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Inside the Headlines:  A Bordeaux Conversation with Jeff Leve

Have you ever read a wine article and when you finished it you had more questions than answers provided?  Of course you have; much of journalism is like this—when a piece is straight reportage and balanced, vital context is often missing. Is this important? Should I care? Why do I care?  These are all questions we silently calculate when reading something that has context for us.

Information without context is, well, just words on paper or a computer screen.

That pretty much sums up the international wine scene for me.

I have a good grip on the U.S. wine scene.  What I see and hear makes sense to me because I can place the news in my mental jigsaw puzzle.  However, what confounds me is the fact that the international wine scene is difficult to penetrate. I don’t have the same level of dimensional understanding.  Something’s been going on in the New Zealand wine business this year, not that I can figure out what.  And, a lot of news has been coming from Bordeaux this year, as well.  Still, it’s mostly a riddle to me.

As the potential start to a “Kitchen Cabinet” group of international wine analysts who occasionally contribute here, I start with Jeff Leve from Winecellarinsider.com who takes us behind the headlines in Bordeaux.

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Jeff’s a longtime, self-taught wine enthusiast with bona fides. He’s a moderator for Robert Parker’s message board, a habitué of Bordeaux and an up and coming authority on the Bordeaux trade, their Chateaux’s and wines.

I gave Leve a news article and a question and asked him to provide some background, which he does in good spirit and good form, and usually with a complementing link to his coverage of the issue.

News example:   Link to Decanter article on 2010 vintage
Good Grape:  Early reports indicate the 2010 Bordeaux harvest was stellar … again.  What’s your take on quality and what’s your take on an incredible run of quality in Bordeaux? 

The Wine Cellar Insider:  It’s too early to tell.  Many producers have not finished malolactic (fermentation). Blending won’t take place until January.  And I have not tasted the wines yet. So it would be precipitous to have a strong view on the vintage.  However, based on what producers have said about the harvest, my guess is, 2010 will be a good vintage. The style of the wines will be different than the previous vintage, 2009. 2010 should be a more structured vintage. Acidity will be higher than in 2009 and probably than in 2005 as well. The wines will feel fresher. By fresher, I mean they will have a bigger pop in your mouth, or more lift from the acidity. The wines will probably express slightly more red fruits than they did in 2009.

2010 (may) favor the cabernet based wines from the Medoc and Pessac Leognan. The year was one of the driest vintages in decades. But the wines will not be like ‘03. 2010 was shaped by drought, not heat. 2003 was hot morning, noon and night. 2010 was dry, but the nights were cool.

More coverage.

Good Grape:  Is there more room to the Bordeaux ceiling from a price perspective?

The Wine Cellar Insider: Sadly, probably not.  American wine consumers have been fortunate. We have purchased the majority of the great wines from Bordeaux, along with the top wines from most European wine producing nations for almost 3 decades.  Plus, many of those wines were bought with a strong dollar.  There was no competition.  Things are starting to change. 

Asia and other emerging markets are only starting to compete for the top wines.  It will take some time, perhaps 10-15 years, but sooner or later, and probably sooner than later, much of the wines that American’s have been able to buy will be allocated to countries that have never had the opportunity to buy the wines before.  They never knew what it was like to buy wines at a cheap price. To them, the price is the price.  It might seem expensive to them but it will not appear overpriced. It’s a different mind-set.  They have the money and the willingness to spend it on wine.

News example:  Decanter article on Asians in the auction market
Good Grape:  Asia is becoming a dominant world player in Bordeaux. Both futures and the auction market.  What do you think this means in the long-run?  Are First Growths destined to be museum wines for rest of the world—seen, but never drunk?

The Wine Cellar Insider: I am not sure this is the case.  Asia is not yet a dominant player for Bordeaux futures. In fact, very few Bordeaux wines are selling in Asia as futures.  I imagine this will change. But selling futures on a wide variety of different wines to Asia will be a difficult hurdle for the Bordeaux negociants to overcome. 

The First Growths are already expensive and that small, select group of wines is destined to be more expensive as time goes on.  They will only be opened by people who were lucky enough to have bought them a few years ago for low prices.  Or, by people with vast amounts of wealth.  I can say without a doubt, many of the First Growths are being opened and consumed in China.  They are not being bought for the sole purpose of investment.

News example:  Decanter article on Burgundy and Bordeaux in China
Good Grape:  A recent Decanter article indicated that Bordeaux and Burgundy were engaging in a competitive battle for Asian mindshare.  For readers that are more New World inclined and as such don’t follow Burgundy and Bordeaux closely, what does this mean? 

The Wine Cellar Insider: From my previous experience along with what I learned from two weeks in China during November, at the top end of the market, Bordeaux is the only game in town.  Burgundy does not have the same level of demand. 

The two regions do not really compete.  They are different wines, in different styles that sell at different price points.  Most consumers buy one region or the other. Although a few consumers purchase wines from both areas.

News example:  Bordeaux politics in action ( link,link and link)
Good Grape:  For much of the past decade it seems like the CIVB has had one plan after another to help the lower-end of Bordeaux flourish, all while there has been political turmoil amongst its members.  How can readers get a sense for what the issues are?  And, will there be a day when Bordeaux will be out of planning mode and growing?

The Wine Cellar Insider: The CIVB actively promotes Bordeaux and tries to help the wines at the lower end of the price point scale.  There are over 10,000 different producers making Bordeaux wine.  Most of the generic wines are not that good.  Bordeaux has a hard time competing in the $8 and under price range.  There are stronger wines in that price being produced in South America, Australia and Spain. 

The smaller growers are unhappy with the results being achieved by the CIVB.  In fact, within the past few days, several growers recently defected from the CIVB hoping to set up a rival alliance called the CAVB, The Bordeaux Wine Growers Action Committee.  The disenchanted growers claim the CIVB has not helped promote their wines in the marketplace.

News example: Women in Bordeaux
Good Grape:  Some of the male-dominated tradition in Bordeaux was hinted at in Mondovino, but we’ve recently seen some more news reports celebrating female vignerons in Bordeaux.  Help readers understand some of the cultural issues that have prevented women from playing a more dominate role in Bordeaux.

The Wine Cellar Insider: Mondovino is more fiction than fact.  It’s a skewed look at the wine world from one point of view.  Bordeaux has had strong women at the helm for decades. A few examples from the Medoc and Pessac Leognan are:

May-Eliane de Lencquesaing at Pichon Lalande

Corinne Mentzelopoulos at Margaux

Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, at Mouton Rothschild 

Veronique Sanders at Haut Bailly

Marie Dussech at d’Issan

In Pomerol, the most famous proprietor who helped promote the success of Pomerol as well as the most expensive Bordeaux wine was a woman. Madame Loubat is responsible for much of the success at Petrus.  In St. Emilion there are numerous women that run properties:

Christine Valette at Troplong Mondot

Juliette Becot at Beau-Sejour Becot who also works with La Gomerie and Joanin Becot

Sophie Fourcade with Clos St. Martin who also manages two other St. Emilion estates, Grandes Murailles and Cote de Baleau.

Helene Garcin runs four properties. Two in Pessac Leognan and one each on Pomerol and St. Emilion. 

Murielle Andraud runs Valandraud, Clos Badon and Bad Boy.

I can cite a lot more examples. This was just a short list.  Bordeaux has been open to women for ages.

Ed Note Pt. I:  Yup, glad I asked for context …

Good Grape: With Suckling and Parker both carrying en primeur influence, do you think James Suckling loses currency by not having the Wine Spectator masthead for 2010 barrel tasting in early 2011? Parker influence aside, does the magazine make the critic, or does the critic make the magazine?

The Wine Cellar Insider: First of all, I wish James all the best of luck in his new endeavor. It takes a lot of courage to go out on your own. He’s a nice guy and a good taster with a lot of experience. However, it remains to be seen how well James will do without The Wine Spectator. His site only went live (very recently). Time will tell.

As far as influence on Bordeaux wine prices and sales, Robert Parker has no peer.  His report is the number one quoted report in the entire wine world. Bordeaux price their wines after Bob’s report comes out.  While all professional critics (including James), yield some influence, Bob is at the top of the pyramid. 
Most people read The Wine Spectator because it is The Wine Spectator. The Wine Spectator is a hugely successful brand.  At the Spectator, individual critics are not as important as the masthead or brand.  They can be changed at will and sales of the magazine are not going to go up or down.  But when it comes to Bordeaux, Parker’s journal, The Wine Advocate remains the most important buying and selling source all over the world for Bordeaux consumers, merchants and the chateaux.

Good Grape:  Thanks, Jeff.  I appreciate the insight. 

Ed Note Pt. II:  Leve has a lot of content on this site covering many of the great Bordeaux Chateaux’s.  Have a look around and spend some time. 



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