Wine: A case of claret and blues?

Bordeaux is in crisis. Bordeaux is enjoying a successful sales campaign for the 2003 vintage.

Bordeaux is in crisis. Bordeaux is enjoying a successful sales campaign for the 2003 vintage. Come again? These apparently incompatible outlooks are a reminder that this is an immensely complex region where profit and loss often exist side by side. Our own on-off affair with Bordeaux is nothing compared to the ongoing love-hate relationship between the glamorous classified châteaux and the many thousands of yeoman wines and petits châteaux that make up the bulk of France's most important wine region.

The crème de la crème - a hundred-odd crus classés - account for a mere four in every 100 bottles of Bordeaux produced. But they earn £20 in every £100 while attracting 80 in every 100 column inches. Small wonder most of Bordeaux is as enviously green as cabernet sauvignon in an unripe vintage. The current vintage is a case in point. High expectations have fuelled pent-up demand, and while 2003 is nowhere near as consistent across the board as the landmark 2000 vintage, some of the famous châteaux have produced stunning wines that are in considerable demand.

Yet while the classified châteaux are having a fine time, life is tough for run-of-the-mill Bordeaux and Bordeaux "soup" (supérieur). The biggest of the world's fine wine regions (it has more vineyards planted than Chile or South Africa) is in crisis. According to Eric Dulong, who heads up the Bordeaux Wine Bureau, an estimated 800-1,000 producers are on the brink of bankruptcy, and more are likely to be added to the list should Bordeaux produce a normal-sized vintage this year.

In some ways it has helped that Bordeaux has had two smaller-than-average vintages in a row because, on the whole, the region is producing far more wine than it can sell. Sales stand at 750 million bottles; a normal crop produces the equivalent of more than 900 million bottles. This massive surplus threatens to engulf many of the smaller players.

The problems, according to Dulong, include vineyards planted in places where there shouldn't be vineyards. Plus, Bordeaux has its share of bad producers, and there are many properties which are too small or run by older growers who lack the motivation to produce quality wine. The result: he believes that something approaching 5-10 per cent of Bordeaux is too poor to be on the market. Jean-Marie Chadronnier, CEO of the négociant Dourthe goes further, suggesting at least a third of Bordeaux producers are obsolete.

"I would like to see far greater quality control," says Dulong, who would like a process that would involve stringent quality tastings of every wine, taking at least two years. To achieve anything of the sort would require both commitment and political will. If, as seems likely, such changes are not forthcoming, "the market will decide" - growers who fail to measure up will go to the wall.

After the region's battering from the New World, the Bordeaux Wine Bureau is continuing its campaign to convince us that it's on the way back, and focusing on reds in the "affordable" £5-£15 category. Is there some wishful thinking going on here? Not much generic and supermarket own-label £5 Bordeaux stacks up against its New World or vins de pays counterparts. The first step is to acknowledge that Bordeaux cannot compete with New World value for money. Next Bordeaux must start to fight back with wines of individuality.

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