Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Can Bordeaux turn the tide?

Bordeaux is probably the most famous wine region in the world, producing some of the most expensive and prestigious wines made anywhere – if you have £500 to spare then you too can treat yourself to a bottle of Château Mouton-Rothschild 2005. Mouton-Rothschild, along with the rest of Bordeaux’s élite wine producers, are onto a good thing it seems. But what about the rest of the region?

Bordeaux produces more wine every year than the whole of Australia – that’s a lot of wine. And the trouble is fewer of us are buying that wine now than we used to: France used to occupy the number one spot in the wine import chart for the UK, seemingly by right. They have slumped to number 2, losing out to Australia – and the United States looks set to push them down into third place before too long. Looking below the level of the classed growth châteaux, all is not well for today’s Bordelais wine makers.

What’s the problem?
As UK wine consumption has increased, France’s share of that consumption has shrunk. Why have we gone off French, and specifically Bordeaux, wine?

Complexity – just look at the countries which have benefited from France’s falling popularity: Australia and the US: both English-speaking New World countries. The Australian and US wines that have done best here are usually lower priced, varietally-labelled wines – by that I just mean that the grape variety is on the label. Bordeaux, by contrast is more complicated: their wines are based on blending grape varieties and the name of the region, or one of its many sub-regions, or even the individual château name, is the most prominent thing on the label.

Value for money – at the price that UK wine consumers want to pay (just over £4 a bottle on average) Bordeaux’s wines just cannot offer the same straightforward ripe, fruity flavours that the New World can. If you read this column at all regularly, you’ll know that spending more on wine is one of my favourite hobby horses. Upping the amount you spend by a couple of quid does give the winemaker much more scope to put quality in the bottle.

Lack of quality – it’s a frustrating truth about Bordeaux that you can spend, say, £7-8 on a bottle and still be disappointed with the wine. There’s no getting away from the fact that too much thin, green, unripe Bordeaux is made – and this can probably only be addressed by ripping up substantial areas of poor quality vineyard.

We don’t understand Bordeaux - it’s not as easy to understand as Aussie Shiraz and never can be. We don’t drink wine the way the French do: there are deeply embedded cultural links in France between the food they eat and the wine they drink and their styles of wine are best understood and enjoyed with food. We Anglo Saxons are more northern European in our drinking habits and often our wines need to be TV or DVD-friendly rather than food-friendly.

So what’s the answer?
If I knew that I wouldn’t be writing about it here! I’d be making a fortune advising the French government and wine authorities on how to regain their place in the UK market. However, here’s a look at how one company is going about trying to win back the affection of the country that, let’s face it, was the original market for claret (the English word for red Bordeaux) and helped to make it the wine it is today.

The company Baron Philippe de Rothschild owns two major concerns in Bordeaux: first growth Château Mouton-Rothschild and Mouton Cadet. The Château is the jewel in the crown, with incredible attention to detail and every care lavished on hand-made, stratospherically-priced wine. Mouton Cadet produces a range of branded wines from Bordeaux. You can pick up the basic red and white versions at Sainsbury’s for £7.19. The Mouton Cadet label is Bordeaux’s biggest brand, selling 12 million bottles each year (compared with Château Mouton Rothschild’s 300,000 in 2007) in 150 countries. The idea is that some of the glamour, exclusivity and expertise of the Château rubs off on Mouton Cadet, giving their brand a unique appeal. The Mouton Cadet operation is certainly large-scale and impressive, with scrupulous quality control in its state-of-the-art winery.

Mouton Cadet is designed as an entry level wine, bringing new consumers to Bordeaux, giving a consistent, reliable claret experience – all the things a brand should do. But will it help to win back UK wine drinkers? I’m not sure. It does offer a consistent taste of what Bordeaux can offer and tastes better now than it did a few years back, with more fruit and a subtle lick of oak. But, selling at over £7 a bottle, it cannot and is not intended to tap into the true mass market. And at that price the competition from the New World is fierce. Yes, it’s food friendly wine – but that’s never going to be as important here as it is in France.

What it does offer is the safe haven of a brand, which we consumers have shown we like. I salute Mouton Cadet (and its smaller competitors such as Calvet and Dourthe) for their willingness to create a brand which tries to take on the New World, without forsaking its own sense of place – it is still unmistakably claret. But UK wine consumers have increasingly turned their backs on this style of wine and even mighty Mouton may not be able to turn back the tide.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Eureka moments

For me it was realising that white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. OK, it may not be up there with Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” in his bath, but it was a real lightbulb moment for me. It happened in the course of the first evening class on wine appreciation that I took, many years ago. And of course the connection between Chardonnay and Burgundy is blinking obvious to anyone who takes even a casual interest in wine – but for me, it was an exciting discovery.

It’s moments like that which have kept me going on the wine education trail ever since. I went on to study and pass the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Intermediate and Advanced Certificates. I knew things had got out of hand when I found myself embarking on the two-year WSET Diploma in Wine & Spirits, but it seemed my thirst for wine knowledge could not be quenched. With the Diploma now under my belt I occasionally mull over whether I’m hard enough to take on wine education’s ultimate challenge: Master of Wine. Gaining this gruelling qualification is surely the wine world’s equivalent of winning an Olympic gold medal. Since its beginnings in 1953 only 264 people across the entire world have been awarded the title of Master of Wine – that’s less than five a year.

When I’m running a wine tasting I get a real kick out of answering people’s queries – things that have obviously puzzled them for ages and they finally get the chance to ask. “What’s the difference between Pouilly Fumé and Pouilly Fuissé?” for example. Well apart from both being difficult to pronounce and coming from France, they have little in common: Pouilly Fumé comes from the Loire Valley and it made from Sauvignon Blanc; Pouilly Fuissé comes from Burgundy and is made from Chardonnay. Easy when you know – but how do you get to know? Taking a wine appreciation course is a good first step.

Apart from learning about the different types of wines made all over the world, the most important aspect of wine education has to be tasting wines. You can imagine that a lecture about car maintenance could be fairly useful - just think how much more useful it would be to actually get some hands-on practice on a real engine. It’s the same with wine: learning about the different styles of sparkling wine can be interesting, but it really comes alive when you can taste and compare these wines at the same time. All of the pieces of the puzzle come together and you learn so much more – quite apart from the fact that tasting wines with other people is one of the most fun and sociable things you can do.

If I’ve sparked your own interest in learning more about wines there are many ways that you can take things further. If you know you’d like to go straight for a qualification in wine, then the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) is the place to start. Their website ( gives you information on their qualifications and where you can study around the country. On the other hand, if you’re not sure that you want to go the whole hog and study towards a specific qualification then you might be interested in the courses that I am running from September to December in East Horsley and Guildford.

These are wine courses for people who don’t want to go on courses! You can sign up for all six evenings, or just come along to the sessions that really interest you. If you can’t make a particular evening in, say, Guildford, you can swap to East Horsley if it suits. The evenings will be relaxed, friendly but informative, with plenty of time for questions – and there is no such thing as a silly question! As a firm believer in practical experience there will also be ample opportunity to taste, with six different wines on offer each week.

The topics for the six evenings are:

Exploring the world of wine – an introduction to wine focussing on grape varieties: how wine is made, why wines taste different, how to taste them
Food and wine matching – demystifying this topic, practical food and wine matching session for you to discover what works for you
Organic wines – a hot topic in wine as in food: what does it mean? How do the wines taste?
Sparkling wines – there is a huge range of wines with fizz: try them and find your favourites
Champagne – wine’s ultimate luxury: but what does Vintage mean, versus Non Vintage? Do you prefer Blanc de Blancs or Demi Sec? Discover the range and styles of Champagne and decide.
Wines for Christmas – be relaxed about wines for the festive period and explore some special wines for special occasions.

Each evening costs £25 per person, or £125 if you book all six sessions – so you get one session free. Everything you need is provided, including tasting glasses and handouts. If you’d like to come along to any of the evenings, booking information can be found on my website:, or you can email me on