Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wine & Spirits Magazine Excludes Bordeaux from its Top 100

Josh Greene enjoying the rooftop Wine & Spirits Top 100 tasting in San Francisco
Wine & Spirits magazine has quietly drawn an interesting line in the sand: It has no Bordeaux wineries in its Top 100 wineries in the world.

"Bordeaux gets plenty of attention in other places," says Wine & Spirits editor Josh Greene.

True, but it's a bold stance. For most drinkers over the age of 35, Bordeaux was considered the pinnacle of wine when we started.

 Nowadays it's different. The Bordeaux first-growths have priced themselves beyond not only average drinkers, but enophiles. They are now investments rather than wines, and the crowd consuming them has changed. No serious wine lover can justify buying even a single bottle of Lafite-Rothschild when we know we can get cases of wines that are just as good for less money.

Wine & Spirits' problem, business wise, is that it alone, among the four major U.S. wine magazines, is for the serious wine lover. The money is in telling wealthy people which one's bigger, whether it's engines, diamonds or wines. There's no way Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate would ever exclude Bordeaux from their top 100s, even if the wines didn't live up to the prices. It just ... isn't ... done.

Greene has a technical excuse. Wine & Spirits' Top 100 is supposedly wineries, not wines. "Bordeaux doesn't fit the model. You have to have three wines recommended," Greene said, although he acknowledged that some of the wineries included have only two wines over 90 points.

Most of the top Bordeaux houses make only two wines: a first and second label. But some have more. Chateau Haut-Brion, for example, makes four wines (btw, to enjoy the haughtiness of Bordeaux, try visiting Haut-Brion's website with your browser window at less than full size. You will be told, "Your browser is too small.")

However, Greene also said his Top 100 is done by region; in other words, only the top Burgundies, the top Chinon, the top Barossa Valley wines, will make the list. Pinot Noir is overrepresented and Italy is underrepresented, but overall this system leaves room for some great enophile wines that might be left out in a traditional top-score-from-anywhere system.

So it would be simple for Greene to declare that, say, Cheval Blanc is the best winery in Bordeaux in 2011, and include it, regardless of the number of wines. But he hasn't.

I asked Greene why not, and he said, "Bordeaux producers separate themselves from the rest of the world anyway. It's their choice to separate themselves."

What he means is that Bordeaux is sold and marketed through entirely different systems than elsewhere. For sales, there's a complicated system of negociants who prevent Bordeaux wineries from forming direct connections with merchants and consumers.

And for marketing, Bordeaux is the only region in the world with the cojones to dictate terms to the wine media.

Rather than send samples to magazines, or even put together a big group tasting, the top Bordeaux houses issue invitations to come to them, on their schedule (called "en primeur"), so you may taste a single barrel sample. Robert Parker has been bowing down to this system for years. So does Jancis Robinson; so does Wine Spectator.

Parker has reason to be grateful; he made his reputation with his enthusiasm for Bordeaux he tasted on these appointment-only sampling visits. But for the rest, I've always been a little surprised that they still bother to go. Ever since the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 proved that other wines could be better, Bordeaux is only as important as we make it. In fact, while Parker was a supplicant to Bordeaux 30 years ago, that relationship is now reversed, and the first-growths don't even price their wines until he pronounces a rating on them. Yet still he goes to them.

As you can tell, I'm not against Greene's stance; I'm just shocked by it. To not include a single Bordeaux winery in the world's Top 100 -- that's a statement.

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  1. Good for Greene taking a different route. I attended the Top 100 Tasting in SF the other week and found it to be one of the best tastings I have had the privileged to attend. Two thumbs up from the German selections.

  2. Great article. I look forward to the top 100 W&S issue and find it to be the most informative wine magazine release all year. There's so much good in it that I've never really missed the lack of Bordeaux in the coverage.

  3. This tasting is always incredible. The highlight of the evening for me was Chambers 100 yr old Rare Muscat. The flavors and mouthfeel were phenomenal-an unforgettable wine and a real treat to taste.

  4. yet the whole article is about Bordeaux, don't we love to hate Bordeaux

  5. Kudos to Josh and the W&S team for continuing to strive to EXPAND the world of wine for serious wine-lovers!

  6. As soon as I read the first line, I thought of how disjointed the importing and marketing of Bordeaux has become in the U.S. since the dismantle of Seagram C&E. If you don't have someone ensuring the wines are sampled within Wine & Spirits' parameters (at least three wines, as you mentioned; all shipped to Josh in NY for assessment), you can't get consideration to even be on the list.

    I thought there were importers that used to send out Bordeaux samples within the U.S. for top-tier publications like Josh. When I worked at The Wine News in the 1990s, we did get Bordeaux samples, though not the first growths.

    Maybe it's the lofty prices, miniscule budgets and lack of PR people on Bordeaux that contribute to their absense from the list.

  7. Whoever said there is democracy in the wine business? This is just a case of wine envy on Mr. Greene's part. Hey Josh, if you can't pay you just can't play! Classified Bordeaux wines have spent the past 300 years evolving into the top wines that they are today. Jealosy is no substitute for facts. Yes they are expensive but so is a Rolls Royce and not everyone can afford one of those either but it does not mean it is not one of the top 100 autos.

  8. It's about time. Oregon blows Bordeaux away! (not that I'm biased or anything :)

  9. WPM, there is only so far you can take the comparison to other luxury goods (or art for that matter). A Rolls Royce is a product of engineering, attention to detail and craftsmanship. Extra bells and whistles can always be added to differentiate or improve the vehicle, thus adding to its value.

    Wine, however, loses its authenticity at a certain point when manipulations go too far. Is it still wine if gold flecks are added to it? What about a splash of designer perfume? There is only so much one can do to wine without fundamentally debasing it. It can be farmed carefully, fermented with precision, aged in fine barriques. But this only costs so much, and there is no way to quantify or measure difference in technique. The only difference is in the finished wine, which again can't be quantified in the same way you count gadgets in a car.

    Bordeaux has rightly (from a business standpoint) drawn a line in the sand economically. The wealthy are notorious shallow and superficial when it comes to displaying affluence. Why should Bordeaux sell a 100 bottles at $50 when they can sell 10 at $500? It's clear which model is easier to uphold if the demand is there. There are enough suckers out there who are scared to put their own palates on the line, so they pay to know they have good taste. A pretty expensive insurance policy if you ask me, but so be it.