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A nice battle of Bordeaux

Producers say critic Robert Parker - who can make or break a vintage - just doesn't understand claret. Is it a case of sour grapes?

After years of jealousies, accusations and counter-accusations, something close to a wine civil war is fermenting in Bordeaux.

One of the middle-range châteaux in the Graves vineyards took the unprecedented step last week of publicly attacking the hugely influential American wine pundit Robert Parker. In some wine circles, including those Bordeaux vineyards which have been enriched by getting high scores in Mr Parker's journal, The Wine Advocate, this is equivalent to scrawling "Down with the Pope" on the walls of the Vatican.

In an advertisement in Sud Ouest, a local newspaper, the Château-Bouscaut vineyard accused him, in effect, of not understanding the first thing about French wine. "Un bon vin de terroir? Beaucoup de typicité?" (These emotive phrases are impossible to render fully into English, but mean something like "A fine traditional, regional wine, with lots of local character?") "No hesitation," the advertisement continued. "A bad score from Parker."

In a week when one of Australia's largest wineries was accused of artificially tampering with the taste of its products, here was another skirmish in the global battle between the "French" and "New World" approaches to wine-making: the allegedly traditional approach, rooted in soil and history on the one hand; and the "industrial" approach, which identifies and then standardises a consumer taste on the other.

The advertisement in Sud Ouest produced a heated debate in the local media and in the boardrooms, châteaux and restaurants of Bordeaux. "Pique," said some: Château-Bouscaut had once again got a poor score (between 69 and 82 out of 100) in Mr Parker's classifications of the 1999 Bordeaux vintages.

"Yes, but," said others. The Lurton family which owns the vineyard (and several others) are quite right. Mr Parker, by far the most powerful wine pundit in the world, has made fortunes for a lucky few in Bordeaux but has had a nefarious influence on the red Bordeaux, or claret, trade in general.

First, by imposing his implacable New World (namely, Californian) tastes, he has seduced some Bordeaux producers away from the classical French approach, based on the primacy of terroir - local, often extremely local, character, conditions and traditions. Some Bordeaux wines, including a few of the most prized and expensive, are being "Parkerised": made in such a way as to cancel their local character and suit the American taste.

Secondly, Mr Parker's enthusiasm for red Bordeaux in general and some clarets in particular has fuelled the spectacular price boom in the finest Bordeaux in recent years, which has also pulled up the price of more ordinary clarets. This was great, for some, while it lasted but it is beginning to price Bordeaux of all grades out of its traditional markets, even in France. Of the 10 million bottles of wine produced in the Gironde département last year, only 8.5 million were sold.

To add insult to injury, Mr Parker accused the Bordeaux growers in a recent issue of The Wine Advocate of making "a monumental error" in pushing up their prices dramatically in 1997. Although most Bordeaux producers and traders agree the rises went too far and prices should come down, they point out that Mr Parker's controversial scoring system encourages speculation. Most Bordeaux producers have reduced their pre-bottling primeur price for 1999 wines by up to 15 per cent this year.

The one outstanding exception was Chateau Quinot, which got a very high Parker score and pushed its price up by 52 per cent. Thierry Lurton, commercial director and brother of the proprietor of the Château-Bouscaut vineyard (£8 to £10 in the shops), which attacked Mr Parker, said that his intention was "to begin, humorously if possible, a debate on the future of Bordeaux". Mr Lurton told The Independent on Sunday: "We do not accuse Mr Parker of doing anything but following his tastes. But it is clear that these are heavily influenced by the Californian tendency towards rapidly maturing, strong, bold wines.

"Our tradition in Bordeaux is to allow the terroir - local conditions of soil and climate - to speak in a wine which is slow-maturing, long-keeping, with much subtlety and finesse."

There is room for both kinds of wine on the market, he said, but the Parker kind of wine was better suited to conditions in California, or Italy or the deep south of France. "If we both allow our prices to soar and abandon our traditions, we will lose our markets and have no tradition of the Bordeaux type of wine to fall back on."