Photo: Bordeaux vintner Lillian Barton-Sartorious
A recent Vancouver visit of
40 producers from the Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux was likely the single
largest contingent of Bordeaux
producers here at the same time.
The visit was part of an ambitious North American “mission”
of a sort that has not been seen in some time.
The mission’s itinerary included St John's
on January 21, Toronto
on January 22, Montreal
on January 23, New York
on January 25, Chicago
on January 27, Phoenix
on January 28 (the delegation split), Los Angeles
on January 29, San Francisco
30 and Washington DC
on January 31.
That is the unbelievable sort travel schedule that I would
have thought could be designed only by the National Hockey League.
It tells us that Bordeaux
wines have become a little harder to sell. A Vancouver
agent who goes to Bordeaux
auctions regularly has been struck by the drop in the number of Chinese buyers
he sees. That is probably one reason that the producers are working the North
American market more aggressively.
The other reason is that it will be harder to sell the red
wines of the 2013 vintage, which is what most producers were showing.
According to the vintage table published by the
International Wine & Food Society, the 2013 Bordeaux reds score three out of seven –
seven being the top score for a vintage. The only other vintage since 1990 to
score three across the board was 2002.
The 2013 vintage was judged better for whites and for
Sauternes, which the IWFS rated six.
The whites and Sauternes that I tasted were indeed
impressive. A barrel sample of the 2013 Château De Fargues Sauternes got 93
points in my note book. That winery’s 2010 Sauternes – a top vintage – is
listed in British Columbia
at $86.99 a bottle. I also had high points for Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2013
and Château Suduiraut 2013. The latter producer has a 2001 vintage Sauternes
(another top vintage) listed here for $329.99 a bottle.
Vancouver has long been a
market. The Bordeaux’s region’s most elite
tasting fraternity, the Commanderie de Bordeaux, has had a Vancouver chapter since 1975.
Currently, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch lists more than
250 products from Bordeaux, starting at $15 and
reaching to the stratosphere that only the great Bordeaux reds command. For example, Château Mouton Rothschild ranges
between $900 and $1,600 a bottle, depending on the vintage.
The prices of the top Bordeaux
reds reflect the reputation and the heritage of the chateaux. One of the
presenters in Vancouver
was Lillian Barton-Sartorius, one of the owners of two grand cru wineries:
Château Langoa-Barton and Château Léoville-Barton. The wineries have been owned
by the Barton family (Hugh Johnson calls them Irish) since 1821.
The wines of both are made in the Langoa-Barton winery. The
grapes are from different vineyards, with Léoville-Barton classified a second
growth and Langoa-Barton is a third growth.
Over those years, there have been many times when the
business was challenging. There was not a lot of prosperity in Bordeaux
in the 1950s
after the damage of the war on top of the Depression and weak vintages of the
1930s. Lillian remembers her parents positioning buckets around the chateau
because the roof leaked.
wine economy had turned the corner by 1970 (a legendary vintage). The years
since have been a long golden age for Bordeaux wines, with international demand
and Robert Parker ratings generating high prices and with many châteaux
changing hands. There are not many great properties still owned by the same
family since 1821.
A lot of new technology has been applied in both the
vineyards and the châteaux over the last decade of two. Anne Cuvelier, the
presenter for Château Léoville-Poyferré,
spoke glowingly about the optical grape sorter that has replaced human sorters
on that winery’s crush pad. The result, she says, has been significantly better
screening of grapes before they go into the crusher.
Yet when I asked Lillian about new technology at the Barton
estates, she replied: “We quite like traditional methods … Bordeaux
must keep its Bordeaux.”
Perhaps this blend of new ideas and traditional ideas is
what makes the wines of Bordeaux
Judging from the wines I tasted, I would not get too bent
out of shape that the 2013 vintage is, as one person said to me, “the weakest
in a decade.” I thought the reds were still quite interesting.
I gave 90 points both to the Léoville-Barton 2013 and to the
Léoville-Poyferré 2013. Currently, the Léoville- Barton 2012 is listed here for
$138 a bottle and the Léoville-Poyferré 2012 is listed for $128. The 2012
vintage was rated four out of seven by the IWFS.
Of course, vintages matter – up to a point. The stronger Bordeaux vintages are the
ones that will age the longest. But a true collector of Bordeaux reds considers the 2012 and 2013
wines to ones to drink while the 2009 and 2010 vintages are developing in the
The prices of Bordeaux
wines give me a lot more pause than the vintages … but I recognize that, like
race horses, one has to pay for good blood lines.