Article by David Edgerly on his blog Levantine Musings where he expresses his thoughts on political, economic, social developments however this time on wine. Interesting outsider view on wine.
You have carefully tended to the soil, inserted new stakes, planted new vines, spent days pruning the old vines, strung thousands of meters of wire, and tied down each sprout. The buds are starting to sprout their first leaves, and soon it will be time to prune the first grapes. You will carefully attach the growing vines to the wires as they grow to more than a meter above the stalk of the vine. Then, as all farmers do, you will pray for good weather. If all goes well you will harvest rich, sweet grapes in the fall.
Then you will carefully make the best wine you can. After it has finally gone into the new oak barrels you will face perhaps your biggest challenge. What exactly will you do with the thousands of bottles you have produced?
With about 13,000 grape growers/wine makers producing 800 million bottles annually Bordeaux is easily the largest wine region in France, but it is by no means alone. Other regions like Burgundy, the Loire valley, the Rhone all have their distinctive grapes and superb wines. Then there are the major wine producers like Germany, Italy and Spain, not to mention the so-called New World wines of North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. On top of all this global competition the domestic French market for wine is shrinking. Optimists will tell you that although the French are drinking less wine overall, they are drinking better, i.e. more expensive, wine.
Your task is made even more complex with a classification system in the Bordeaux region that cynics say merely supports higher prices in regions that may or may not produce superior wine. The classification system for Bordeaux wines began in 1855 when Napoleon III wanted to impress visitors to the Exposition Universelle de Paris and requested a classification system for Bordeaux’s best wines – based on price and reputation. The classification of these five vineyards – Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite (now Chateau Lafite Rothschild), Haut-Brion, and Mouton (now Chateau Mouton Rothschild) – has not been changed in 156 years, and there is no sign of it changing anytime soon.
A more detailed classification system for different regions, appellations, was introduced in the 1930s and includes well known regions like St- Emilion, Pomerol, Graves, subdivisions of Medoc like St Julien and Paulliac, and many others. Similar to the 1855 classifications these regions were established according to price, reputation, and the all-important political clout of the local vignernon. The prized – and pricey – St Emilion appellation is one of the larger ones and produces about 9 million bottles a year. This presented a problem for the very top of the heap like Cheval Blanc and Ausone who did not want to be lumped in with the lesser known brands in St Emilion. So this appellation is further subdivided into 1er Grand Cru Classe A (Cheval Blanc and Ausone), 1er Grand Cru Classe B (11 vineyards including Angelus and Figeac) and mere Grand Cru Classes – the remaining 55 vineyards. Any vineyard not fortunate enough to be included in an appellation is dumped into the general Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur classification. And this is precisely where great values can be found.
Faced with very stiff competition, rigid classification system, and declining prices for ordinary wine many of the Bordeaux vignernons don’t even bother competing. They either sell their wine wholesale to dealers who stick a label on it or they sell grapes to the cooperatives who make the wine and market the wine under different labels. Wines sold this way are not allowed to have labels that include the all important mis en bouteille au chateau – bottled at the chateau – or use words likeChateau, Domaine, or Clos in the name of the wine. This type of production accounts for about half the entire Bordeaux production, and these vignernons are lucky to get a wholesale price of €1.50 per liter for their efforts.
At the very top of the pyramid are the great names like Haut-Brion, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Margaux and others who can sell their wine for hundreds if not thousands of Euros per bottle. Much, if not all of their production is sold even before the wine is bottled. How much of this is attributable to great wine and how much to very, very skillful marketing is a question that continues to generate a great deal of debate in the wine industry. At least one scornful (envious?) competitor says these prices are merely taking advantage of naïve consumers looking to impress their friends rather than actually enjoy the wine.
In the middle between the wholesale producers and the lucky ones included in a particular appellation are thousands of growers making their own wine and struggling to find a niche in a crowded market. Some come from families that have been in the wine business for generations and others have come from varied backgrounds drawn by the lifestyle and challenge of making a good wine.
Vincent Rapin of Domaine Valmengaux was a jazz bass guitarist before coming to the Bordeaux area about 10 years ago when he bought about 5 hectares of vines and began making organic wine. He says it was partly a life-style decision for himself, his wife and their three children and partly the opportunity to pursue his interest in organic wine production. “We have the life we want to have.”
Joep Bakx, owner of Clos Monicord, had a very successful career managing major hotels in several European cities and bought Clos Monicord 10 years ago. Last year he bought an additional 15 hectares, gave up the hotel management business and became a full time vignernon. It is a true family enterprise with his wife Mireille and daughter Audrey playing key roles in the company. Again, it was the lifestyle as well as the opportunity to make good wine that encouraged the move. After an exhausting day in the fields we would sit on the porch with a glass of wine watching the sun slowly set while a thick steak was grilling on the barbeque. “You know, this really is a good life style,” he would exclaim.