Does Bordeaux Even Want to Change?

Outsiders are challenging the power structure that has defined Bordeaux’s Left Bank for more than a century. But is it enough?

It’s in a parking lot in the town of Pauillac where I learn an essential lesson about Bordeaux’s current problems. I pull into the Intermarché to get some gas. The asphalt is cracked, the pumps have seen better days. A couple of rough young guys—sales mecs—are sizing me up. I do something I haven’t done in a long time: lock the car doors while I fill the tank.

This is the same Pauillac that’s home to Château Latour and Lafite Rothschild, and an undue proportion of the world’s most famous, and well-financed, wine properties. Yet it’s a far cry from the “nice village of old houses, aligned as in olden times,” as Philippe de Rothschild described it in 1984. In fact, Pauillac’s poverty rate is over 22 percent, more than 50 percent higher than the national average.

If Pauillac is forlorn, it’s also an apt metaphor for Bordeaux’s weird place in the wine world these days. By the numbers, I guess, Bordeaux is doing fine; its market power remains enormous, and the region produces more wine, by dollar value, than anywhere else in France. The problem is that, in a world where Burgundy has risen to be the new collectible, and carbonic gamay is so hot, who cares about Bordeaux? Sure, it’s still important to a handful of influential critics, and a lot of merchants, especially in the U.K., who are loyal out of decorum and nostalgia—and of course commercial self-interest. But the future of its complex market system, especially its en primeur futures, has been in question for years. Even if you are swayed by its market power, its way of doing business is a remnant from a time gone by—one that alienated key markets like the United States.

Often, the Bordelais interpret their fate as the product of resentment. They love to complain about “Bordeaux bashing,” and the French press is always speculating about when the region will be allowed to come in from the cold. But the reality is that Bordeaux’s woes are almost entirely self-generated. If you press them, most introspective Bordelais will admit this, too.

The real problem is that the region still lives and dies by the 1855 classification that ranked its top properties; nearly everyone not atop that pyramid views it as past its expiration date. Today, just a handful of properties—let’s say 120 or so—dominate the complex market for the region’s wines. Yet Bordeaux has more than 8,500 properties, most of which see little benefit from the region’s hierarchy or onetime prestige. This is, arguably, wine’s most Piketty-like display of inequality, and its schism between haves and have-nots explains a lot about Bordeaux’s difficult situation today.

That schism surfaces most starkly, I’d argue, in Pauillac and other towns that house the region’s big, historic properties. These are not the realms of vignerons, but of hired help: technical directors, vineyard managers and consultants. “As my mother says, the Médoc is almost feudal,” says Olivier Techer, who took over Pomerol’s Château Gombaude-Guillot from his parents in 2010.

Can Bordeaux change this culture? Does it want to? Because even with all its difficulties, it’s home to a growing number of earnest producers doing great work: making eminently drinkable wine at artisan scale, while avoiding the style wars that have fueled the region’s woes. There are ever more people today who believe in human-scale Bordeaux, who farm with an eye toward organics and who revere the freshness and rectitude that once made “claret,” as the British still call it, so beloved.

This includes people like Philippe Chaigneau of Château Massereau in Preignac, near the southern end of the Graves appellation, about 40 minutes south of the city of Bordeaux. Naturalist in his mien, Chaigneau likes to push limits—his Cuvée X is unsulfured, and his Eliott is a rare 100-percent petit verdot bottled demurely as a Graves red.

Graves may be a tiny sliver within Bordeaux, but it’s an ancient and esteemed one. The fine-boned flavors in its wines, and a mineral raciness associated with its gravelly, riverine soils are, when made right, precisely in line with today’s tastes. Yet it’s just the sort of place that has been pushed into the background. “Because of the appellations in Bordeaux, there’s always this hierarchy of prices,” Chaigneau tells me as we follow the bank of a local stream, “and you’ll never be able to charge more than you can.”

The area is home to other wines like Chaigneau’s Cuvée X, from small-scale vignerons like Vincent Quirac of Clos 19 Bis, who farms barely 1.5 hectares of Sauternes and makes a fragrant red. Or Christian Auney of Château Auney l’Hermitage, who farms organically. These properties don’t need to compete with Graves’ top names, like Haut-Brion and Carbonnieux. Instead, I think they can succeed in an alternate power structure.

Similar wines can be found in other spots up and down the Left Bank, usually in less fashionable corners like Saint-Yzans-de-Médoc, far up the estuary, where Didier Michaud of Planquette farms organically, and sells his wine as vin de France. And young vignerons are establishing themselves in the no-man’s land of Entre-Deux-Mers, southeast of Bordeaux, with its thousands of hectares of land. This is where Stéphane Dupuch of Château Sainte-Marie, the head of the local wine syndicat, talks about discovering “small terroirs” inside an enormous appellation.

These vignerons represent two truths about Bordeaux: that time has come for its small properties to rise, and that individual terroir is essential to its future. (Large châteaux insist they’re believers in terroir, but as components in a blend, a “symphony” versus a “sonata.”)

Of course, you could argue that this sort of culture already exists, namely on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, both because of its many satellite appellations (Castillon, Bourg, Fronsac and so on) and because its properties have remained smaller, closer to an average of 5 hectares versus 30 or more. And indeed, the Right Bank has long been a focus for those seeking this smaller view of Bordeaux. But it also comes with its own cautionary tales—not only the endless infighting of ambitious owners in Saint-Émilion, but also the infamous vins de garage: very ripe, very stylish wines made in tiny quantities, which were once seen as Bordeaux’s next great hope, and which have mostly exhausted their life cycles in less than 20 years.

Bordeaux obviously struggles to do small well, but stop worrying about the right postal code and Bordeaux can indeed be a place for the young and hungry.

Progress right now, then, is still mostly on the margins. And yet any sea change in Bordeaux also has to involve its most famous villages, which is why I find myself on the sedate roads of Arsac, at the southwestern edge of the Margaux appellation. It’s is a quiet, tidy town of pastoral fields and pines, a gateway to the peninsula’s sandy Landes uplands. “It’s really isolated,” Michel Théron tells me. “And you don’t always want neighbors, since they aren’t always going to treat the vines the same way as you.”

Théron and his wife, Stéphanie Destruhaut, run Clos du Jaugueyron in this back corner of Margaux—just far enough away from any important properties for the couple to cobble together 8 hectares of vineyard through the 1990s and 2000s, which they now farm biodynamically.

Arsac has been known for its wines since before the 1855 classification, and some of Margaux’s top properties maintain vineyards not far from Théron’s. This is because five villages lay claim to the high-profile Margaux appellation, which was born from a half-century of infighting over boundaries—and which exists that way because of a bizarre twist of Bordeaux wine law: classified châteaux  can acquire and use other vineyards within their appellations without losing their 1855 status. So towns like Arsac and neighboring Soussans are key to allowing big Margaux properties to make their wines. While the rule is often underscored as an example of how Bordeaux spurns terroir, in Margaux, it has given small properties in the appellation’s back 40, like Jaugueyron, a dose of prestige.

That might be why, compared to places like Pauillac, Margaux feels a bit different—the Médoc village most engaged with the modern world. It’s why the appellation spent at least €75,000 in recent years to promote biodiversity, which seems an obvious thing to do, but you take the avant-garde where you can amid Bordeaux’s conservatism. (For comparison, Margaux’s poverty rate is less than half that of Pauillac.)

Other heartening examples can be found, like Closeries des Moussis in nearby Cantenac, not far from where the first growth Château Margaux quietly keeps parcels. Pascale Choime and Laurence Alias founded it in 2008, and the two women make little that resembles traditional Bordeaux: a pét-nat from grapes across the river, and Baragane, a field blend of 10 varieties, including mancin noir and Saint-Macaire—namely because it’s “easier to sell a pétillant rosé to a 30-year-old than a cru bourgeois,” as Laurence puts it.

Still, it’s a struggle, as Bruno and Pascale Rey of Moulin de Tricot point out when I visit them in their small house in Arsac. I love the Reys’ wines for their raw, sinewy character—cabernet without bullshit. But they feel squeezed today; their five hectares are old family land they could no longer afford to buy today. “We’re lucky to be in a well-known appellation,” Bruno tells me, “but it’s still difficult because the big châteaux buy up any parcel that anyone has an interest in. And they get bigger, and everyone else gets even smaller.”

That brings us to another complex piece of the puzzle: Since the big châteaux enjoy an oligopoly, will anything persuade them to leave their luxurious echo chamber and engage a new generation of drinkers? What could a top growth even offer a young drinker—not pét-nat, obvi, but also not the generic cheap wines many have produced—that feels relevant?

I put that question to Thomas Duroux, the CEO of Château Palmer. While Duroux heads a major property, he’s also a rabble-rouser, embodying the region’s more modern sensibilities. Palmer is the great anomaly of the classed growths: a third growth property that has always been acknowledged as overachieving, to the point that its official rank doesn’t much matter. This is why, along with second growth Léoville Las Cases in Saint-Julien, it doesn’t list its status on the label. “Honestly we don’t care about the classification,” Duroux says. “It’s a piece of history. It has nothing to do with reality now.”

Palmer has been a helpful thorn in Bordeaux’s side, in no small part thanks to Duroux, who arrived in 2004. He made what in Bordeaux were unusual moves, like creating Palmer’s Historical XIX Century Wine, a blend of cabernet and syrah that’s sly tribute to the region’s furtive onetime use of Rhône wine to bulk up thin claret. He also believed that better farming was essential for such an esteemed property, so he stopped the use of herbicides, and by 2011 persuaded the owners to convert to biodynamics, making it one of the first major properties in Bordeaux to do so. (Pontet-Canet, the overachieving Pauillac fifth growth, certified in 2006. Now others, including first growth Château Latour, are following.) Leading by example seems to have worked; by Duroux’s estimate, at least 15 properties in Margaux are farming organically or moving toward it, including third growth Château Ferrière and second growth Durfort-Vivens, both now biodynamic.

But larger properties, like Palmer, still have to wrestle with the issue of scale. Most feel they have to make, say, 10,000 cases or so of a grand vin. And that makes them big and impersonal by today’s Burgundy-focused standards, measured in the hundreds of cases. The best thing for now, I suspect, might be a bifurcated system—the big stay big, and the small bushwhack toward the future. Bordeaux obviously struggles to do small well, but stop worrying about the right postal code and Bordeaux can indeed be a place for the young and hungry.

This is what brings me to exit 7 off the N89, about 20 kilometers due east of Bordeaux city, near the town of Vayres. This is neither here nor there in Bordeaux—a neutral zone on the way to the Right Bank town of Libourne, abutting the northern edge of Entre-Deux-Mers.

I circle around for a while, lost, looking for a road sign, before I finally locate Domaine de Galouchey. Marco Pelletier greets me in the shaded front yard of an old stone country house, amid gently sloping fields. Pelletier, originally from Quebec, did star turns in Paris as a sommelier at Taillevent and chef sommelier at the famous Hôtel Le Bristol. Today, he runs his own small wine bistro in the 11th, Vantre, and manages this property, barely a hectare of vineyard, which two of his Paris friends bought in 2000.

Pelletier began making the wines, essentially on a dare, in 2009, and realized that Bordeaux’s obsession with intensity and concentration was scaring off people who otherwise might enjoy its wines. So Galouchey’s Vin de Jardin is the complete opposite: subtle and lightly extracted—really more infused—to the point of being more light-touch even than most Loire wines. Its iodine tang is reminiscent of light soy sauce. “You don’t get that typical Bordeaux thing,” says Pelletier, “which is sugar covering up unripe tannins.”

It’s bottled simply as vin de France, probably to its advantage, and it is precisely the sort of wine that has succeeded in Paris and San Francisco, places that have otherwise forsaken Bordeaux. Thus it offers an important lesson: Put Bordeaux in a context—a human-scale one that doesn’t feel like polishing the past—and it has so much to offer. As dedicated followers of fashion, you’d think they would already understand that.

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