Monday, September 16, 2013

The death of the 1855 Classification

WARNING. The following piece of writing contains whimsy. It originally appeared on, where other similarly whimsy-tainted pieces I have written may also be found.

To understand how, in 2014, one man with a grudge managed to bring down some of the highest and mightiest in Bordeaux, you have to know a little about the background. The man in question was a Russian oligarch called Mischa Vious, the 187th wealthiest man in the world, according to a 2013 report in The Sunday Times.

Traditionally a vodka drinker, Vious had been introduced to wine by his third wife, an aspiring young flautist called Ella Fantine whose parents owned a pretty little Pauillac estate close to the village of St Laurent between Châteaux Mouton and Lafite-Rothschild. Château Oublié had belonged to the Fantines for generations, but its grapes had, until the1970s, been delivered to the Pauillac cooperative to be crushed and sold under the co-op’s La Rose Pauillac label. When Serge Fantine, Ella’s father, inherited the vines, he resigned from the cooperative and joined the association of Crus Artisans which was made up of estates that took pride in being humbler than the Crus Bourgeois.

Well-informed local professionals were well aware of the quality of the 2.5ha of Oublié terroir, and especially of the fact that its vines sat close to the hamlet of Milon on a small moutte - or hill - of the kind from which Mouton Rothschild had taken its name. The Fantines were not great winemakers and they could not afford high quality equipment, but their land was special enough and the price sufficiently modest for those in the know to buy the wine almost every vintage.
When Monsieur and Madame Fantine died after their insufficiently protected ski-lift was hit by lightning, their only daughter and her wealthy Russian husband had to decide whether to sell the estate or invest in it. The first option was made very appealing by the number of approaches they received from owners of neighbouring châteaux. It was said that their prime slice of old Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Pauillac could usefully be swallowed into the Lafite or Mouton estates.
Unlike Burgundy whose grands crus can only come from vineyards that have been recognised as grands crus, Bordeaux classifications are based on brands. A second-growth château could legally sell all of its vineyards and replace them with cru bourgeois vines without losing its second-growth status. And Cru Artisan vines could legally be transformed into first growth vines as soon they are bought by a first growth château.
As the offers from top Pauillac châteaux poured in and grew ever more generous, Mischa Vious became increasingly determined to see what he could do with the estate. “They buy our land for peanuts and sell bottles for thousands” he growled in his thick Russian accent. “Maybe is more intelligent that I sell bottles for thousands myself.”
Top experts were flown in and millions spent on improving the drainage, replacing ailing and dead vines and creating a state-of-the-art winery, complete with the latest concrete eggs and barrels. By the time the 2009, the first vintage, was released, Château Oublié was acknowledged by the select number of critics who had visited the estate to be one of the most painstakingly produced wines in the world. The 2009 went almost unnoticed when it was released, but when it was included in a major blind tasting in 2013, it came third only to Margaux and Lynch Bages. The 2011 was one of Robert Parker’s few 100 point wines.
Despite the evident quality of its wine - selling for 50% more than any Cru Bourgeois, and more than many crus classés - Château Oublié’s application to become a Cru Bourgeois was, however, shunned. The château apparently failed to fill several criteria, but Vious was reassured that, in time,  promotion would not be out of the question. Be patient, an official said. In another ten or twenty years… Vious felt slighted - and angry. “It is just because I am Russian man not French”, he thundered. “It is like 1855. Rothschild was only second growth because owners were Jewish.”
“In any case”, he growled, “I no longer want to be member of Cru Bourgeois or even Crus Classés. It is not clubs I need to join. My wine is too good for them…”
Meanwhile, another battle was quietly simmering in Bordeaux. The decision by François Pinault to withdraw Château Latour from the en primeur system had angered a number of prominent Bordelais. After much lobbying, in March 2014, an ultimatum was issued: Latour had to rejoin the system or it would be expelled from the Union des Grands Crus.

It was at this time that, by coincidence, Pinault and Vious happened to meet. Both had had tough childhoods; the Frenchman had been sent to a tough school in the mountains where he had been made to wear clogs and learn carpentry, while the Russian had grown up in the rigorous conditions of Siberia. Neither stood fools or unnecessary pretension easily and the conversation inevitably turned to the challenges they were both facing. After several bottles of Latour and some of Vious’s best vodka, the two men had come up with a bold plan.
The announcement was made in Le Monde. For an initial ten years (there would be a renewable lease), Château Latour would cooperate with Château Oublié to produce limited volumes of an entirely new unclassified wine called Chateau Latour Oublié whose price- despite its lack of classification - would be 15% above that of Latour. Distribution would be handled by Château Latour and the wine, like Latour, would be sold when it was ready to drink.

Château Latour was apparently totally reconciled to its expulsion from the Union des Grands Crus. Latour, wrote the Le Monde journalist, was already above classifications and Unions, in the same way that the Louvre was above other museums and Versailles above other palaces. (And, as the writer continued, Pomerol’s unclassified Pétrus was above most of the region’s classified wines.)
That writer was one of a set of carefully briefed high-profile journalists in France, the UK, US and China, all of whom penned articles posing the same question. If the new top wine of the Médoc was no longer to be a Grand Cru Classé, surely the notion of an application for UNESCO world heritage status for the 1855 classification was out of the question.

The British blogger Sam Nutkin MW wrote a widely-read piece on his website demolishing the “immutable” quality of the 1855 Classification that was so vaunted by those seeking the UNESCO recognition. Until 1952, he revealed, Château Lascombes had only 15ha of vines. Today it has over 80. What relation did the current estate have to the one that was classified in 1855? To agree to requests for heritage status for the vineyards of Burgundy and the cellars of Champagne made sense, he argued: after all, the Burgundian boundaries were established by law and after centuries of experience and the crayères of Reims were dug by the Romans 2000 years ago. In this trio, only the 1855 Classification was a comparatively recent human conceit – a list of brands - whose internal shape has shifted ever since its creation.

Perhaps inevitably, the 1855 Classification not only failed in its application, but became the subject of much negative publicity in the crucially important Chinese market. UNESCO snubbed the Bordelais even more firmly by giving the Burgundians and Champenois the recognition they sought. Mischa Vious is still owner of Château Oublié and joint director of Latour Oublié. Both wines continue to sell at their super-premium prices to people who care more about their quality and/or prestige than their status as crus classsés, bourgeois or artisans. Mr Vious is not a particularly welcome guest at many black tie Bordeaux events.
The facts behind this month’s whimsy: the 1855 classificationis seeking UNESCO World Heritage status - along with the “climats” of Burgundy and the cellars of Champagne. While there is no such estate as Château Oublié, there is a Cru Artisan in Pauillac called Château Béhèré, situated next to Château Mouton-Rothschild which has under 5ha of vines and produces 33,000 bottles of wine that sells for under £15 apiece. In May 2013, the estate was sold to property magnate Jacky Lorenzetti who, according to Decanter outbid a first growth to get it.  Its grapes were previously sold to the Pauillac cooperative.

There is a respected theory that anti-semitism lay behind Mouton Rothschild originally being classed as a second growth. The recent revival of the Cru Bourgeois syndicate hasbeen plagued with legal efforts questioning the way inclusion in its membership is decided. François Pinault’s decision to withdraw Château Latour from the en primeur system was greeted with anger by many in Bordeaux and with predictions that his move to selling his wines when they were ready to drink would fail. The first release sold out immediately, however - and at high prices.  Pétrus, like several of its unclassified neighbours in Pomerol, continue to sell for higher prices than many Médoc châteaux that were classified in 1855.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Brief thoughts on the Beautiful South

South Africa's, Chile's and Argentina's giant Southern Hemisphere tasting in London (yesterday and today) was fascinatingly illustrative of wine in the UK in 2013.

On the (very) positive side, there were over 350 exhibiting producers, many represented by a winemaker or a representative from the winery. This was particularly welcome as the number of these men and women who have taken the trouble to come to the UK has shrunk over recent years.

There were great tri-nation themed tables with names such as "Red Blends" and Chardonnays over £10" which showcased some fascinating wines, and trends across the three countries.

There were well-attended seminars on subjects including climate change. 

Based on what I saw yesterday, the event was well attended - if not packed- and most of the all-important buyers from Britain's all-important chains were spotted on their way around the hall.

Picture posted by David Finlayson of The Edge Wines

On the other hand, I - as regular readers will have  expected of me - had some small and larger reservations. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Other people's fantasies (a follow up to my post on wine-on-TV)

So, you've won the lottery. How are you going to spend the cash?

Most people's answers unsurprisingly include new homes - often for loved ones as well as themselves - cars, boats and planes. Travel features too, wrapped up in dreams of sleeping in vast hotel beds and eating and drinking in the world's finest restaurants.

What does not appear in many people's lottery fantasies is sudden ownership of a cellarful of legendary wine, or even a few dozen bottles. Obviously there are people who fantasise about wine, just as there are musicians who imagine having their very own Stradivarius or Fender Stratocaster and keen bikers who might love to drop $45,000 on the world's lightest bike. (It weighs less than three kilos).

Fairwheel Bikes $45,000 effort, as seen on gearjunkie 

If you move in circles where great guitars, bikes or bottles of wine are talked about and maybe occasionally seen, of course, those things are more likely to feature in your fantasies. Wall Street and the City of London are full of overpaid people who've come close enough to Petrus or Harlan Estate to want to have a stash of their own. But, I'll bet that these are the exceptions to the fantasy rule. Most people would probably put filling a cellar quite low on their post lottery-win shopping list.

Which is why marketing wine in the context of the stuff people do fantasise about makes such sense. It's something spirits brands have always understood. With a little bit of advertising skill, a $20 bottle of vodka or bourbon, or even a cheap bottle of vermouth, could whisk you into a world of sophistication where Brad and Angelina are just waiting to meet you for dinner.

Champagne brands have always understood this perfectly, and Heineken proved their appreciation of it last year when they spent a reported $45m on having their beer feature briefly as a Bond tipple in Skyfall, and in promoting the fact in a global campaign.

Bollinger famously gets its link with 007 for nothing - thanks to a friendship that began in 1973 between Christian Bizot, chairman of the Champagne house and Cubby Broccoli, producer of the movies. 

Hubert de Bouard of Chateau Angelus said that getting his wine into Casino Royale cost him "some cash and some wine" and described the impact of the placement as "unbelievable".

Most wine producers and distributors lack the cash or luck to link their liquid to fantasies as extravagant as Bond movies, but associating them with the more mundane fantasies countless millions people have of a holiday in France, Australia, Italy or wherever, or a romantic dinner in a restaurant or at home does make sense. And a lot more sense than focusing on soil and vines. 

Unless, of course, the likely buyer of your wine really is the kind of wine enthusiast who really does get excited by the differences between chalk, clay and granite.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Asking the wrong question - why we don't need more TV programmes about wine

Work in progress - the greatfoodandwinesites site

"Why aren't there more wine programmes on television?"

It's a question/complaint (questioplaint?) that hangs around conversations among wine professionals and enthusiasts, along with its pals "We need more wine education" and "Why is wine coverage in newspapers and magazines shrinking rather than growing?"

Stated simply, these are the wrong questions: as wrong as asking why TV producers aren't busily commissioning series about perfume, watches, beer, coffee - or chicken. As wrong as my seven-year-old asking why she can't have ice cream with every meal.

Of course, even wrong questions have sensible answers, and the brief response to the "why doesn't the media dedicate more space/time to wine, perfume or chicken?", is that too few people will want to watch/read it.

(Please don't argue with this statement: it's based on the international experience of a wide range of media outlets; successful wine-focused wine books, magazines, columns and programmes with big audiences are rare exceptions to the rule).

But there is a far more interesting question that gets asked far less frequently.

Why don't we see more wine in food and travel and other lifestyle programmes and publications with proven popularity where, like the coffee and the chicken, it has an obvious role.

Why don't I hear the people who complain about being starved of wine TV ever talk about the lack of all but the briefest references to wine in restaurant reviews? Or about the absence of wine suggestions to go with the recipes in women's magazines?

And why, while I'm at it, are there so few mentions of food in so many wine books and articles? It's as though food and wine live in separate worlds, like Victorian men and women or blacks and whites in the southern US of the 1950s.

Those of us who don't like segregation have two choices. We either simply go on complaining about it, or we try to change the situation ourselves. Wine producers could - now here's a really weird notion - save some of the money they throw away on glad-handing wine writers with tiny audiences and spend it on getting to know some food writers. The people charged with promoting wine regions could start to talk to the people responsible for those same regions' tourism campaigns. Instead of running expensive advertisements depicting the same old images of bottles, barrels, vineyards and grapes, the marketing departments of the bigger wine companies could start to look at ways of putting the stuff they sell in the context of the stuff with which it will actually be consumed.

When saying all this, I'm talking from experience. Of the 25 books I've written, the three that still help to pay the bills have, coincidentally or not, been the ones that feature food.