Tradition and Modernism in Bordeaux

One glance at the label will show how much Bordeaux has changed: alcohol levels in 1982 were under 12.5%; in 2010 they will be around 14%. And this underestimates the extent of change, since roughly 1% of the alcohol was produced by adding sugar in the vintages prior to the 1990s. It’s not the alcohol I’m going on about, though; this is simply an indication of a change in style associated with much greater ripeness that has taken the wine from a vaguely herbaceous style (well, overtly herbaceous in cooler vintages) to a rich, ripe, black-fruit driven style.

Several different forces have come together to drive Bordeaux towards greater ripeness. There’s certainly a conscious determination to avoid wines with overt herbaceousness; warmer growing seasons and better viticulture are allowing the berries to become more mature before it’s necessary to harvest. But in spite of denials from châteaux proprietors – they do not go so far as the Burgundians who are prone to say that they make wine exactly as their fathers and grandfathers made it, but they tend to deny any deliberate change in style – market forces may be the most important factor.

In some other regions there has been a direct clash between tradition and modernity. Fathers and sons stopped speaking to one another in Barolo over the clash between modernists and traditionalists, and Brunello di Montalcino suffered from the same divide, although without such personal animosity. In Rioja some producers solved the problem by making two wines: one in the traditional style, and another under a new label in the modern style. In Bordeaux it is rarely so clear cut. Forming a view of the trend is complicated by the fact that in most cases a transition from traditional to modernist is associated with the sale of a château that was under-performing anyway. I am not sure there are any cases of a succesfull château changing from traditional to modern style.

When a château changes hands, there’s a common trend: to move to a new, more intense, more extracted, more “modern” style. This has been seen most dramatically outside the Médoc, with Château Pavie in St. Emilion¾famously converted after Gérard Perse bought it in 1998 to a wine loved by Robert Parker and loathed by Jancis Robinson­ in the 2003 vintage ¾and with Château Pape Clément in Pessac, which Bernard Magrez added to his portfolio (by inheritance) in 1985, and which subsequently became much richer and more extracted than was common in Pessac-Léognan. The verdict of the market has been quite clear: after the change in style, both have increased significantly in price relative to others that were formerly at the same level. This sets a clear enough precedent for others to emulate.

Examples within the Médoc are more ambiguous. In most cases, the impetus for the sale was that the old proprietor had lost interest (or lacked resources) and the château was palpably under-performing. Even if you regret the passing of the traditional style, it’s hard not to feel conflicted about the change when the wine was had problems before the transition and was so clearly technically improved afterward. Take Châteaux Prieuré Lichine and Lascombes in the Médoc, purchased by American investors in 1999 and 2001, where the style went from rather faded, perhaps one might say run down, to modern and bright. Others that might be put in the same category are Château La Tour Carnet (another Magrez property, acquired in 1999), La Lagune ( acquired by the Frey family in 2000), perhaps Pichon Baron (purchased by AXA in 1987). One counter example of a change in style by existing ownership is Léoville Poyferré, where Michel Rolland was brought in as a consultant in 1995. Everywhere it’s a one way street to modernity.

The contrast between before and after is so striking that it’s hard to assess whether it was necessary to go so far. And indeed, have the new owners gone further in their change of style than those châteaux whose styles have quietly evolved over the years: no one could quarrel with the quality of Léoville Lascases, Ducru Beaucaillou, or Pichon Lalande, but the wines of today are certainly richer than those of the past.

Some change is inevitable even where there is a conscious attempt to maintain traditional values. I’ve always viewed Château Montrose as one of the most traditional châteaux: its wines can take a decade or so to come around, but my goodness, do they justify the wait. They go from a real tough hardness in the early years to a savory elegance after twenty or thirty years that absolutely typifies St. Estèphe for me. The 1970 came around in the past few years and now puts most other wines of the vintage to shame.  I thought perhaps this era had come to an end when the Bouygues brothers purchased the château from the Charmolües in 2006, but was reassured when they hired  Jean Delmas, recently retired as winemaker from Château Haut Brion, to consult.

The question “has the style of Montrose changed in the past twenty years?” produced an emphatic NO! from general manager Nicolas Glumineau when I visited Montrose recently. However, they are making better balanced wines, less austere than earlier vintages, which perhaps were too masculine, he thinks. Nicolas sees the tannins as the key feature in the character of Montrose (and indeed Cabernet Sauvignon in general). “We can get more precision and earlier integration of tannins,” he says. Being more approachable now does not mean the vintage will not last as well. “In the seventies and up to the eighties, it needed fifteen years before the tannins integrated into the wine; the difference today is that the tannins are riper and integrate better and sooner. Tannin integration is a permanent question with Cabernet Sauvignon, but much less so with Merlot. The characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon are its tannins, and quality is about getting them riper and well integrated into the wine.”

Has Bordeaux in general changed? “Probably more so on the right bank than the left bank, because Merlot is more flexible and responds to changes in the cuverie, but Cabernet Sauvignon is a more powerful variety. Also in the Médoc we are more attached to the personality of the growths. We [at Montrose] are very attached to Bordeaux wine, we do not want to make the sort of wine that you cannot place on a map,” Nicolas says. But he comments ruefully that if you want to adapt your wine to the global demand, to make international wine in a more jammy style, it is better to plant some Merlot, which adapts to a variety of soils.

I’ve often been tempted to join the lament that Bordeaux is losing its way, that it has succumbed to an international style that emphasizes fruit rather than savory character. Part of my concern was alleviated when I discovered that the 1982s – so rich and lush and un-Bordeaux like when first released – are now reverting to a more classic flavor spectrum. If 2000 and 2005 do the same, I shall be happy. And it is hard to characterize vintages such as 2001, 2004, or 2006 as overly international. So it comes down to how 2009 and 2010, with their intense extraction and high alcohol, will perform as they age in bottle. I admit I find it hard to see how a wine at over 14% alcohol can mature like classic Bordeaux, but there have been surprises before.

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One thought on “Tradition and Modernism in Bordeaux

  1. The oldest “international style” cabernet sauvignons I have had were from Coonawarra in Australia, from the early and mid 1980s. They seemed faded and past their prime after 15 years, I had several at 22-25 years. Tertiary characters were not developing very well and the heat of the 14% alcohol was coming forward.

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