A Storm in Bordeaux

A bottle of Bordeaux wine set against a stormy background

Bordeaux wines have shone well beyond their borders for nearly 900 years and today again they’ve never been better with an unprecedented quality. Take, for example, this superb affordable wine who’s the Donjon de Lamarque 2016 from Haut-Médoc that we are proudly selling in our shops.

It’s all the more paradoxical when you consider that Bordeaux has been going through a crisis, or rather a succession of crises in recent years. Although we sell a lot of bottles of Bordeaux here in Oxford and our customers are buying and supporting Bordeaux red wine more than ever, things are not quite what they seem.  After doing some research on what’s happening in France and then meeting some Medoc winemakers during the Bordeaux Experience tasting in London on May 1, 2024, the following report takes into account what I have learned.

The reasons for the crisis

Although the Grand Crus seem spared and still export as much and even more internationally, for the majority of Bordeaux producers, we do not have the heart to celebrate in the vineyards. In France, wine consumption has been divided by 3 in 60 years. They drank 130 liters per capita between 1950 and 1960 compared to only 40 in 2022. Consumption habits have changed significantly. Meals are less ritualized, we eat less meat, and young people pay more attention to the environment and their health.

A wine grower I met told me that every day in France we “bury” wine drinkers who are replaced by beer drinkers and French wine lovers criticize the uniformity of taste of ripe, Merlot focused, heavily oaked Bordeaux wines unlike Burgundy which has a variety, in Pinot Noir, that is infinitely stronger.

To add to this, the export market has collapsed for small producers. If they were the first victims of American tariffs during Donald Trump’s mandate, COVID only made things worse. According to figures from French Customs, while sales have only fallen 4% in 4 years for Japan and the USA, the fall has been dizzying for China with a drop of 27%. A big blow!

France is also now faced with global warming.  You certainly may have heard that Merlot shoots are suffering and that we are starting to plant heat-resistant grape varieties like Touriga Nacional along the Garonne; this may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Increased competition from New World wine regions such as Chile and Australia has been building for decades, now joined by resurging wine nations such as Greece and Georgia all competing for their piece of the pie. If in 1980 the world had 35 producing countries, in 2022 there were over a hundred.  Generally, the market shares taken by these new winegrowers are hard to recover.

What are the consequences?

Cellars full of unsold wine are the lot of many French winegrowers. A critical situation which is pushing certain producers into receivership.  Because of this overproduction, the price of vineyard land has fallen and winegrowers cannot retire. According to the CNIV (National Committee of Wine Interprofessions), between 100,000 and 150,000 jobs are threatened in the next ten years. France and the European Union have decided to finance a plan to uproot vines and release around 136 million pounds sterling to distill unsold wine for pharmaceutical or industrial use (already 221 million pounds had been donated for the same use in 2020).

How to resolve this situation?

The famous Michel Chapoutier, winemaker in the Rhone valley and President of the Union of Wine Houses and Brands (UMVIN) was invited on TV to debate this situation on the channel Public Sénat. He speaks more of a crisis of under-commercialization than of a crisis of overproduction, and is very reserved on the themes of pulling-out the vines and distillation.

According to Chapoutier it would be preferable to help winegrowers to export and to restructure production tools. He also requires flexibility for entry-level and mid-range wines in terms of appellation specifications, for example to de-alcoholize wines. The creation of crémants and rosé wines also seems essential to finding new consumers. New flashy and original labels on bottles can attract the new generation of wine lovers.

Indeed, we must now identify and respond to the needs of new generations. Many Bordeaux wines are now over 14% alcohol by volume, why not remove a few degrees to make it more affordable?  Winegrowers like those I met also plant more Malbec to obtain rounder, fruitier wines, easier to drink for many people.

Other solutions exist such as trying to open new markets like Africa, the Middle East and South America.

Developing wine tourism also seems like a very good solution by encouraging customers to visit the winemaker to have a good time drinking, eating and sharing a very nice experience in the cellar or in a restaurant built for this purpose.

Continuing to drink Bordeaux wines allows us to savor their exquisite flavours while also supporting the region’s wine industry. By enjoying these remarkable products, we contribute to the sustainability and prosperity of Bordeaux’s winemaking tradition. Come to see me soon to get a bottle at the shop!

By Romain Alaphilippe