A certain incongruity has always surrounded Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur: although there are as many wines as there are wine growers, all of them are imbued with the distinctive identity that give appellations their unique credentials. These hallmark features are a prerequisite for securing a place in international markets and gaining exposure for the region’s brand image across the globe.
There is no such thing as a single Bordeaux terroir. Myriad soil types – from gravel to marshland and ‘boulbenes’ – cover an area in excess of 120,000 hectares, from the Médoc to Sauternes, and Entre-Deux-Mers to the Right Bank, often changing from one estate to another, and even within the same vineyard. The varietal range follows a similar pattern: Merlot grows alongside Cabernet Franc, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon, Sémillon and Muscadelle. Whether they are used to produce red, white or rosé wines, none of them are planted at random. Some cultivars tend to put their roots down better in certain sub-soils. Merlot and Cabernet Franc, for instance, prefer clayey sand soils, whilst Cabernet-Sauvignon thrives on gravel. When microclimates, which vary depending on landforms and vineyard aspect, are factored into the equation, the result is an array of terroirs that are Bordeaux’s forte.
Although this infinite combination of terroirs undeniably contributes to the wines’ global success, human input should not be underestimated. Here, more than anywhere else, the choice of vineyards and grape varieties dictate the quality of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur. Wine growers have had plenty of time to hone their skills. They already understood the typicity of each vineyard plot when the region was still called Burdigala. The first vines to be planted on these disparate soils reportedly came from Brittany. However much the legends may differ, one thing is for sure: wine growing and the region rapidly became inseparable.
From the 1st century A.D., the city of Bordeaux established itself as a centre of trade, facilitated by the presence of the Garonne river. Five hundred years later, the English would establish the region’s reputation as a prime wine producer. The area under vine was extended, meandering amongst towns and the rivers that crossed the region. In just a few years, the Gironde estuary would become a hub of wine trade. The English, who were particularly fond of what they called ‘claret’ at the time, would export hundreds of thousands of casks of wine. Only in the 1950s would the amount of wine consumed in Bordeaux itself once again rival that shipped abroad.
During the Renaissance, the Dutch superseded the English. Unlike their northerly neighbours, they soon preferred white wines and tannic reds, heralding wine production as we know it today. Bordeaux wines were renowned for their character and the Dutch transformed them into outstanding offerings. The race to constantly push the boundaries of quality began and the concept of growth emerged. The top chateaux excelled and became a driving force for the entire wine region. Instead of playing second fiddle to their more illustrious counterparts, wines that would later be labelled AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur took advantage of this quest for quality to establish a reputation as essential mealtime components, or table wines in the true sense of the word.
Did the industry get carried away? After the Second World War, the region woke up to a hangover: overproduction, falling prices and disease-ridden vineyards loomed up. For several years, Bordeaux was in the throes of an economic crisis compounded by a decline in consumer confidence. Restructuring and rejuvenation were required for the region to reclaim success and re-establish the reputation it had enjoyed for centuries.
21st century wine growing requires vocational training
Bordeaux may well be France’s largest appellation area by volume, it refuses to rest on its laurels. Over the past few years, it has had to rise to a major challenge: ensuring better vocational training for producers. A wine grower on his family estate in Tresses, a few kilometres from Bordeaux on the Right bank of the river, Hervé Grandeau has chaired the AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur growers’ organisation since July 2013. An active member of the organisation’s management team for twenty or so years, he has seen Bordeaux switch to what he calls “21st century wine growing”.
The main driving force behind this small revolution is the reform of the appellation system in 2008. Rules pertaining to production, wine making and packaging are now spelled out in black and white. “This is one of our biggest projects”, explains Hervé Grandeau. “We had to make every wine grower accountable and get them to accept the idea that they had to conduct self-appraisals on top of the internal and external checks they are now subjected to”. With support from the growers’ organisation, which sees the new law as a way of maintaining “a successful wine region”, Bordeaux wine growers complied with the rules with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Nevertheless, eight years after they were introduced, the results are quite positive. “Implementation was not particularly easy but we needed to transform wine growing into a true vocation”, admits the organisation’s chairman.
Modern-day wine growers have no option but to master skills in every field, including the vineyard, commerce, marketing and press and public relations, if they are to secure success. Some criticise the extra red tape involved, whilst Hervé Grandeau welcomes the fact that an equilibrium has been restored: “Wine growing needed to become more professional and the process is heading in the right direction. The task has become so complicated that harmony needs to be maintained in both appellations”.
Aiming for constant and consistent quality
Stricter specifications have one major objective: to improve the quality of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines. “In the past, a single representative sample was checked as it left the winery”, explains the chairman of the growers’ organisation. “Now, every single bottle leaving the winery must comply with the rules”. Individual checks have made wine growers more consistent in their work. “There are no more average quality wines. Substandard batches cannot be passed off with other wines”, says Hervé Grandeau, welcoming the change.
Greater supervision has led both appellations to promote their quality and identity, despite their myriad terroirs and the extensive number of wine growers - 4,500 at the last count. “They are the region’s two largest appellations”, explains the organisation’s chairman. “They account for more than one in two bottles of wine produced in Bordeaux”. The range embraces reds and whites as well as rosés and ‘clairets’. Although they belong to the same organisation, a distinction needs to be drawn between the two appellations.
Two distinct appellations
The Bordeaux appellation extends over 42,600 hectares of vines, divided between reds, rosés, whites and clairets. The reds are blended from Merlot and Cabernet-Sauvignon – to which Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec can be added – and are supple and fruity. They are designed to be drunk young and develop pronounced aromas of red fruits that are rapidly revealed on the nose. The rosés are made from the same grape varieties, or almost: Merlot, Cabernet-Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. They are fermented in the same way as the whites, after a short soaking, and display distinctive freshness and suppleness. Clairet is made on a smaller scale, with just 52,000 hectolitres produced annually, compared with 170,000 hl for the rosés. The maceration period is longer and they don a pale red hue, retaining supple tannins. The whites are grown over 6,500 hectares planted to Sémillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle. Their exuberance and freshness make them a popular choice.
AOC Bordeaux Supérieur wines are slightly different. Only red and white wines are entitled to the appellation. The reds are made from the same varietal range as AOC Bordeaux yet are more powerful. Aroma is also more complex and tannins more assertive, making them suitable for cellaring; they will keep for several years. Some are aged in casks, imparting notes of vanilla and roasted coffee. The whites are in a minority with just 60 hectares of vineyards dedicated to the category, compared with 10,000 for the reds. More aromatic than Bordeaux whites, they are still light and refreshing.
Conquering international markets
Raising awareness of the differences between the two appellations, amongst the public and importers alike, is one of the growers’ organisation’s missions. “We need to raise the profile of our wines”, explains Hervé Grandeau. “The quality of both Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines is now irreproachable and costs have been reined in. Despite this, market prices over the past few years have stayed too low”. The organisation uses a variety of means to promote the brand image of both appellations – including trade missions, marketing drives and events – with the aim of raising price points both in France and abroad.
With one third of production sold as exports, foreign markets are becoming an increasingly fundamental component of sales and the growers’ organisation intends to expand them further. “Our objective is to export half our wines”, confirms Hervé Grandeau. He is certainly using every means in his power to do so. From wine shows in the United States to Japanese fairs and tastings in China, the chairman travels the globe in search of potential importers.