The Bordeaux Crisis

Count John Umberto Salvi MW is an Englishmen with a noble Italian ancestry. He is one of the earliest breeds of Master of Wine, the certification he received in the early seventies. Using his 30 years experience as a professional wine taster and international judge, he writes his Monthly Bordeaux Report from his home in Medoc , where he has been living for the past 38 years. He analyses the effect of weather on the vineyards for his subscribers.

He was a co-juror at the Vinitaly International Wine Competition 2006 and has kindly agreed to share his insight with our viewers as well. Subhash Arora

Bordeaux is sobbing its heart out and claims that its Wine World is in crisis.  Unfortunately, like the little boy who cries WOLF so often that nobody believes him when a real wolf actually appears, Bordeaux has cried crisis, woe, poverty and misery so often that many people do not believe a word of it.  This time, however, the claim is fully justified.  Not only are they in a serious crisis, but this crisis is not just one of the cyclical ones that comes around every so often, but a profound and serious one that will almost certainly last for a number of years.

Why are they in this crisis?  Could it have been avoided?  Is it their own fault, or was it inescapable?

As almost always the answer is six of one and half a dozen of the other.  Let us look at the reasons for the problems and the possible solutions.  How to get out of it must be the most vital concern at present.

This time there are many reasons rather than just one.  This is what makes it so serious.  It is a conjunction and an amalgam of different factors, some within their control and some beyond it. 

We all know about the Exchange Rate against the dollar, which has gone against them as it has against everybody in the Euro-Zone.  The enormous fall of the dollar has created serious sales problems, particularly in the USA . However France, who proudly claims to be the father of the European Union, was determined that their child should become more powerful than the USA and that the Euro should be more powerful than the dollar.  It is hard to sympathise, and not much use their crying, now that it is more powerful– even if only for a limited period of time.  We can say that this is beyond the control of the Bordelais.

Then there is the truly massive fall in the consumption of wine within France itself.  Statistics abound and vary considerably, but it seems absolute that France is consuming not far short of half the quantity of wine that it consumed some 15 years ago.  Not only are the wine drinkers drinking less wine, but more and more young people do not drink wine at all.  A recently published statistic cites almost 50% of young people as never drinking wine, cheap or expensive.  In some ways the “drink less, but drink finer” should help Bordeaux Wines, but in fact it only touches a very small and elite section, so small that it is less than 1% of Bordeaux production.

This state of affairs is not helped by the recent, and arguably laudable, Sarkozy law on drink and drive, the lowering of the permitted alcohol level in the blood stream and the much more aggressive police controls and prosecutions.  Added to this is the Loi Evin, an absurd law restricting publicity on drinks containing alcohol – wine is treated exactly as spirits – that recently went as far as prosecuting the Conseils Interprofessionels de Bordeaux et de Bourgogne for using an attractive and smiling, albeit fully clothed and respectable, young lady in their advertisements to promote their wines.  This was regarded as tempting the public to depart from the paths of virtue!  Regretfully the Loi Evin, the present Government policy, and the hugely wealthy and powerful anti-alcohol lobby, all treat wine as they do tobacco and strong spirits and lump all wine drinkers together with pot smokers, druggies, alcoholics and tobaccoholics.  Such a policy suits the soft drinks industry down to the ground and they are happy to put their hands deep in their pockets to support it.   France seems incapable, unlike Spain , of differentiating between drugs, alcohol and wine or of seeing the cultural influence and benefits of fine wine.  This despite the fact that the French paradox was their own discovery!  This is certainly beyond the control of the Bordeaux Wine World.

Then we come to overproduction.  Here the fault is certainly that of Bordeaux and the remedy lies in their hands.  They have increased production and vineyard surface area dramatically over the last 20 years.  2003 was a small vintage, but the vine reacted strongly to the heat stress and produced a vast crop in 2004 of almost 7 Million Hectolitres.  The market can absorb a maximum of 4 ½ Million Hectolitres.  Thus at the end of 2004, and still now, Bordeaux found itself saddled with an excess production of no less than 2 ½ Million Hectolitres.  The 2005 vintage was not so enormous, but the world market is depressed (not the fault of Bordeaux , but another reason for the crisis) and so the situation is worsening rather than improving.  The solution is crystal clear – uproot some 30,000 Hectares of vineyards.  However nobody wants to hear of such a solution, let alone actually do such a thing.  The Government are offering “primes” for “arrachage” and the CIVB are offering added money and further incentives.  However the total is still a pittance and the vital question remains unanswered – “what do we do with the land afterwards?”  Most of the vineyards, as for all fine wine, are planted on poor soil not suited to most other crops.  What crops will flourish and bring in a better return for he who uproots his vines?

Then we come to what is perhaps the most important point of all and one totally in the hands of the Bordeaux Wine Trade – the Bordeaux attitude.  The time is long gone, especially in this age of competition, globalisation and internet, when they could get away with the “my wine is the best, Bordeaux is the best, people have to drink it and they are stupid and ignorant if they do not.  Our wine has history, the New World has none.  If they do not like the taste of my wine the way I make it then they must learn to do so because that is the way it should be.”  The Americans bitterly resent this attitude and many other countries simply turn to the wines that they like and stop buying Bordeaux .  As we all know it is easy to lose a customer and far more difficult to get him back!

I do not know about Spain, but we in the UK have been warning the Bordelais about this intransigent and arrogant attitude for nearly 15 years, and it is therefore very hard to sympathise with them now that the problem has become acute, since they refused absolutely to listen to us and told us we were just being alarmist and beastly.  They buried their heads in the sand like ostriches and it seems likely that they are pulling them out too late!

World production is increasing hugely, even alarmingly, especially in the New World, and most of the colossal plantings in China have not yet even come on stream.  Competition can only, and inevitably, grow fiercer.  Only quality can survive in the long run and here Bordeaux has one more problem that is entirely their fault and for them alone to remedy.  There is far too much bad Bordeaux finding its way onto the market in spite of all the so-called controls that are in place. One bottle of bad Bordeaux by a first time drinker and it may well the last bottle of Bordeaux for him.  There are too many other wonderful choices of good wines, competitively priced wines and appealing wines for the consumer to give Bordeaux a second chance. 

Interestingly, France has exported its excellent and professional oenologists all over the world to make good wine in far-off countries.  It is no use complaining now that they are making excellent wines there and that these wines are joining the competition. 

Finally, and it is sad to have to say this, Bordeaux is extremely poor at marketing.  Its marketing is not cohesive, lacks perception and has no thrust.  It totally lacks the agressivity of Australia and California .  It lacks humour and is not amusing, witty, sophisticated or enlivening.  It is bland, dull, insipid and uninspiring and neither attracts nor sways the customer.  In this day and age first class marketing is absolutely essential.  A marketing expert from Gallo said, both acutely and accurately, “Producing wine without marketing it is as productive of success as winking at a pretty girl in the dark!”

Come on Bordeaux !  Pull your socks up, stop weeping into your overfull wine gasses of unsold wine and put your house in order!

John U Salvi

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