Friday, January 29, 2016

Bordeaux brigade in Vancouver

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 and Vancouver on January 28 (the delegation split), Los Angeles on January 29, San Francisco on January 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 good Bordeaux 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.

The Bordeaux 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 so interesting.

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 cellar.

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.


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