Will Bordeaux ever change?

Irrespective of your views on Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden, you presumably have to admit that their actions are symptomatic of wider politcal issues that should concern us (Is killing innocent people in the name of Freedom aways okay? Is it okay for the country of Liberty spy on its own people?).

I want to labour the point with something as trival (in the grand scheme of things) as wine, and I see recent statements by people within the Bordeaux wine industry that are, one might conclude, symptomatic of the wider issues.

Take the case of Stephane Derenoncourt, who recently told Le Monde that he ‘prepares‘ samples for the wine tasters at En Primeur (the annual Spring barrel tastings). ‘Prepares’ in this case means ‘put[ing] them through a special process to speed up the elevage’. There is not a lot surprising in this – just look at the reaction of the wine press and our wine journalists: a shrug of the shoulders.

A further, more comprehensive, article on decanter.com yielded more revelations that, in some cases, could only be called logically dubious at best:

‘You must show the wines at their best possible quality – but at En Primeur you must show the wines that will be bottled. The blend is the blend. It’s the birth of the vintage.’

Timid, it was, on the whistleblowing front, but significant nonetheless. More, though, was to follow with Jean-Michel Laporte, director of Chateau La Conseillante, telling Drinks Business that:

There are winemakers who are real liars in the region that haven’t been outed or caught because a culture of omertà still exists in Bordeaux … Producers live and work by a code of silence. When you scratch below the surface, Bordeaux is a very unprofessional region in the way it does business.

And what of this? Well, not a lot. Not really mentioned by any of our hallowed wine writers and journalists unless it is to do the intellectual cop-out de nos jours and retweet a link to the article. Most genuine attempts at discussing this always fizzle out.

As far as I can tell, the issue is that these Bordelais (I really wish American writers wouldn’t call them ‘Bordelaise’, are they so culturally dyslexic they can’t tell the difference between a region and a sauce?) are actually doing a Manning or a Snowden – highlighting to the public (or at least the wine world) that what is going on in the region is questionable – and while some people draw attention to it, the ultimate response is of acquiesence.

What ever happened to the crusading wine writers? Robert Parker’s hero, Ralph Nader, would surely be appalled at the suggestion that the consumers’ champions (our wine writers, ladies and gentlemen) are taking part in promoting something clearly removed from the product to be sold to us. Questions have always lurked about the ethics of tasting at En Primeur (not least because of the age of the wines) and yet nothing has been done about it. Parker used to poke fun at the English wine journalists that would turn up to Chateaux in the bad old days and leave the boot of their car open before they went in to taste the wines. But who’s in cahoots now? Jamie Goode is (at the last time of checking) one of the few UK wine writers who doesn’t attend En Primeur on principle. But this is rare.

The problem is – as I have stated in previous blogs – that our wine writers have got sucked into the Bordeaux circus and now exist, symbiotically, as part of the machine. Being the first to taste confers its own status on wine writers; being brought wine samples to your hotel room confers more status. But if you’re left out of this, who are you? Well, you’re clearly someone of little importance in the wine world. It would take someone like Parker or Jancis Robinson MW to boycott En Primeur on the grounds that the consumer is not being served by the tastings in order to change the way the circus operates.

To her immense credit, Robinson has openly aired the questionable nature of En Primeur – but nothing has come of it, not least because (if you read the piece fully) it seems clear that journalists are more united in the self importance of being able to publish wine scores straight away than of serving the consumer by even taking the very very mild step of withholding publishing scores until the prices of the wines are released (the first thing Nader would scratch his head at – Parker take note).

So will anything change? I think not. If anything, Bordeaux is calcifying. It is currently attempting to get the 1855 classification World Heritage status – and why not: the same chateaux basically get the same scores every year; might as well seal the whole thing up.

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