How claret got the blues

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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's odd how claret seems to be both so in demand and out of fashion at the same time. Why do so many of the latest restaurant wine lists contain such lengthy litanies of pricey claret?

It's odd how claret seems to be both so in demand and out of fashion at the same time. Why do so many of the latest restaurant wine lists contain such lengthy litanies of pricey claret? Because, I'm told, that's what the customer wants. According to Gérard Basset, England's top sommelier, "it's basically only expensive Bordeaux that sells".

True, for the few dozen "celebrity" châteaux looking forward to the annual tasting of the 2004 vintage in April, life's a parade. For practically every other Bordeaux producer facing the prospect of trying to sell another bumper crop of who knows what quality, it's a charade. Claret sales to the UK last year were down a third in value; exports aren't exactly gushing from France's biggest and most historic fine-wine region.

The rumpled, bearded Christian Delpeuch is an unlikely looking saviour, but the 58-year-old head of the Bordeaux merchant firm Ginestet has just been elected president of the Bordeaux Council (CIVB) with a brief to revive Bordeaux's flagging fortunes. Bordeaux is a victim of its own success, says Delpeuch.

Look at the facts: "Bordeaux has 57 appellations, which is about 40 too many. 123,000 hectares of vineyard make it as big as Chile and South Africa. With excessive yields of 8,400 bottles a hectare, Bordeaux vineyards produce the equivalent of 933 million bottles a year when the region can only sell 733 million. In a buyer's market with a surplus of 200 million bottles, the downward spiral of price means that except at the very top, it's costing our wine producers more to make the product than they're being paid for it."

The solution? According to Delpeuch, "If we're producing a quarter too much, we need firstly to reduce all yields to a maximum of 6,700 bottles per hectare. Secondly, we must uproot 10,000 hectares of vines. Thirdly, we need to declassify the remaining surplus vineyards to vins de pays." If the phrase "easier said than done" comes to mind, the plain-speaking man on a mission has already got growers to agree to keep the yields down.

To further his second objective of reducing the area covered with vines, along with the existing EU grant plus a bank loan, he' s offering an attractive incentive of €12,000 (£8,500) for every hectare uprooted. And tackling his third aim, by getting growers to accept vin de pays status for a small proportion of their wines, they will in the long run make more for their appellation contrôlée wines. Even more radical, he's demanding the unthinkable: that Bordeaux follows the New World and puts the name of the grape variety on the AC Bordeaux label. Shock, horreur, say the French. About time too, we say.

Mission possible? Neither political windbag nor stiff bureaucrat, Delpeuch comes across as a man with the kind of no-nonsense, can-do mentality normally associated with the New World. In a nutshell, he's saying: "Look guys, you've given me a mandate to get Bordeaux back on its feet, and no pain, no gain."

Charles de Gaulle famously said that a country with more than 265 kinds of cheese was impossible to unite. Time will tell if Delpeuch's ambitious plans get mired in the petty jealousies and vested interests ranged against him, from competing giants such as the Languedoc-Roussillon to the regulation-happy authorities in Paris. If he succeeds in his appointed task of bringing the desperately needed all-round improvements to Bordeaux, Monsieur Delpeuch may, like de Gaulle, be cast in bronze.