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In Bordeaux, a glass half empty

After enjoying several years of financial and gastronomic glory, Bordeaux winemakers fear a bitter aftertaste.

Tasting red wine in Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte in Martillac, southwestern France, March 30, 2009. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — This is the time of year when Bordeaux celebrates its most recent vintage by bringing together buyers and critics from around the world for a whirlwind of generous degustations and sumptuous dinners in elegant chateaux.

The goal of the partying is to convince critics that the newly made wines are of excellent quality and to convince buyers to shell out up to several hundred dollars for each bottle of the most elite Grand Crus.

But after enjoying several years of full glasses of financial and gastronomic glory, Bordeaux winemakers this year are fearful of a bitter aftertaste. By most reckonings, the wine from the 2008 harvest is mediocre, pleasant but not worthy of long aging. Cold, rainy weather in August resulted in uneven ripening for the harvest. The world’s capricious economic climate is adding to the potential hangover.

When I researched my book about the 2001 vintage, "Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution," Bordeaux’s fine wine industry was in the midst of both a commercial and quality boom. The region’s winemakers were leading a revolution in oenology, producing riper, satisfying and consistently structured wines. Demand from the United States and Asia was soaring — along with prices.

I remember spending the first week of April enjoying the degustations, tasting fine wine after fine wine and believing that this was one of the most pleasant ways possible to earn a living.

To be sure, even then most low- to mid-priced French wines, including ordinary Bordeaux — and there’s a lake of it produced each year — were struggling to compete against the onslaught of superior, competitively priced, well-marketed New World wines.

But the elite Bordeaux — the 5 percent of the region’s production from the most prestigious districts, such as Medoc, St. Emilion and Sauternes — was prosperous and the subject of critical raves, with popular demand far outstripping supply. In 1990, Bordeaux exported 500 million hectoliters of wine. By 2000, the figure had reached about 720 million hectoliters and a millennium madness for bottles marked with three zeros pushed up prices.

The 2005 vintage marked another high point. The summer was long and hot and the autumn picture perfect: Critics marveled over the vintage’s quality. At the same time, the global economy was soaring. When the wines went on sale in the spring of 2006, they were snapped up at record prices.

In Bordeaux, wines are sold while still aging in oak casks in cellars. The 2005 vintage finally was bottled and shipped last year, leaving winemakers awash in profits. This helps explain why, even as the global financial crisis spread, sales of Bordeaux stood up: While Bordeaux winemakers saw their overall sales stagnate, drinkers paid more for the wine they did buy.