Tuesday 7 June 2016

Olivier Bernard is in the wrong job... Bordeaux 2015 shenanigans remembered

this article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Olivier Bernard is in the wrong job. The owner of Domaine deChevalier in Pessac-Léognan, a chateaux of international renown, he’s also in his second term as president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB). It’s observing him in this latter capacity that one wonders if his diplomatic skills would not be put to better use at the Quai d’Orsay – perhaps sorting out Syria, or intervening in the Ukraine.

No laughing matter: Olivier Bernard
Bordeaux wine politics can be febrile, and never more so than during en primeur, the annual barrel tastings of the previous year’s vintage. Depending on who you talk to, en primeur is either a robust, time-honoured system that works excellently – or it’s a creaking machine long past its usefulness and the sooner it goes the better.

Fuel is added to the fire every year or so. In 2012 ChateauLatour’s Frédéric Engerer caused sparks to fly when he announced the 2011 vintage was to be the last one Latour would sell en primeur. A wave of defections was predicted, though nothing has happened so far. In every mediocre vintage – such as 2011, 2012 and 2013 – merchants warn it will be the last en primeur. If the wines are not going to increase in value (indeed, if they’re going to go down in price), what possible reason is there for buying futures? The wine’s not going to sell out; far better to wait and see how it performs both in terms of price and quality. “The system will be dead if there’s no sound financial reason for buying en primeur,” Mark Wessels of the Washington DC merchant MacArthur Beverages told me.

As consumers see less reason to buy futures in Cru Classé Bordeaux, so châteaux find it more important to stand out from the crowd. And this is the problem that Bernard is faced with: every year more and more châteaux decide they will not show their wines at the collective tastings run by the UGCB. “The problem is that all over the world – and not just in wine – individuals have become stronger,” he told me. “They refuse to be a part of the collective. The First Growths have never shown their wines at the collective tastings, and there are some super seconds which have followed them. Now there are second growths which dream of being super seconds, and they won’t play the game.”

Things became even more complicated this year when Bernard announced that tastings which had previously been spread over a full week, hosted by different châteaux across Bordeaux, would now be held over two days at the vast Matmut Atlantique stadium near to the Vinexpo site. The press was horrified. “I really don't think a football stadium on the distant outskirts of the city is likely to have a particularly conducive atmosphere for wine tasting, however new it is and however much it cost,” Jancis Robinson thundered. The veteran French critic Michel Bettane was so outraged he could no longer taste blind that he threatened a boycott.

Bernard treads this minefield carefully. In response to Robinson’s and others’ complaints he said it is simply unfair that some chateaux (those which don’t show their wines at the collective tastings) are tasted non-blind, and others are tasted blind. “We just think that all grands crus should be tasted on a level playing field,” he said, rather plaintively.

Contrary to grumbling from certain sections of the press (“It was like being back at school,” one critic said) the seated tastings at Matmut were run efficiently and flexibly. Qualified sommeliers served the wines in any order the taster requested, the lighting was excellent and the glasses large and clean. We could taste standing up at the bar tops if we wanted a less formal setting.

Château owners and directors joined the press pack for lunch – Lilian Barton of ChateauLéoville Barton, Christophe Labenne of the Cru Bourgeois Poujeaux, Fabien Teitgen of Smith-Haut-Lafitte were just three I spotted wielding knife and fork – a great opportunity to discuss wines and communes we had just tasted.

Bernard thinks the format worked and he’ll keep it as it is. He gave a faint chuckle when I asked him how much he’d learnt about diplomacy during his UGCB presidency. “Diplomacy is important. But to make the right choice, and to be clear, is more important.”


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