The Bordeaux Effect

During my annual tour of the best white wine addresses in Burgundy at the end of May, the producers I tasted with were eager to present their attractive, easygoing 2011s but were concerned about how the vintage would be viewed by the market.  They were unsure of whether they could maintain the high prices they charged for the superb 2010s.
Their concern is understandable:  after all, it's Bordeaux that produces the world's most important collectible wines and gets the lion's share of early media hype for every new vintage.  The thousands of merchants and journalists who attend the en primeur tastings in Bordeaux the spring after the vintage shape the mass market's early perception of each new vintage in France.  An early thumbs-up can result in higher prices and stronger sales for producers all over France; by the same token, a negative assessment of Bordeaux can cast a shadow over the other wine regions of France.

Most of the wine world, it seems, views French wine through claret-colored glasses.

The immediate problem for Burgundy and the rest of France is that 2011 was a tricky vintage of highly uneven quality for the red wines of Bordeaux.  But the primacy of Bordeaux often does a disservice to other French wine regions.  After all, there are often important climatic differences between Bordeaux and Burgundy, even if the two regions are just a few hundred miles apart as the crow flies.  Bordeaux is distinctly temperate and Atlantic-influenced, while Burgundy, the northern Rhone Valley and Alsace, for example, are more continental and often more extreme.  The grape varieties planted in these areas have dissimilar ripening curves, and different growing regions can also experience critical divergences in weather conditions during the key flowering and harvesting periods.

There are years when the two regions are mostly in sync in terms of both quality and style, as in the outstanding 1990 and 2005 vintages, but in most vintages one or the other area holds a distinct advantage.  For example, Bordeaux clearly outperformed Burgundy in the watershed 1982 vintage, and again in 2000; the region also held an edge in '94, '96, and '06.  But in many vintages, especially in cooler growing seasons, Burgundy has produced wines of considerable interest to long-time collectors who prize complexity and freshness of aromas and flavors, accurate soil character, and more moderate alcohol levels.   I'm referring to vintages like 1991, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2008, years in which there was little rush to buy Bordeaux.

The extreme hype--and outrageously high prices--for the excellent 2009 vintage in Bordeaux (the first "vintage of the century" since 2005) predisposed the world market to buying wines from elsewhere in France.  But no one is touting the 2011 clarets today, leaving producers in other regions of France with a marketing challenge made more difficult by the fact that the chateau owners of Bordeaux have already cut their prices for 2011s by a drastic 30% to 50% in an aggressive but so far mostly futile attempt to stimulate futures purchases of their wines in a difficult economy.

Bottom line:  Veteran collectors tend to tune out reports on Bordeaux when they're considering other French wines, and you'd be well advised to do the same.  Cooler years that can be problematic for Bordeaux can yield wonderfully fresh, mineral-driven white wines in Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Alsace, as well as aromatically precise, perfumed pinot noirs and syrahs.  It's already clear that 2011 is a terrific vintage for Beaujolais, to cite just one example, and there will be no shortage of excellent wines from the Cote d'Or and Chablis.  With plenty of press coverage available on other wine-producing regions of France (including in my own International Wine Cellar publication), it won't take a great effort on your part to do a little due diligence.