic bona fide winemaker and the wine is absolutely pure Lafite again, so transparent and elegant, noble but not stuffy or dated. It’s so balanced and bright with a gorgeous fresh touch. A place of that scale approaching its art with an open mind and asking how they can be better is great and really sums up the ‘new’ Bordeaux.

The state-of-the-art winery at Château Pédesclaux

OB  There are also plenty of ones to watch. I’d name Château Berliquet, which is next door to Canon (they are both owned by the Chanel group) who are doing everything right and seeing their prices are on the up as a result. Next, Beau-Séjour Bécot, which has had a lot of investment and I’m really starting to enjoy those wines. It’s interesting that I’m going all St-Émilion, isn’t it! That just goes to show the depths of the shift in the appellation and the brilliantly modern way they are doing things that keeps them at the front of your mind. These producers have always had amazing land underneath them, and just needed the mentality and willingness to use it in what we think of in the modern wine industry as the ‘right’ way.

GC  One of my top up-and-comers would also be Château Pédesclaux, which is making lovely quintessential Pauillac. With so many of these wines, as Oli mentioned, we almost need to step away from the concept of comparisons and back vintage pricing. Sometimes you must concede that those old wines and prices just aren’t relevant now because the wine is so totally different. Winemakers, owners and ethos have changed so much for so many properties that there’s no point in comparing. Pédesclaux is a prime example of this. It’s amazing to see the château itself with its huge glass wings and the amazing tank elevators, but they spend just as much on the vineyard as they do on the winery. They aren’t just throwing money at the glamorous parts, and I think they have massive potential.

OB  With Pédesclaux you’re exactly right, and at this moment to have such a good Pauillac for under £50 a bottle is unusual for what is on average one of the most expensive appellations. Pédesclaux will be a more expensive wine in years to come, no doubt, but right now I think that balance between cost, value and quality is unrivalled in Pauillac. I can’t wait to see how it goes for them.

GC  Any last words?

OB  Fancy going for lunch?

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