So after a decade in the trade, I'm heading out to Bordeaux to take my first serious look at the region. I concede, it's about time.
Although I've been to Bordeaux many times over the last ten years I have never given it the professional study I've subsequently given to other regions. I've done the things you do, driven around the villages etc, got my bearings and a feel for where everything is, visited random chateaux and drank plenty of claret, but these cursory glances, atmospheric and mu
ch fun though they are, rarely offer the opportunities to gain true insight into the people and ideas that shape a region. And Bordeaux, a central pillar of the wine world demands deep level understanding.
But to be quite honest, I've never really cared about Bordeaux. When I first became interested in wine there was something magical about the elaborate labels adorned with aristocratic chateaux, decorative gates and imposing family crests; it was a world I wanted access to. There was also the fact that for most of the critics and writers I followed, it represented the spiritual heart of wine.
But as time passed I quickly lost interest. The wines soon felt unaccessible, both in price and taste. I found immediate interest in Italy's plethora of varieties, many of which were very good and largely unknown. I could spend £15-20 on a bottle and get something really special. In those early days the equivalent spend in Bordeaux got me something unripe and uninspiring. I began to feel like the great duet of Cabernet and Merlot just wasn't for me, and in talking to the common consumer I realised I wasn't the only one. It was so much more fun to experience showing people something unusual from Sicily or Basilicata.
My wine story then synced with the fashion of global wine writing and communication. The interest was (and still is really) all about new undiscovered grape varieties and regions. Searching out obscure stuff seemed the only way to add value to my customer base and readership. This attitude is one of the reasons the wine trade is so exciting and dynamic.
Each the year though the boundaries have been pushed, further and further. Then one day I woke up and we were all drinking cloudy, subtly oxidised wines that had been fermented in clay pots underground, probably somewhere in the caucuses. While many of these wines are simply excellent and utterly fascinating, many are not.
I felt like I needed to re-engage with some of the wines that have were considered great not just by my own generation, but countless generations before me. This endeavour inevitably leads right back to Bordeaux.
In recent years I've also taken part in a number of judging competitions around Europe. Tasting blind and searching only to be objective about the liquid in the glass, I've realised that when I look up those that I've scored highly, they are often from Bordeaux, or indeed made in a classically French style.
So, I'm off to the South West of France for two weeks. I'll be judging in a local competition (Citadelles du Vin in Bourg) before commencing a series of both left and right bank visits, where I hope to sit down with winemakers and chateau owners to discuss some of the issues and challenges that shape this iconic region. Finally, to finish, I'll be attending VinExpo, one of the largess trade fairs in Europe and will participating in a series of master classes focussing on some of Bordeaux's lesser known appellations.
Bordeaux is a region that, like it or loathe it, comes with a huge social wine history and culture engrained in it. And while it's built on a quality system that is ludicrously unchanged since 1855, it is this unfair hierarchical system that keeps the place steeped in history and intrigue. Wines are still made deliberately to age many decades, ensuring that the legacy continues to grow year, on year. The cycle is perpetuated by those in love with the history and mystique.
Yes, of course there are thousands of properties in the region that operate well outside of this bubble, the 1855 classified estates are afrer all just a small part of production. However the level of attention to detail, the money ploughed into technology, R&D and sustainability, the level of global interest - it's largely unrivalled anywhere else in the world. These wineries are in many ways at the pinnacle of winemaking, and it is professionally irresponsible not to engage with the subject properly.