Is Public Opinion On Bordeaux Turning?
By James Suckling, European bureau chief
The market for the wines of Bordeaux is not going to crash in the wake of worldwide attention to allegedly illicit winemaking at Château Giscours, the well-known estate in the district of Margaux. In fact, the market appears to be incredibly strong at the moment for young, fine red Bordeaux despite economic difficulties in France, the Far East and a few other key wine markets.
When the leading châteaus released their 1997 reds to the trade in Bordeaux in early June, few people would have thought that so much wine could be sold at such high prices. Most of the châteaus sold their 1997s for 20 percent more than their opening prices for their 1996s (though in most cases, 1996 was a superior vintage to 1997). The few big-name châteaus whose managers I spoke to said they sold out in just a couple of hours.
However, I am worried. A lot of pent-up anger exists at the moment toward the great wines of Bordeaux--or at least for the owners and vintners associated with the wines. Wine consumers and merchants are getting tired of paying exorbitant prices for infant Bordeaux, especially when the quality is not the very best, as in '97. The fact that prices for many top-of-the-charts Bordeaux from such fabulous years as 1990, 1989 and 1982 have gone down significantly since late last year suggests that the market may not be as solid as some might like to think. In fact, some '97s are being sold for more than the '90s and '89s currently offered in auction rooms.
I certainly would not be happy if I bought a case of something like '97 Léoville Las Cases as a future in London and then found out I could buy at a lower price a string of seriously good Las Cases from vintages I could drink today, including 1978, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1993 and 1994. Some vintners must think we're naive or something. Or they just don't respect their customers.
Granted, it might make sense to buy a case or two of first-growth '97s or wines from tiny-production estates. For instance, the '97 first-growths are about half the price of their '96s and '95s, and the '97 firsts are very good to outstanding wines. But you still have to fork out $150 a bottle for a '97 first-growth. That's a lot of money.
Perhaps this is why so much glee existed over the Giscours controversy. The majority of people interested in the story seemed to want the very worst for Giscours and Bordeaux at large. Just look at the news reports.
A very good example of this animosity toward Bordeaux was Frank Prial's story for "The New York Times" on June 4. He wrote that the Giscours investigation "could be France's biggest wine scandal in decades." I nearly fell out of my chair reading his story. This was not an industry-wide scandal. It involved a second label from one wine estate from one particular vintage, 1995. If the allegations are true, someone broke the law. But it wasn't as if people died from drinking wine doctored with chemicals as in wine scandals in Italy and Austria in the mid-1980s. How wrong can someone get it? Or was he like other journalists in trying to make the Giscours investigation into one of France's biggest wine scandals in decades?
I guess people want negative stories on Bordeaux at the moment. This magazine's offices on both sides of the Atlantic were inundated with requests from journalists for quotes on the impact of the Giscours investigation. They all wanted us to say that it would bring down the Bordeaux market like a much larger-scale wine fraud did in the early 1970s. We refused. For instance, managing editor Jim Gordon was encouraged by ABC World News Tonight to declare that the Bordeaux market was on the verge of collapsing. When he declined, a producer finally thanked him for keeping them honest. "We'll steer clear of that one," he said in closing.
Still, it's sad to think that so many people are hoping for the worst for Bordeaux. For me, it remains the greatest wine region in the world, producing more amazing bottles of wine than anywhere else. Unfortunately, few people will care about that if the greed and megalomania of some people in Bordeaux continue. In the end, that will make a much bigger and more real story than what happened at Château Giscours.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from European bureau chief James Suckling, in a column also appearing in the current issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.