Bordeaux is Back!

During The Tasting – UGCB at L’Hôtel de la Poste in Brussels, seminars were held in one of the most adorable conference rooms in the country. A big shout-out to Alice Bown and her team for the immaculate organisation and their immense eye for detail and heart for atmosphere!

I mentioned it last month among the wine trends for 2020: many established wine regions are undergoing significant transformations. This includes Bordeaux, old love of experienced wine aficionados, yet often vilified and avoided by younger wine lovers. Even for the new generations of sommeliers, wines from traditional appellations and omnipresent grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, seem to have lost their appeal when it comes to building an adventurous, globally-focused wine portfolio.

Whether or not this is justified you can decide for yourself, but one things is certain: Bordeaux got the message. For several years now, there has been a unmistakable rejuvenation, thanks to owners and managers who choose not to hide in lavishly upholstered offices, grand estates or fashionable condos far away from Bordeaux, while admirers line up to request an audience. Bordeaux is getting a more human face, and its long history of subregions, families, producers and traders serves as inspiration for interesting, personal stories. Exactly what the modern wine lover is looking for.

The Dinner – Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, February 2020

Yet what exactly is the added value and the unique character of Bordeaux wines in our current world, where we find Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon on virtually all continents? Do they still have a place at the dinner table, in front of the fireplace and in restaurants? Can they still compete with their global siblings when it comes to quality-price ratio?

Last week, during The Tasting (and The Dinner) of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, I went looking for answers to exactly those questions. I spoke with journalists, sommeliers, restaurateurs, château owners and oenologists. As is typical for (r)evolutionary times, finding clear answers required a lot of digging, and distilling the essence from so many different stories was not an easy task. But here are my main findings:

  • When it comes to R&D and innovation, Bordeaux has occupied a top position for many centuries. A myriad of widespread vineyard, cellar and wine trade practices find their origin in the lands of Dordogne, Garonne and Gironde. In the year 2020 that is still the case, with internationally renowned universities and research institutes, and especially: substantial budgets. These are used to improve our understanding of the biochemistry of wine and vine, but also to develop new tools. The current focus lies on more exact weather predictions, mapping disease pressure and vine vigour on a microscale, sustainable and organic treatments and other products, and on robotics for targeted and efficient interventions, only where they are needed. Not every country or wine region has the means to do this. Bordeaux does, and this is a significant legacy and a meaningful contribution to the wider wine world – and possibly to the environment and to the personal health of wine consumers everywhere.
Experimental & training vineyard in Bordeaux, June 2014.
  • Terroir is not an easy concept in Bordeaux, but let us use the word anyway, and definitely emphasise the importance of human know-how and climate/weather in the overall construct. The peak of over-extraction and striving for international blockbuster wines seems to be largely behind us. Producers are once again looking for a more pure expression of what Bordeaux can do so well: lively and energetic wines with freshness, finesse, backbone and an impressive ageing potential. A mature Bordeaux’ savoury, earthy and velvety character, entwined with long-lived, invigorating fruit and supported by fine layers of herbal and spice notes, leaves few wine lovers unaffected. It also makes these wines very versatile food partners.
Local East-Flemish produce for The Dinner’s main course: BrasVar from Nevele, parsnip, celeriac cooked at low temperature and a jus of pickles from Ghent. A perfect match for the 10 to 20-year old Bordeaux reds.
  • The property-based classification systems in Bordeaux are often sharply criticised. Are these antiquated systems in urgent need of revision? Obviously. But this shouldn’t blind us to the quality of the majority of classified wineries, nor to the role the Grands Crus play in the fame and reputation of the entire region. Not to mention in the means and resources Bordeaux has to invest in innovation.
  • Another thing to remember: Bordeaux is much more than just the Grands Crus, it’s more than just the left bank, and more than only expensive red or sweet wines. There are plenty of good and affordable wines to be found. As always and everywhere: taste before you buy, but check out the smaller producers in the wider vicinity of the big names, the often slightly more modest wineries on the right bank, the ‘Crus Bourgeois’ and the many organic and biodynamic winemakers. For white wines it’s certainly worth exploring the Graves, Entre-Deux-Mers or some of the Côtes de Bordeaux subregions.
  • I also noticed an ever-rising attention (and respect) for Cabernet Franc, and an openness towards giving the other grape varieties a more valued place: certainly the regional classics Malbec, Carmenère and Petit Verdot, but even the recently approved new grape varieties. Could we really be on our way to a more diverse, colourful future – also in Bordeaux?

I have to admit that I’m equally guilty in having bypassed Bordeaux in the last few years, without denying the invaluable role their wines have played in my own wine journey. As is the case for many (or even most?) Belgians, my love for wine started with Bordeaux. And then cooled in the light of so many other discoveries.
But because of what I have tasted recently, of the amazing wine women and men I have met during The Tasting and The Dinner, and the many rich, personal stories, I dare say: I feel once more a bit in love. Bordeaux is back!


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