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By Joe Gilmour
In Bordeaux, the Château is king. When you think about great vineyards of the region, most of the time you are naming château holdings rather than particular plots, especially on the Left Bank.
Indeed, the boundaries are fluid and regularly interchanged as owners fight for quality vineyards, the land going from Premier Grand Cru Classé to Cru Bourgeois at the stroke of a pen – and why not? You are paying for a brand, a known quantity, and if the wine is not up to the label it should be quickly knocked down in price and prestige by the fiercely competitive market.
When we talk about the ‘who’ in Bordeaux, we are not talking of people, but of châteaux. Of course the winemaker is important, but the process tends to be more collaborative and focused on creating an evolution or continuation of the house style, rather than a new wine every year. The more you taste the wines, the more your awareness of the personality of each individual estate increases, from the flamboyant and exotic wines of Mouton, to the understated elegance of Haut-Brion. Interestingly, styles are surprisingly immune to change over the years. In 1836, Cyrus Redding opined that: “Latour’s wine is distinguished from that of Château Lafite by its superior body and consistence, but it should be kept in wood at least a year more than the Lafite to attain proper maturity…It is less fine than Lafite” – a statement it would be hard to argue with even today.
The association of producer with quality raises some interesting discussion points. It is sometimes put forward that, within the hierarchy of the 1855 classification, the quality of different estates is self-perpetuating. The continued prominence of the original, and ad hoc, classification (intended not to be set in stone, but only as a help in educating consumers on the quality hierarchy of the region) has meant that the châteaux at the top continue to sell their wines at higher prices, allowing them to make more costly investments than those at the bottom, which serves to further heighten the difference in quality.
However, the ‘cult’ of the winemaker is growing, perhaps spurred on by the egalitarian attitude that it shouldn’t matter whether you have a fancy château or a heralded terroir – the only thing that truly matters is what you put in the bottle. This movement has given birth to wines like Marojalia, a garagiste wine from a decidedly unheralded terroir close to the small town of Arsac. With superstar consultants Jean-Luc Thenuvin, Michel Rolland and Ricardo Cotarella, the debut vintage in 1999 received rave reviews and fetched high prices on the market. Critics say that it is an ego wine, not a Margaux wine, but this interloper may be a sign of the way forward rather than a flash in the pan. Either way, Bordeaux looks set to continue as it always has done, defining itself by the name of the producer (be that a château or a winemaker) rather than, as in Burgundy, the name of a vineyard.
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