During five days of tastings, dealmaking, networking, seminars and lavish parties at Vinexpo, the wine world’s biannual trade fair in Bordeaux, Asian buyers were a commanding presence, making up one out of every three foreign visitors. Newly unveiled château buildings broke away from Bordeaux’s formal 18th century architecture to showcase cutting-edge design and an ultramodern feel more akin to Spain’s wineries. And at least one estate opened its doors to the up-and-coming red wines of another country for a party, not pouring a single Bordeaux wine the entire evening.
Welcome to 21st century Bordeaux. Thirty years after its launch, Vinexpo is still going strong. But though the trade fair is often perceived as a predominantly French event, its organizers and its host region have been trying out some different accents to stay fresh and relevant in the global marketplace.
Some 48,000 members of the wine and spirits industry gathered in Bordeaux for the 16th Vinexpo, organizers estimated, pending final figures—an uptick of about 3 percent from the sluggish 2009 event. In the three exhibition halls, the traffic to the booths was livelier than two years ago, if not jam-packed. “Coming out of the trough of the economy, there’s a lot of energy, there’s hope; everyone’s in the mood to build their wines,” said Gary Clayton, vice president at Pasternak Wine Imports in Harrison, N.Y.
Among the 2,400 exhibitors, representing 47 countries, were new faces from Mongolia, Uruguay and Kazakhstan, along with more spirits brands. A newly expanded series of walk-around themed tastings and sit-down seminars, held in private rooms throughout the exhibition venues, attracted some 13,000 people to explore Italian wine history across different regions, compare Bordeaux’s 2010 vintage with 2008 or 2005, discover wines from organic and sustainable producers, and the like.
While the largest number of visitors came from France as usual, China ranked second. “The attendance from China doubled compared to 2009,” said Vinexpo chairman Xavier de Eizaguirre. “We expected that to a certain extent, but we were still quite surprised by the size of the delegation.” He said that bringing Vinexpo to Hong Kong to meet the growing Asian market, starting with the first of four such events to date in 1998, has paid off, helping attract people to Vinexpo Bordeaux, rather than cannibalizing it. And those buyers came not only from China and Japan (whose attendance was down due to the tsunami), but also countries such as India, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand.
Among the efforts to court the Asian market were several seminars, including “Argentinean Wines for China” and a master class pairing a range of Sichuan cuisine with young and mature vintages of the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. At the lavish closing Fête de la Fleur dinner for 1,500 guests, held at Château Lascombes in Margaux, Chinese Terracotta Army-style statues flanked the dining pavilions, the menu was written in French, English and Chinese, and the classic red Bordeaux pairing of lamb was accented with a nori crust.
Louis-Fabrice Latour, chairman of Burgundy’s Maison Louis Latour, felt that Bordeaux was perhaps focusing too much on Asia, which is not yet demonstrating major demand for Burgundy or wines from many other regions. He noted, “We have to be careful not to take away from the U.S. market,” which remains the largest globally in terms of consumption.
Much talk at the show centered around whether Bordeaux would lose many American customers with the high futures prices for the 2010 vintage, as many châteaus are asking for substantial increases over the record prices for the young 2009 wines. Many in the trade were impatiently waiting for the first-growths to release their prices, which normally happens earlier; they were expected to do so after the show was over.
The United States and United Kingdom, respectively, followed China in the number of visitors at Vinexpo and, combined, accounted for more than 15 percent of the attendance from outside France. Close to 4 percent more came from Canada. Eizaguirre said U.S. attendance is up after a slowdown in recent years. “From the American perspective, we’re looking for new ideas. There is too much wine in the market, and with the current economy, the trade is becoming very conservative in its buying habits,” said Clayton of Pasternak Imports. “If you want to bring something new to the U.S., you have to have something innovative. Vinexpo offers a lot of that. But you have to go find it.”
Interest in American wines was strong, particularly from the French, according to the small group of Napa vintners exhibiting together at a California booth, who said local and regional importers were looking to bring in the wines and French sommeliers were committing to adding Napa wines to their lists. “Perhaps with Bordeaux prices going up, there’s more interest in California,” said Vivien Gay, international sales manager for Silver Oak and Twomey.
“The exchange rate is favorable for U.S. wines so that’s helping,” added Brent Shortridge, managing partner of Anders Lane, whose portfolio includes Waterstone, Haywood and other brands.
Expanding in the United States remained a priority for many wineries at the event. “I’m putting all my chips on the U.S. this year,” said Miguel Roquette of Quinta do Crasto, one of more than two dozen Douro producers who held a joint tasting of their dry reds at a Portuguese dinner at Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron. The Pauillac estate is owned by AXA Millésimes, which also owns renowned Port producer Quinta do Noval, and managing director Christian Seely said the evening was a way for Bordeaux to recognize the growing importance of wine regions outside France.
That dinner was just one of many elaborate affairs hosted by châteaus, which typically showcase the best of Bordeaux and France, starting with the opening night “nine star” Grand Crus Classés en 1855 banquet at first-growth Château Haut-Brion, which brought together three Michelin three-star French chefs—Alain Passard, Anne-Sophie Pic and Yannick Alleno—and featured Haut-Brion 1975 in double magnum and 1990 Yquem.
Clerc Milon's new modern winery, unveiled during Vinexpo, features ipe wood and blonde Médoc stone.
Two of the week’s highlights showcased how Bordeaux is changing its look, architecturally. Château Cheval-Blanc unveiled its new $18.5 million minimalist cellar, with a sleek, swooping exterior, and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild introduced the new home of Château Clerc Milon (adjoining her first-growth Mouton-Rothschild) with a celebrity-filled party. U.S. film director Francis Ford Coppola, French actress Fanny Ardant and prominent French politician Jack Lang were among those on hand to check out the non-traditional temple-inspired, ipe wood-clad building.
Soon, if its backers have their hopes fulfilled, Bordeaux may have its own version of the Bilbao Guggenheim, a modern architectural icon and museum dedicated to wine. Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé took the opportunity of Vinexpo to show off the recently chosen design for the 55 million-euro Wine Culture and Tourism Center, to be designed by Parisian architecture firm X-TU and London-based interior designers Casson Mann.
Meant to evoke the motion of wine being swirled in a glass decanter (though described by some as looking like a large thumb), and built of wood and glass, the building—going up north of the city center, on the Garonne River—will make a striking contrast to Bordeaux’s largely classical and neoclassical architecture, which earned the city a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Scheduled to open in 2014, it may be underway by the time the next Vinexpo takes place—just one more sign of how much change is taking place in the most traditional of wine regions.