Bordeaux in 2023: The State of the Art
Bordeaux today is producing the best wines in its modern history. You’ve heard that many times before over the last three decades, of course, because Bordeaux has never had a shortage of cheerleaders in the wine media, even as it sometimes struggles to enthuse a new generation of drinkers. So, what has actually changed in the last handful of years? Why should you believe me now? In what follows I delve into the technical details of wine production in the Gironde, surveying recent agronomic and enological evolutions, and explaining how they manifest themselves in the glass in what I call a contemporary classicism that unites pure, vivid fruit and structural seamlessness with strong individual identities. I also explore some of the challenges that are likely to preoccupy Bordeaux wine producers over the next decade and beyond. Taken together, this essay offers an extensive personal overview of Bordeaux’s state of the art in 2023, informed by 15 weeks of visits to over 500 châteaux over the last calendar year.
When a series of successful vintages brought new prosperity to Bordeaux in the 1980s, many properties upgraded and modernized their winemaking facilities. In the vineyards, however, the approach generally remained productivity-driven: clones and rootstocks that could bring large yields to sugar maturity were favored; herbicides had long complemented or replaced mechanical cultivation as the preferred means of soil management; and intensive agrochemical inputs where the norm. So, if there was evolution in the winery and chai in the preceding decades, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the region as a whole began to reinterest itself in the vineyards.
The initial impetus was, on the one hand, to pursue greater ripeness and concentration and, on the other, to reduce agrochemical inputs to less intensive levels, even if very few producers were even contemplating organics in Bordeaux’s humid climate in this period. Many top estates began to phase out herbicide use around this time, but soils were generally kept as bare as possible to eliminate any competition. This was an era of green harvesting to reduce yields and leaf-pulling to aerate the fruiting zone and expose the grapes to direct sunlight in the hope of eliminating any herbaceous, pyrazine characteristics. On the Right Bank, more than on the Left Bank, some estates raised the height of their vines’ canopies, augmenting the surface area of leaves to enhance ripening. Combined with picking late in pursuit of ripe or overripe phenolics, these techniques enabled producers to set new records for alcohol and pH, crafting wines with a power and richness that had hitherto been the monopoly of the New World.
Just as this approach attained its climax with the back-to-back duo of the 2009 and 2010 vintages, some producers began to question whether an approach adapted to maximize ripeness in a marginal climate was really adapted to increasingly warm, sunny vintages in the era of climate change. What’s more, beyond a certain point, riper fruit produces more fragile wines, and some of the wines produced in the first decade of the new millennium in Bordeaux began to lose their fruit alarmingly early, exhibiting oxidative characteristics that were in stark contrast to the plush richness with which they had wowed tasters en primeur.
Today, that questioning has resulted in a new approach to viticulture. Soils are no longer kept bare all year round, but instead native or sown cover crops are employed to manage soils. In rainy weather, cover crops can be retained to transpire water and facilitate access to the vineyards by tractor to apply treatments; in sunny weather, they can be rolled to create a protective layer of straw; and in very dry conditions, they can always be plowed in to reduce competition for water. What is sown can be adapted to the properties of the vineyard in question, but mixtures of leguminous plants (which fix nitrogen), cereals (which create protective straw) and rooted brassicas such as radishes and turnips (which de-compact soils) are common. Such cover crops also reintroduce organic matter into the soil, increasing its water-holding capacity and encouraging microbial life. All this helps vines resist climatic extremes.
Canopies are also managed very differently in contemporary Bordeaux. Forward-thinking producers now perform de-leafing on a case-by-case basis: it’s useful in humid growing seasons with strong disease pressure, but retaining a shaded fruiting zone is important to avoid sunburnt grapes and baked fruit flavors in hot, sunny years. Whereas the tendency had been toward higher canopies to maximize photosynthesis, today growers try to strike a balance between the advantages that the additional shade brought by higher canopies can provide, on the one hand, and the more rapid sugar accumulation (resulting in higher alcohol) and higher rates of evapotranspiration (which exacerbates hydric stress) that they also bring. In vintages such as 2022, some growers are opting to trim their canopies lower than usual in sites prone to hydric stress, given the drought conditions. This trend to more adaptive canopy management helps to mitigate the impact of more extreme growing seasons to produce balanced wines with vibrant fruit flavors.
Such adaptations can make an almost immediate difference, but Bordeaux’s best producers are also thinking longer-term, restructuring their vineyards for the future. Most fundamentally, they are looking at the genetics of vine and rootstock to counter the challenges of a warmer, drier climate. Rootstock choices have evolved considerably in the last few years, with above all drought resistance but also later maturation now commanding a premium (rootstock choices can make an appreciable impact on wine alcohol and pH). And while the vast majority of Bordeaux’s vineyards are planted with clones, many estates have lately launched proprietary massal selections, propagating certified disease-free bud wood from their highest quality vines. Unlike many clonal selections, which were made with earlier maturation in mind, some massal material is later ripening, accumulating less sugar on the way to phenolic maturity, and this is surely one of the most interesting approaches to the question of rising alcohol levels and elevated pHs. Many argue that the best massal selections also produce more complex, vibrant wines. The average quality of Bordeaux’s vine genetics suffered hugely when over-productive selections were replanted after the devastating 1956 frosts ravaged the region’s vineyards, and the success of clonal selections brought some improvements at the expense of diversity; but high quality massal selections represent a path back to the future.
Beyond vine genetics, producers are also optimizing row orientation to avoid sunburnt fruit. East-west orientations, which expose one side of the vine to the hot afternoon sun, are out; north-south—or at some properties such as Château Margaux, northeast-southwest—is now the order of the day. In vintages such as 2020, sunburn can result in appreciable losses in yield, and even fruit that is ostensibly untouched may later reveal baked fruit flavors, so this is an important initiative, even if it sometimes imposes a less efficient use of available vineyard land.
If producers are adapting to a changing climate, they are also attempting to adapt their planting strategies to their terroirs. Grape varieties have sometimes been planted for reasons other than quality pure and simple: many of the Médoc’s gravel terraces, for example, whose soils are perfectly adapted to Cabernet, were planted to earlier-budding Merlot because these sites are also the best protected from frost; Cabernet, in turn, was planted in lower lying sites that are more susceptible to frost, but whose soils are often less suitable for Cabernet. After conducting soil studies, many properties such as Gruaud Larose have restructured their vineyards, planting the various varieties in the soils and expositions most suited to them, irrespective of other considerations.
Combined with these initiatives to optimize vine genetics and to plant varieties in the right place is an upward trend in the planting of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In many cases, this simply represents a return to historical practice: the 1956 frosts precipitated many new plantings of Merlot where Cabernet (and other varieties such as Malbec) had predominated, and by the late 1980s, Merlot was on the rise again as the market rewarded suppler, richer wines that showed well during en primeur tastings. Today, fully ripe Cabernet is a commonplace occurrence rather than an exception to the rule, so it’s understandably on the resurgence. Yet it would be a mistake to turn away from Merlot entirely: in vintages such as 2020 and 2022, contrary to simplistic assumptions, it has performed very well, and with the right genetic material, harvested at the right dates, many intelligent producers believe the variety’s future in the Gironde is assured.
These agronomic initiatives are increasingly complemented by a more ecological approach, with an increasing number of estates converting to organic farming. Bordeaux’s humid maritime climate encourages mildew pressure that makes a fully certified organic approach challenging, especially as French legislation prohibits the use of phosphonates, a potent set of fungicides permitted under organic certification in the United States. In high-pressure years such as 2018, 2020 and 2021, some organic producers have failed to master mildew, as organic contact products need to be reapplied after each rainfall, and wet conditions (especially when there is no cover crop) sometimes impede getting into the vineyards to apply treatments. There are questions about the accumulation of copper residue in the soils, too. But many producers are nonetheless making organic farming work, sometimes complemented by biodynamic treatments.
Agroforestry initiatives are also increasingly commonplace, reintroducing biodiversity via hedges of native species that can create wildlife corridors, flowering verges, and even fruit trees within the vineyards themselves. In addition to the obvious benefits of biodiversity, potential symbiotic relationships between vines and trees, as well as the buffering effect that trees and hedgerows can exert against climatic extremes, mean that the results of such experiments will be very interesting to follow. In short, Bordeaux’s landscape already looks very different in 2023 from how it looked a mere 10 years ago, and the pace of change is accelerating.
Harvest and Vinification
Over the last decade, Bordeaux has made huge progress in mastering harvest dates. The pursuit of physiologically ripe grapes in the 1990s and 2000s led to later picking. But all too often, especially as climate change made full maturity easier to attain, the path of least resistance was to pick ripe to overripe: waiting a few more days required less day-to-day attention by the winemaking team or external consultant and was never punished and often rewarded by the wine press. The consequences, by contrast, of picking a few days too soon were disastrous. Overripe grapes in Bordeaux, however, often produces fragile wines that lose their fruit too quickly in bottle, rapidly shedding their youthful richness to reveal figgy, baked flavors. Today, the best producers and consultants taste their grapes unremittingly in the buildup to harvest, aspiring to catch each parcel at the right time. Bordeaux, in other words, is moving away from the simplistic dichotomy of “picking early” or “picking late” and toward picking fruit that needs to be picked early, early, and picking fruit that needs to be picked late, late.
Simultaneously, in pursuit of greater precision, many estates have subdivided large blocks into smaller units, defined by soil type and vine material, and acquired more numerous, smaller fermentation vats to ferment these blocks separately. Modern logistical process management (each lot at Château Margaux is barcoded, for example) facilitates harvesting these blocks at the perfect moment, rather than simply starting at the most distant parcel and working back toward the château, as was all too often the case a few decades ago. Properties such as Figeac that encompass a wide diversity of soils, expositions and varieties now sometimes harvest for the better part of a month, stopping and starting in function of the evolution of each block. Some estates, such as Léoville-Las Cases and Giscours, even go to the extreme of harvesting young vines and old vines separately within a block. The result is much more homogenous ripeness, without over-ripeness, and consequently much more vivid fruit flavors united with the textural polish that can only come from fully ripe tannins. And since the potential of each block is optimized by a harvest date and vinification adapted to its qualities, the resulting blend profits immensely as it is composed of more individually compelling components.
Once the fruit arrives at the winery, it’s sorted much more precisely. Optical sorting machines select berries of varying degrees of maturity using imaging technology, and densimetric sorting selects fruit according to sugar concentration. When correctly calibrated, these machines complement visual sorting by workers to make eliminating underripe, overripe and diseased berries much more complete. And if fruit is sorted much more meticulously, it’s also handled much more gently today. Many top estates have dispensed with must pumps and instead destem into stainless steel bins that are then emptied into the fermentation vats by gravity (with the aid of a lift or hoist). Destemmers themselves are much gentler than was the case two decades ago. Retaining fruit intact means that the process of extraction can be much more precisely controlled, resulting in suppler, more refined tannins in the finished wine.
With the exception of a few outliers, the Bordelais have also become much more judicious in concentrating their wines. There are two leading methods, bleeding tanks (saignée) and reverse osmosis. To bleed a tank, juice is drained off before fermentation, increasing the ratio of solids to juice and resulting in thicker, more concentrated wines. In the 1990s and 2000s, this technique was much exaggerated. One Saint-Émilion producer told me, off the record, how they used to perform significant tank bleeds, even in ripe vintages such as 2010, and even when cropping old vines at a low yield of 25 hectoliters per hectare. The juice bled off ended up in the second wine, which today drinks better than the grand vin, the latter remaining impenetrably tannic and extracted. Reverse osmosis works by extracting water from a portion of the must, rather than bleeding off juice, but the results are similar. It tends to exaggerate a wine’s existing characteristics, for better or worse. Both approaches can play an interesting role in wet, abundant vintages; but in the era of climate change, it is to be welcomed that producers are less inclined to employ these techniques. Concentration and dry extract are important, but it takes juice as well as solids to make a great wine.
During fermentation, Bordeaux’s most intelligent winemakers have also adapted how they manage extraction. The use of high temperatures during and after fermentation; extraction enzymes; and frequent, vigorous pump-overs or rack-and-returns (a technique known in French as délestage, where fermenting must is racked off into an adjacent tank and then pumped back into the active ferment) is now largely confined to a few reactionaries. Cooler fermentations moderate extraction and retain brighter, more vibrant flavors; and long but gentle macerations allow the wine to gradually fill out, gaining structure and volume but permitting greater precision and control. The result is more seamless, harmonious wines that are often analytically higher in tannin than the wines produced 15 years ago, but which appear suppler and more polished because those tannins are of higher quality. Sending the resulting wines to barrel cool rather than warm makes for a more harmonious oak integration, without the additional oak extraction and mid-palate creaminess that comes from barreling down hot.
Management of wine microbiology has also progressed. An unfermented must contains two principal sources of food for microbes: sugar and malic acid. A successful fermentation is one where these two food sources are monopolized by favorable microorganisms, but both can potentially provide food for less favorable strains of lactobacillus (which produce volatile acidity), apiculate yeasts (which can produce acetate at the beginning of an alcoholic fermentation) and Brettanomyces (a family of yeasts that produce volatile phenols that smell of leather and manure). Until favorable microorganisms dominate a wine’s microbial ecosystem, unfavorable microorganisms have the opportunity to establish themselves, and Brettanoymces problems in barrel in particular are frequently linked to fermentations that are sluggish to conclude. In warmer, dryer, more extreme vintages, the potential for microbial spoilage only becomes more and more acute, and even when the consequences are so mild as to be imperceptible to most tasters, wines suffer in purity and precision of expression. Bordeaux’s comparatively high red wine pHs and increasingly high sugars only makes their wines more vulnerable, so considerable expertise has been devoted to the issue.
One approach to the challenge is to sulfur the incoming fruit, which suppresses apiculate yeasts, while co-inoculating for alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, thereby immediately installing a dominant population of favorable microorganisms. Co-inoculation began to be popularized in Bordeaux in the 1980s. The downside of this approach is that malolactic fermentation completes at warm temperatures, which can encourage creamier, more lactic aromas and diminish precision on the palate, especially in warm vintages. An increasingly popular alternative is to inoculate the fruit straight away with selected strains of non-saccharomyces yeast that suppress unfavorable microflora at the beginning of fermentation, then to inoculate with selected yeasts to complete alcoholic fermentation. Malolactic can then be delayed until after alcoholic fermentation is complete, once the wine has cooled. This method, known as bio-protection, has the added advantage of reducing the wine’s total sulfites. But whatever the method employed, a clean, healthy fermentation delivers wines of greater purity that are also much easier to manage during élevage.
Pressing and Maturation
Bordeaux’s recent shift toward handling fruit more gently is reflected at pressing, where a widespread return to the vertical press combined with more attention to separating fractions is delivering press wine of higher quality. Some estates are even separating the different layers of the cap when digging out tanks, pressing them separately. Whereas 20 years ago, the best producers’ objective was often to minimize the proportion of press wine in the grand vin, today high quality is frequently reincorporated into the blend in significant volumes without compromising the finished wines’ suppleness or balance.
Even more significant, however, have been evolutions in the approach to maturation (élevage) before bottling. In general, the tendency is toward less oxidative élevage with a subtler signature that allows for a purer, more vibrant expression of fruit, and this can be achieved in a variety of ways. Oak impact can be reduced by working with other vessels, such as foudres and larger barrels, ceramic amphorae, cement tanks and glass wine globes. Larger, more inert vessels also make it easier to retain lower levels of volatile acidity and lower total sulfites at bottling (though managing the porosity of ceramic and pottery vessels did come with teething pains at a number of estates).
The traditional 225-liter barrique has evolved too, however, and tighter grained oak selections, longer seasoning and lower toast (to simplify a complex subject) are delivering barrels that impart finer tannins, less impactful aromas, and less supplemental sweetness to wines that increasingly don’t lack for ripeness. Sanitation protocols for used barrels are also much more rigorous, resulting in purer, more precise finished wines, unmarred by the hints of acetate or the other aromatic deviations that used cooperage can easily impart. Producers are working in real partnership with coopers to reduce the creamy, toasty oak signatures that used to be so prized only a decade or two ago in Bordeaux, preserving greater purity of fruit.
Tighter grained oak and other, less oxidative vessels also play a role in Bordeaux’s shift toward more reductive élevage. So, too, does the frequency and method of racking. Traditionally, red Bordeaux was racked with aeration from barrel to barrel multiple times a year, using a hole pierced in the barrel head known as the esquive, with the goal of eliminating the lees (which can harbor spoilage microorganisms or promote reduction). Today, riper grapes in a warmer climate mean that wines are more fragile and less resistant to oxidation, so such frequent racking is clearly excessive, tending to render wines less vibrant and expressive. There has been a notable shift not only toward less frequent racking, but also to racking from the bung hole using nitrogen to essentially eliminate dissolved oxygen uptake. Even some of Bordeaux’s most conservative châteaux that remain attached to traditional racking a l’esquive are experimenting with racking under gas. Racking this way helps retain purity of fruit, requires less protecting sulfur dioxide and preserves a wine’s more ethereal, floral aromas.
The popularity of micro-oxygenation has also much diminished. Originally developed to tame the tannic wines of Madiran, micro-oxygenation consists of bubbling small doses of oxygen through a young wine in tank or in barrel to accelerate its evolution, softening tannins, mitigating reduction, and delivering a broader, creamier palate. This technique won considerable popularity in Bordeaux, beginning in the late 1990s, above all on the Right Bank, as it makes wines more demonstrative young, rendering them especially appealing in en primeur tastings. When abused, however, it diminishes a wine’s life expectancy, trading the capacity to evolve and improve over time for short-term impact. Today, micro-oxygenation is less popular and may be confined to one or two barrels for en primeur tastings rather than applied to a whole cuvée.
Both of these approaches—the shift toward less overtly oak wines, and less oxidative handling of wines during élevage—are complemented by cooler barrel rooms (or chai in French). Temperature control arrived during fermentation several decades ago, but properly air-conditioned chais were slower coming, even if the need for them has only become more and more acute in recent years. Cooler conditions, complemented by regular analysis, also play an important role in the battle against Brettanomyces spoilage, as lower temperatures inhibit the development of Brett and its capacity to produce volatile phenols. The result, as ever, is greater purity and precision; and higher performance filtration technology and bottling lines that minimize dissolved oxygen uptake mean that those qualities are more likely to be retained in bottle, too.
Rigorous selection is often invoked to account for the quality of contemporary Bordeaux’s wines, but the reality is a more complex. Many of the leading Médoc classified growths have increased in size appreciably since the 1980s, as they acquire minor producers and absorb their vineyards, and so estates that produce a large proportion of second wine today do not necessarily do so from their historic core vineyards. Indeed, a number of châteaux that went on a buying spree in the 1990s have now realized that their more recently acquired parcels are not on the same qualitative level and have resigned themselves to producing their second label from these parcels. Of course, it also seems plausible that draconian selection has been used by some as a technique to artificially constrain supply in order to sustain a higher price for the grand vin. Certainly, any estates who are producing second wine from prime terroirs such as the best gravel terraces of Pauillac and Saint-Julien should clearly reevaluate their practices, because the problem isn’t the soil. To my mind, the strength of Bordeaux as a whole is the capacity to combine quality with quantity, and this should be the objective of any large classified growth.
If contemporary Bordeaux is witnessing rapid agronomic and technical progress, that’s thanks to a whole community of passionate, intelligent, competent individuals who have had the courage to implement changes. Bordeaux is sometimes contrasted unfavorably with Burgundy by the measure of authenticity; yet if the mark of authenticity is taking risks out of conviction, there are an abundance of Bordelais who meet the test. Troplong Mondot’s unctuous, oaky wines were always highly rated, so the decision to take an entirely new stylistic direction was bold. Lafite-Rothchild’s sales are so robust that choosing to rip up and not to replant some of the estate’s inferior parcels makes little purely economic sense. And the risk of interplanting fruit trees within the vineyards of Cheval Blanc might have deterred the complacent. Yet strong positions such as these are being taken all over Bordeaux, and the resulting wines reflect that.
Great wines generally only emerge from a rich wine culture, and contemporary Bordeaux’s most interesting technical directors, proprietors and consultants are unprecedentedly well versed in the greatest wines of the world beyond Bordeaux. Of course, they are equally inspired by the great wines of Bordeaux’s past, elaborating a contemporary vision for the region that remains true to its heritage. They have understood that Bordeaux is one of the world’s greatest viticultural regions not because of its wines’ power, but rather thanks to their harmony, intensity without weight and complexity. It is these qualities, so hard to achieve with these grape varieties in other regions, that constitute Bordeaux’s great competitive advantage in the world of wine. While many French wine regions are dominated by heredity, many of the most dynamic individuals in contemporary Bordeaux were not born into vineyards, and many don’t even come from the region. And again, if the more corporate structure of Bordeaux châteaux is sometimes unfavorably contrasted with the family domaines of Burgundy, the intensely positive flipside is precisely that passionate, technically brilliant wine lovers who were not born into a vigneron family have the possibility in Bordeaux to take the helm at leading estates.
This picture of the state of the art in contemporary Bordeaux has so far been extremely positive. But what challenges does the region face today? Most obviously, climate change is clearly testing for the region, which witnessed unprecedently hot and dry conditions as recently as last year, accompanied by forest fires of an extent not seen since 1949. While I am convinced that the agronomic adaptations outlined earlier in this essay mean that Bordeaux can adapt, without changing its traditional cépages or reinventing its identity, the reality is that many of the choices of rootstocks and clonal material made in the last 50 years were made with a view to achieving early ripening. This won’t change overnight, and in the meantime, many estates in Bordeaux are likely to continue to struggle with elevated alcohol levels and high pHs in sunny, warm vintages, even if more attention to harvest dates and adaptations in élevage practices (as outlined above) can do much to retain vibrant flavors and avoid overripe characteristics in the finished wines.
The comparatively large scale of Bordeaux wine production also exposes the wines especially acutely to the effect of market forces. A 90-hectare Médoc estate cannot afford to ignore consumer preferences in the way that the proprietor of a three-hectare domaine in the Côte d’Or can; nor do the large estates of Bordeaux, whose wines are distributed via the Place de Bordeaux, have such intimate contact with their end consumers as smaller high-quality wineries in other regions. This makes Bordeaux wineries especially susceptible to following fashion: a decade ago, it was fermentation of red wines in barrel; today it’s the use of whole cluster and wine globes; tomorrow, it will be something else. Fashionable winemaking consultants are similarly seen as gurus who can offer a shortcut to good reviews and sales. But these talking points are a distraction from the serious work of improving viticultural practices and working more precisely in the winery, which is what informed consumers in the 21st century want to hear about.
Commercial imperatives on the one hand, and the lack of direct contact with the end consumers on the other, lends particular power to the wine press in Bordeaux, as scores influence sales and indeed the careers of technical directors. Given the importance of scores, it is unfortunate that the press is over-dependent on massed tastings of several hundred samples per day at centralized locations, whether with négociants, regional bodies, or winemaking consultants. This is convenient for the press, but bad for the wines. While some may contend that experience can mitigate palate fatigue, the fact that tannins bind with proteins on the palate is hard to escape, and it is clear that mass tastings favor caricatural wines that are higher in pH, alcohol and extraction. That many of Bordeaux’s wines are assessed in such a context often does the wines a disservice. Bordeaux clearly merits the same boots-on-the-ground, estate-by-estate attention that is obligatory in Burgundy, yet it seldom receives it. Nor is it enough to visit the winery’s tasting room; it’s necessary to visit the vineyards. The role of mass tastings, in this author’s opinion, is to compare and contextualize and verify the quality of wines that have already mostly been tasted on site at the châteaux, but this is far from the norm today.
The problem is compounded by the fact that wines are sold en primeur. Since it is en primeur tastings that set the tone for a wine’s entire life, there is huge pressure on estates to optimize their production processes so that their wines show well in the spring following the vintage. Many of the outmoded techniques outlined earlier in this essay such as picking overripe, hot fermentation and barreling down warm, malolactic in barrel, and micro-oxygenation were strongly encouraged not only by the fact that Bordeaux wines are frequently assessed in largescale comparative tastings, but also by the fact that these techniques render wines more impactful and dramatic en primeur. Methodology determines results, and the timing and approach to critical tastings in Bordeaux arguably distorted the style of the region’s wines for a generation.
The homogenization of tastes that was so feared two decades ago, however, hasn’t come to pass, and even if the way the wines are reviewed clearly leaves much to be desired, the wines themselves are the most diverse that they have been this millennium. In the information age, globalization has become an advantage rather than a threat, allowing characterful wines with a strong individual identity to find their market niche rather than forcing them to conform to standards that please the majority. Estates that flirted with a more international style are frequently returning to their roots today. In the last decade, moreover, it has been the châteaux that have taken the initiative in their stylistic evolutions and the press that has followed, rather than vice versa. The contemporary classicism that I have described in this essay represents a return to a truly Bordelais style, and it has largely been embraced by the wine media; but the wine media did not initiate this shift.
Beyond the plight of the so-called petits châteaux, which has been and will continue to be addressed in these pages, Bordeaux’s biggest challenge today may well be communication. How many of the agronomic and technical evolutions discussed in this article have you, the reader, heard about before? Yet these details, rather than the name of the celebrity architect who designed the new chai or the artist who painted the new mural, are the foundations of wine quality. The Bordeaux machine, and the wine press that has tended to serve it rather than consumer, spend too much time discussing frivolities and too little discussing the very serious work that is being undertaken in the Gironde.
The problem is compounded by rampant score inflation that damages the credibility and, consequently, the impact of positive reviews. The Bordelais machine too frequently assumes that the consumer is stupid, picking and choosing the highest score to sell wines in the short term, irrespective of the ethics or competence of the reviewer. And the press has only been too happy to oblige, initiating a race to the top whereby it suffices to be good to be great. Yet at some point, bottles get opened, and the truth can be found in the glass. The result is score fatigue among consumers who have heard that a given wine is the “best ever” many times before. The irony, of course, is that contemporary Bordeaux is indeed producing some of its most exciting wines in several generations. My hope is that this essay has made a coherent argument for that position, rather than resorting to specious hyperbole.
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Taking over coverage of Bordeaux has been rich with interest, so I’ve dedicated this year’s “favorites” entirely to the reds and whites of the Gironde. I hope this selection may interest readers who have given up on Bordeaux—or who have forgotten that the region’s excitement isn’t limited to a few dozen famous labels.