The 2.64m hectolitres of Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC wine produced in 2019 may be slightly below the annual production average over the last five years, but it still outpaces demand.
Recent market forces have worsened the problem, from Trump tariffs that make inexpensive wines particularly vulnerable to competition and Brexit uncertainties for the important UK market, to a general trend of lower domestic demand and Covid-19.
Inventory must be reduced
In July this year, the Bordeaux Wine Marketing Council (CIVB) announced measures to reduce inventories of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC wines. A mandate to create a “reserve wine stock” that cannot be sold on the market “until market conditions improve” is one way to control excess supply, says Florian Reyne, general manager of Planète Bordeaux, the regional wine syndicate for AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines, which account for some 55% of total wine production from Bordeaux region.
About 10% of the total yield of wine produced will not be sold, he calculates, meaning estates must hold that excess in tanks until market forces demand its use. Over a longer term, Reyne estimates that another 10% of vineyards will need to be uprooted as well.
The Covid-19 pandemic created another outlet for excess wine: alcoholic hand gel. This year the French government authorized some 3.3m hl of unsold wines to be distilled and used for alcoholic gel and biofuel. Out of that total, some 400,000 hl comes from Bordeaux AOC vineyards, Reyne says.
The underlying issues
Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wine production often gets lost in a sea of indistinguishable bottles on supermarket shelves. “It can be bewildering, when your average wine consumer sees rows of Bordeaux AOC bottles with no clear indication of which one is better than the other, because they are all rather inexpensive anyway,” says Stephan Maure, owner of the Ill Vino wine bar in the northeastern French city of Strasbourg.
In addition to reducing production, Planète Bordeaux drafted a topographical quality chart setting apart soils and slopes for Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur vineyards. Currently under consideration by the INAO, Reyne says that a hierarchy of top terroirs – “probably about 10% would be set apart as having truly great terroirs” – could serve as a “motor” to drive sales of basic Bordeaux. He compares that to how top crus classés in the Médoc lead the charge for Margaux, Pauillac and Saint Estèphe, albeit for far more expensive price categories.
“A ranking might be a good idea, as customers need to be more informed, because when they hear the word ‘Bordeaux’, they think only of the grand crus, and they don’t realize how that’s really just a small segment of what is produced,” says Phil Bernstein of MacArthur Beverages in Washington D.C. “It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have some way that one Bordeaux stands out from another.”
What can confuse consumers even more is that some regular Bordeaux AOC is better in quality that Bordeaux Supérieur AOC, according to Olivier Bernard, owner of Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan, who also sells several Bordeaux AOC wines. Indeed, the difference in appellation does not reflect terroir differences but rather the fact that Bordeaux Supérieur should have higher alcoholic strength and lower yields, generally resulting in more concentrated (but not always better or more balanced) wines.
One main problem, says Bernard is that “more people need to simply make better wines by picking later to get proper ripeness, for example.” But he understands how price pressures makes it harder for inspired winemakers to expend such efforts. “If competitors just next door charge several euros less per bottle – and they often do – that is a powerful economic disincentive” to invest more in making better wine.
Some estates are making extra efforts to improve winemaking, with lower yields and parcel selections, says Reyne. They also add in nuanced marketing touches to adapt better to competition.
Take for example the organic wine Natural Circus Merlot crafted by Château de Chainchon in Castillon-Côtes de Bordeaux. The colourful circus label makes no mention of the word Bordeaux and yet has an appealing fruit driven taste for less than €8 ($9.30) a bottle. Billed as a “festive wine to drink on many occasions, party between friends or family meal, cocktail party or barbecue” it is also certified organic.
By the same token, at a Vignobles Andre Lurton tasting in the Graves region of Bordeaux, wine poured from a Burgundy-shaped bottle called “Diane Sauvignon Blanc” made no mention of Bordeaux on the front label. Crafted from vines in the Bordeaux Entre-Deux-Mers appellation, the nearly 100% Sauvignon Blanc exudes varietal aromas such as grass and gooseberry and a full on, modern style on the palate not too complex. “It works,” said owner Jacques Lurton during the tasting. Lurton, who made wines for nearly 20 years in Australia, explains that such packaging helps his Bordeaux to “better compete with varietal wines from Chile and South Africa.” It sells online for under €13 a bottle at Jacques Wine Depot, a popular German wine merchant. Although the company also makes the well-established Château Bonnet Bordeaux AOC, Lurton sees a need for more head on competition against varietal wines.
Taking such a novel approach to wines in the €5 to €15 retail price range does not mean that everyone should abandon traditional Bordeaux labels. Indeed, a wine like the traditionally labelled Chateau Bel Air Perponcher has been a consistent top seller (£10.50 a bottle) at the Wine Society in London for many years.
But designing “less obvious” labels is an important tool to face competition in certain markets or for certain consumers, says Reyne. Many affirm that estates need to invest more energy to market their wines and not rely solely on negociants.
This new focus on the people behind whatever label for the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC is best encapsulated in Gueules de Bordeaux: Vintner Portraits, which was published last year with the support of Planète Bordeaux. The plan is to translate the book into English, as it is full of pictures of vintners and winemakers from the basic Bordeaux appellations. “The focus should be on the people behind the wines,” Reyne explains.