If, as Eric Asimov asserts, the wine-soaked youth of America are giving up on Bordeaux, it’s perhaps not as interesting a point as it might, at first glance, seem. Trends and shifts in consumption are ever-present – who among us drinks as much Port as our great-great-greats did? – and today’s retreat may be tomorrow’s triumphant return. What’s interesting is the “why” of it.
A number of reasons are suggested by the article, one a quote from someone who admits to not even liking the major grapes of Bordeaux (and thus I’m moved to wonder why his opinion on Bordeaux would be deemed especially quotable), but no one really gets at the heart of what’s separating the younger generation from its Haut-Brion. Yes, all the reasons suggested by Asimov and others are part of the equation – price, a reputation for overt commerciality and luxury good positioning, a (deliberate) disconnection from the appealing narrative of a farmer and her land – and there are some others the article missed, including the rigidity of a structured wine that is not as agile as many others in dealing with the ever-increasing fusion of culinary influences, even in its modern, somewhat Californicated form. But Champagne suffers even more profoundly from some of the same issues, and the younger generation still drinks it. In fact, they might drink it with more enthusiasm than their immediate elders.
There’s a reason for that. What people of the age cohort described in the article (and I dislike the generational division therein; I think the dividing lines are more related to philosophy and preference than they are age) drink from Champagne are not the major brands stacked to the ceiling of every middle-of-the-road liquor mart. They drink the grower Champagnes, which range from solidly traditional to wildly experimental, and which have both a story not concocted by a marketing department and a price that reflects a lack of that same department…which is not to say that that price is always lower than the familiar names (often, it isn’t), only that it is more directly tied to the quality and/or reputation of the wine than the needs of a worldwide branding campaign.
So the anti-Bordeaux folk, apparently so hung up on price and prestige, still drink pricey wines from the one region even more afflicted by excessive prestige-ery. Given this, it’s unlikely that what’s really bending their necks about Bordeaux is either price or prestige. In reality, it’s marketing…a success in Champagne, contrasted with an abject failure of same in Bordeaux.
Why are these theoretically disaffected youngsters still imbibing in bubbly, even if they reject the widows and the monks behind the overly-familiar brands? Because they’ve tasted the wines. Yes, there’s a story and (usually) a connection to the land, but more importantly, the wines are out there in the market, year after year, being flogged by their importers – the tireless Terry Theise gets much credit for leadership here, but he’s far from alone anymore – to trade and press. And they’re poured for consumers, too. Wine bars, both hipster and less so, are encouraged to provide these wines alongside the more eclectic sparklers that are the “other” Champagne alternative, and at by-the-glass pricing, young tasters can experience and make up their own minds about these wines.
Not so for Bordeaux. The classified growths and their companions from across the river barely even see store shelves anymore; they’re ordered as futures, arrive as intact cases, and move directly from store basement to customer vehicle based on whichever critic the consumer has chosen to follow. No tasting there, unless you’re the critic in question. Those that make it to restaurant lists are priced in the exosphere, and thus both bottle and (rare) glass consumption are targeted almost exclusively at those who are already fans of Bordeaux and can support such elevated prices.
“But what,” an on-the-ground Bordeaux winemaker might argue, “about all the other wine we make? All the reasonably priced bottles that have nothing to do with luxury brands or lofty titles?”
These are indeed difficult times for the majority of the Bordeaux winemakers, the ones not blessed with a 155-year old classification or a modern equivalent. No one wants the wines, and even centuries of tradition can’t stem the receding tide. When there were few alternatives, the market for the “good,” “OK,” and “not bad” of Bordeaux was assured. Now, with flavorful offerings from nearly every winemaking country on the globe, that locked-in market is essentially gone, and probably for good. Bordeaux’s singular qualities are not, and have never been, those of the fruit-forward, generous wines that dominate the lower end of the market, and in a competition with those alternatives, Bordeaux will lose each and every time. Even in France, long a safe haven for Bordeaux, the sale is becoming more and more difficult.
There is, however, a middle ground. Small wines, perhaps without the grand ambitions of the crus, but which exhibit classic Bordelais characteristics. Wines that have their own stories to tell, as rich as any other. Wines that could speak to the same folk who are instead choosing refosco or Bierzo. These wines exist, and with very careful searching they should be locatable.
But where? Effectively, nowhere. At least, not in the States. There’s no Terry Theise…there’s not even a Kermit Lynch…promoting these alternatives. Working the markets. Telling the stories. Getting placements in interested wine bars, restaurants, and stores. Proving – at a reasonable price to all – that Bordeaux is not just about Gucci handbags and Walmart schlock, with nothing in between. These wines need an advocate, and they don’t have one.
Viewed from the Gironde, it may be hard to see that there’s a problem. The wines are selling, are they not? And for ever-escalating prices? Well, maybe they are, though the markets are shifting eastward. And maybe they’re not, except through artful market manipulation and artificial scarcity. I’m not here to argue these controversial points, because what matters is that this speaks only of the classified growths and their point-laden brethren. Of the superstars. Putting aside low-cost dreckery like Mouton Cadet and its ilk, that still leaves the overwhelming majority of Bordeaux with neither a market nor a future.
What is Bordeaux doing to rebuild that future? Nothing. Without tasting Bordeaux, in any form, on a regular basis and especially in the crucial, palate-formative years, the only members of upcoming generations who will develop a taste for the region are those wealthy enough to dabble without consequence and those blessed with friends who have deep cellars and an enthusiasm for evangelism. That’s not enough to sustain a market over generations. And so, Bordeaux’s upper class fiddles, secure in their lucre, while the chai underneath them burns.