The Buyer
Buyer Debate: What ‘Modern Bordeaux’ means for UK buyers

Buyer Debate: What ‘Modern Bordeaux’ means for UK buyers

On the face of it Bordeaux has everything going for it. It is one of the most famous, respected and influential wine regions in the world. Yet when it comes to debates around modern winemaking, new viticultural techniques and what’s new in the world of wine, due to its classic reputation, it is often overlooked as a place you look for innovation. But that is not the real picture of what is actually happening in the region. Far from it. To help analyse the emerging trends in Bordeaux, The Buyer teamed up with the CIVB (Bordeaux Wine Council) to bring together key trade players, including UK buyers, importers and sommeliers, and Bordeaux producers to examine just what “Modern Bordeaux” is, how well understood it is and what aspects are best communicated to the wider trade and wine consumers at large.

Richard Siddle
6th September 2021by Richard Siddle
posted in Debates,

The panel for The Buyer & CIVB’s ‘Modern Bordeaux’ debate included: Bordeaux producers Fabrice Bandiera, owner and commercial director of Château des Laurets and David Siozard, commercial director at Vignobles Siozard. The UK buyers’ panel included: wine consultant and Bordeaux specialist, Richard Bampfield MW; Tom Harrow, co-founder of Honest Grapes; Rebecca Gergely, wine buyer at Enotria&Coe; Mags Jango, sales director of MJ Wine Cellars; Justin Knock MW, chief wine analyst at Oeno Group; and Elly Owen, wine director at the Old Garage Wine and Deli in Truro.

(You can watch the full recording of The Buyer’s ‘Modern Bordeaux’ debate here)

As a wine region Bordeaux is very much the sum of its parts, with each appellation offering so much in their own right and each deserving as much attention as each other. It’s therefore quite a challenge to host a debate that talks about the region as a whole. But when it comes to plotting, analysing and setting out just what we mean by a ‘Modern Bordeaux’ it is important to look at its winemaking, and what is happening in its vineyards, wineries and cellars, in the round.

That was the goal of this Buyer Debate: to look at Bordeaux as a region, a unified voice and break down the key aspects of what its producers are doing, across its famous appellations, that are going to matter most first to trade buyers, and then to the wider wine buying public.

David Siozard at Vignobles Siozard is well placed to give an overview of what is happening across Bordeaux as he manages vines across nine appellations for its two domaines – one in Entre-deux-Mers near St Émilion where it produces “classic Bordeaux Châteaux cuvées” and wines from old vines, and the other in Graves. In total Vignobles Siozard covers 65 hectares and makes 25 different wines, balancing the traditional with “more trendy single varietal wines” where the variety is the main selling point on the label.

Vignobles Siozard is now busy planting and experimenting with different grape varieties to see what can work in their soils – particularly in light of how traditional varieties are coping with the increased pressures of climate change and bad weather conditions. It currently has 12 different varieties and is due to plant Touriga Nacional next year. “We have to try and work with different grapes that are more resistant but can also ripen and do well in hotter and drier conditions,” says Siozard. “We have to adapt to the change in climate.”

(Click here to watch Vignobles Siozard’s David Siozard on how Bordeaux is adapting to climate change & with new styles of wine)

Diverse modern styles

“This all helps to reinforce Bordeaux’s reputation as a region that can offer a wide variety of styles, from classic and traditional aged in oak barrels, to modern and fruit forward that come from amphorae”, he adds. For Siozard it means his winery can offer “pure Carménère or pure Petit Verdot or Malbec [in his Ipsum range] which provide a different way of discovering Bordeaux”. “This is a huge trend to offer to new customers,” he adds and one that his winemaker brother, Laurent, fully understands having worked on a number of vintages in Australia.

Fabrice Bandiera says Château des Laurets, which is part of the Edmond de Rothschild Heritage group, and one of the largest estates in St Emilion with 72 hectares, is also looking to express single variety wines with their new Eve cuvée produced under the Château de Malengin label.

Named after one of Benjamin and Ariane de Rothschild’s four daughters, Eve is 100% Merlot, half aged in amphorae to bring out the core characteristics of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, a deliberate move away from traditional barrel ageing. The result is a more modern, fresher, crisper, fruit forward wine, says Bandiera – thanks to the amphora – that he hopes will appeal to a younger audience.

“It’s a new challenge for us in how we produce wine in our estates,” he adds. “We want to make more drinkable wines that are relevant to new consumers.”

(Click here for Fabrice Bandiera on the biggest change in winemaking in Bordeaux in his 25 years of winemaking)

Bandiera, who is set to go into his 26th vintage of winemaking in Bordeaux, says the biggest change he has seen in his career has come in the last five to eight years and the growing pressure and expectation, from both the trade and consumers, for Bordeaux to “change the profile of its wines” and with it create a “new perception” around them.

But he also stresses this is not a radical departure from what he was doing before, more a “motivation to break with our traditional style” and introduce a “different expression of our terroir”. “It’s still very important for us to have our traditional, classic Bordeaux styles as well. It’s very important to have the two sides [of winemaking],” he adds.

Siozard is also quick to point out that whilst Bordeaux might be famous around the world for its prestigious Châteaux and En Primeur campaigns, around 98% of the wine made in the region sells between €5 and €15.

Buyers panel perceptions

But are these changes in Bordeaux understood and appreciated by professional UK buyers and merchants? How relevant are they when they are looking to list and sell Bordeaux on their lists?

Richard Bampfield MW, who has for the last 10 years been the chair of Bordeaux Hot 50 Selection where a panel of UK wine experts including buyers, sommeliers and wine communicators, pick out the wines and styles they see as being the most exciting and commercially significant available in the UK each year, says: “I think Bordeaux has changed enormously in the last 20 to 25 years. But then it had to. Its domestic share of sales was in serious decline, and it had to really understand how the key export markets worked in order to make its wine work there.”

He adds: “I think Bordeaux has become far more aware of the competitive environment in others parts of the world and the wine styles that are popular. That does not mean Bordeaux has to produce wine that tastes like Chilean Merlot, but there is a middle ground, let’s say.”

Simply analysing the results of this year’s Bordeaux Hot 50 demonstrates just how far “Bordeaux has genuinely changed over the past 10 years,” he says. “Each year the standard, and consistency, goes up another level. We taste up to 250 wines in the day and the quality is astonishingly consistent considering where we were 15 years ago.”

He says he could understand why some restaurants and bars in the past would not want to have a Bordeaux wine on their lists, but that is simply not the case anymore. “I think Bordeaux has done a really good job of making a good case for itself to be included on every wine list again.

(Click here for Richard Bampfield MW on why every restaurant or wine bar should have Bordeaux on its wine list)

Rebecca Gergely at Enotria&Coe says she is really pleased to hear about all the changes taking place in Bordeaux, but is still on the fence about how effective it will be in the trade. “I think it will take a lot of time before the consumer is more adventurous,” she says, “particularly when ordering Bordeaux in a restaurant where they are almost always looking for something classic and traditional. But at the same time there have been some exceptional examples where the wines are less green and the concentration is better achieved.”

The wines selected to taste by the panel (see below) are certainly reflective of what she describes as “innovative Bordeaux”. She notes these wines are particularly well placed/suited to independent and fine wine merchants and potentially fine dining restaurants who are looking at different grape varieties and winemaking techniques. “I think there’s a future, but it will take some time,” she says.

Gergely’s Bordeaux range at Enotria, for example, is more on the classic end of the spectrum, of which Lucien Lurton would be a good example, she says.

Open minded Bordeaux

Mags Jango at MJ Cellars agreed with Gergely that the range of “fruit forward” wines selected to taste “were right up its alley” and the kind of wines it is looking to sell to its customers.

(Click here for Mags Jango on how Bordeaux has transformed itself in the last 10 years to be more competitive)

Mags Jango is pleased to see a more open minded, less “prestigious” Bordeaux looking to make the “kinds of wines my customers want to buy”. How far it goes in terms of responding to market pressures, listening to the trade more, and responding to greater competition from the likes of Italy and Spain remains to be the seen, but it is a momentum that is going in the right direction.

“The market is being squeezed from all directions and I think that combined with climate change this has forced this kind of recent evolution,” he says.

He says when he first started drinking wine seriously 10 to 15 years ago Bordeaux would be the last bottle he would pick as they were too inconsistent, often too green and tannic to really enjoy and were very much an acquired taste.

Now Bordeaux is having to respond to the huge increase in demand for wines styles such as Rioja and Argentine Malbec “sweeping the markets”. This is its opportunity to really compete with its own distinctive fruit forward style. “Before it just was not really in that game. It was so far out that you could not compare it to anything else. Now you have these fruity styles at a similar price point to other things from Europe and I think it’s a really interesting time to revisit Bordeaux.”

Bordeaux’s sweet spot

Justin Knock MW was able to give two perspectives: from his wine buying role at wine merchants Philglas & Swiggott; and wine analyst role at the fine wine business, Oeno Group.

(Click here for Justin Knock MW on the value and profit that Bordeaux offers wine merchants)

For him, the “sweet spot” for Bordeaux at Philglas & Swiggott is around £12 to £14 and up to £50 to £60 for wines that he sources directly from Bordeaux négociants. He admits Bordeaux is a region he has “probably put less effort into compared to other categories” as he attracts a certain kind of drinker, one who is looking for a classic Bordeaux style that as a wine retailer you can “easily make a fair bit of profit out of” as they are very good value to buy. So, whilst it might appear a little “staid and formulaic” Bordeaux is a wine merchant’s best friend considering the amount of profit you can make out of it.

“The lovely aspect of Bordeaux is that the top estates that generate all the PR and attention create a nice high ceiling for many other estates to exist,” he adds.

He questions how far Bordeaux needs to go to be seen as “adventurous”. “Sure, they need to evolve, but I have always felt that Bordeaux is constantly {but slowly] evolving. But the point is for the everyday consumer they go to Bordeaux because it is reassuring. It’s very safe. It’s not an adventurous choice. In fact, it takes out a lot of the angst of decision making in other areas. But I do think it is good that Bordeaux is making more wines that are fruit forward.”

Bordeaux from an Oeno Group point of view is less exciting, admits Knock, as at the top investment level end Bordeaux has become so “commoditised” around some key names and vintages and it is hard to stand out.

His challenge to Bordeaux is to be looking at new ways to engage with buyers and merchants so that they don’t fall into thinking it’s the same old, same old. Equally he understands it can be so hard for a large producer to break out of “risk management” mode and make a wine that would be seen as left field or adventurous when you are producing hundreds of thousands of bottles. That’s where smaller producers, making a few thousand bottles at a time have the chance to be “adventurous,” he says.

Elly Owen of the award-winning Old Garage Wine and Deli in Truro admits she feels a little “uneducated” when it comes to talking about “new wave Bordeaux”. When shopping for Bordeaux, her customers tend to either come with a name, a label or a Château in mind, or have a price point they are prepared to go up to, so she is certainly very interested in finding out more about the “new” Bordeaux that might appeal to a wider customer base. Merchants like the Old Garage are well placed to talk to their customers about more “slightly out of the box wines”.

“If those wines perform under that style category then I think they could do very well,” she says.

Tom Harrow at Honest Grapes agreed with Knock that “at the high-end Bordeaux is box shifting” and that the “First Growths, the Super Seconds and various other wines do sell themselves”.

(Click here for Honest Grapes Tom Harrow on why he thinks Modern Bordeaux wines have a future)

Polarised opinon

It does result in quite a “polarised” market for Bordeaux amongst those consumers – generally older – who look at Bordeaux as the “lens” through which they see the rest of the fine wine market (how well does a particular producer stack up against Bordeaux) and only buy red wine “either side of the Gironde”.

“The challenge we have at Honest Grapes is to make modern Bordeaux available and make people interested in it,” he says. This is also a challenge for modern and smaller producers as they need to do this in a way that helps them “retain relevance” to a target audience. He recalls receiving a Bordeaux wine recently that was part Malbec and Cabernet Franc, “with no oak and very soft tannin management that was absolutely delicious” for around £11. “That is such an easy wine for Honest Grapes to sell to any consumer because it is Bordeaux, but it doesn’t taste like Bordeaux.”

Wines that are more in tune with the needs of the “modern consumer,” producers who are able to make wines “that are still intrinsically of the region from where they come” and are making an effort to “engage with the new consumer” are the “wines that have a future”, he adds.

He says it clearly makes sense for Bordeaux to be moving with the times and looking to keep ahead of consumer trends. “Bordeaux is understandably, and sensibly, being quite reactive to consumer trends, market demands and climate change and seeing what the rest of the world is doing and how effective that is.”

But across the board even the big châteaux are all pushing back from 100% new oak to around 70% and “there is widespread early picking going on and people experimenting with different ageing material,” he adds. “Ultimately the proof is in the tasing. If the wines taste better with more character, freshness and more immediacy and simplicity then it’s to be encouraged.”

Jango is certainly pleased to see the wider use of amphora in Bordeaux, particularly in helping it to deliver and make the simpler style of fruit forward wine. “Amphora really does deliver that. It gives you that softness, that subtlety, early drinking style that our clients are looking for.”

But the use of amphora only makes a difference if the wine quality is there in the first place, he stresses. “Then we can use that amphora story to explain why these wines have this style.”

“I 100% agree with Mags,” adds Owen. “Amphora is great, but only if the wine delivers. So often when I talk about amphora wines I have to have a disclaimer before I give it to my customers. It’s about having a wine that is good and consistent that I can sell to my customers with confidence. It is amazing to talk about these historical ways of ageing wines, done in a modern way but only when the wines taste amazing.”

Bampfield urges producers who are experimenting with different styles, using amphora, stripping back the wood, not using sulphur, and so on to also carry that message through to the bottle and packing and not to use the classic Bordeaux bottle with a chateau on the label. Which is why he is particularly keen on Siozard’s labels that truly reflect the different styles of wine that are in the Hexa and Ipsum ranges. “If you are going to innovate then it is a good thing that the packaging re-inforces the style of the wine but also the spirit of your business.”

Knock says it is particularly important in retail for the packaging to truly reflect the style of wine and it is an area that Bordeaux has lagged behind other regions, and became a bit too “formulaic” so it is good to see modern packaging like the Hexa label.

  • Part 2 of our report into the buyer’s Bordeaux debate will be published later in the week.
  • You can taste for yourself the modern styles of wine being made in Bordeaux at its Bordeaux Day events taking place this week with two tastings per day between 11am-2pm and 3pm-6pm. They include
    • Bordeaux Day London September 8: Camden House, Camden Lock Place, London, NW1 8AB. Register here.
    • Bordeaux Day Manchester September 9: Oglesby Atrium, Stoller Hall, Hunts Bank, Manchester, M3 1DA. Register here.