Two regions that are synonymous with big, bold, heavy wines are losing their relevancy amongst a younger wine audience. As that audience grows in stature, knowledge, and buying power these wines could lose their place amongst the upper echelons of wine society.
Bordeaux was not always considered one of the greatest wine regions in the world, and Napa’s prestigious reputation is still new in the grand book of wine history. It was not until 18th century that Bordeaux became sought after. Given its location wrapped around an estuary leading out into the Atlantic sea, Bordeaux became a powerhouse as wine became traded for things like coffee. The region was in a perfect position to take advantage of the seeds of globalization, and laud it over other regions in France.
Two regions were never so well positioned to take on the emerging tastes of an entire generation of wine consumers. Influenced heavily by Robert Parker’s 100 point system, consumers gravitated towards bigger, bolder, more fruit forward wines. These suited the deep and brooding wines of Bordeaux and later Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley who’s greatest winemakers looked to emulate and surpass their French inspirations. For a period wine lovers looked for big, full bodied, dark, and rich wines as the pinnacle of their desires. Winemakers in Napa duly obliged as they released bigger, heavier wines that were rich in dark fruit flavors and quenched the thirst for wines that were over the top. Some bold Napa Cab’s became household names, such as Silver Oak, Nickel & Nickel, Caymus, and Stag’s Leap to name but a few, and of course not forgetting the pinnacle of bodacious American luxe that is Opus One. More modern producers such as Orin Swift further pushed the envelope by releasing wines that catered to people looking for approachable, understandable luxury with slightly sweeter wines, and even bigger bodies with wines that sometimes edge closer towards 16% ABV. Bordeaux meanwhile became the intellectual’s wine, and a symbol of somebody who has arrived both in life and enlightenment. Both regions set out to chase the elusive 100 points while striving to achieve at least 90 so as to be endeared to a generation of wine lovers who sought only the best, and were willing to reflect their status and breadth of their pocket books in their wine choices.
While this generation gravitated towards red wines Bordeaux saw many of its white grape plantings uprooted in favor of reds. Napa in the meantime became a hotbed for its own rich white wine, an expression of Chardonnay that spends a significant time in new oak making for a wine that is rich, buttery, creamy, and sometimes toasty. It is here where we see the changing winds in its most telling gust. While the Baby Boomers and Generation X to a certain extent are big fans of the oaky, buttery Chardonnay, younger wine drinkers are not so excited. Much like the heavy body of Napa’s reds, these Chardonnay’s pushed the barrel so much that they started to become very dull, too much alike, and void of any character.
Younger wine drinkers have come to embrace acidity, funkiness, and lighter bodies. Basically younger wine drinkers want everything that these wines are not. For many winemakers it is going to be hard to cling to the remnants of those passionate about buttery Chardonnay and opulent Cabernet while the drinkers who will be taking their place are looking to wines that are not jkust lighter in body, but eschew the values of the “Parkerized” wines of the last few decades, opting instead for wines from other parts of the world, other parts of France, and other parts of California.
The climate just isn’t right
While a new generation poses a great problem for these classic wine regions, climate change makes these problems increasingly difficult to solve with every passing year. While warmer summers have led to bumper crops and fantastic vintages, there is an impending doom on the horizon. The warmer vintages favor more intense flavors in the wines, so the wines of these regions move further and further away from a consumer looking in the opposite direction. Any solution in this realm, at least on the face of it, would appear unnatural which is yet another trait younger wine lovers are growing to despise!
Climate also has one more trick up its sleeve. Consistent good vintages will not last forever, and as summers become increasingly warmer around the world these regions are becoming pegged down in their own customs and traditions. Even warm-climate hardy grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon have their limit and will eventually become damaged by record high temperatures. High temperatures can lead to higher alcohol content in the end product, which may be a bridge too far considering many California Cabs are pushing the 15% and even 16% ABV. But beyond average temperatures, an increase in extreme weather patterns from heavy rainfall, hail storms, and even drought can have a direct affect on each vintage so much so that they could almost wipe it out entirely. These extreme weather patterns can have an indirect affect as well, as many winemakers in Napa must be sweating over the uptick in forest fires in California which can at least lead to smoke taint and at worst annihilate an entire vineyard.
Traditions and marketing do not play too well with climate change either. Many wine regions around the world are looking to different varietals that can stand up to the changes of climate over the years, for example South Africa’s gentle transformation from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot based wines to the warm weather friendly Syrah, Cinsault, and the native Pinotage. One would stress to think of Napa ever changing their central focus away from Cabernet Sauvignon and oak driven Chardonnay and it would be unimaginable to think that Bordeaux would ever change their ways. In many ways these two regions have become stuck to what they are.
Edit: But Bordeaux plants back
No sooner had I initially published this article was it brought to my attention that Bordeaux had made a big move in the face of climate change. The powers that be announced that more varietals would be allowed in their famous blends. Most notably for red wines were the additions of the lowly Marselan (though we could be seeing a lot more of that in the future) as well as Touriga Nacional. For white wines Albariño would now be a permitted part of any wine. Many would be surprised at the inclusion of grapes that are not native to France at all, Touriga Nacional being from Portugal while Albariño is from Spain, but the choices are deft. Both varieties will be well suited to the changing climate while fitting seamlessly into the style and characteristics that have become signature of the region. Heck they might even enhance them!
Business for who?
If the recent retirement of Robert Parker has shown anything it has shown his dwindling influence on the wine business. His influence helped to grow the bold and the beautiful styles of wines. As a result Bordeaux became entranced by its own prominence at the top of the mountain. Wine influencers from publications, distributors, and retailers flicked to the annual “en primeur” tasting of each vintage as they sought to gather notes and decide the value and prices of the wines almost two years before they were even released. Some in Napa, acting as the copycat little brothers have adopted this strategy of inviting well heeled tasters to try out their wines just months after harvest and years before release to gauge pricing, often priced at more per bottle than the average person will spend on wine in a year. To say there is an air of elitism about these wines is like saying there is a faint smell of pollution in that smog.
As a business model these tastings have become somewhat flat, as many in the wine world now thumb their noses at it. Judgements have become reserved, and those who buy futures are no longer at an advantage compared to buying wines when they are first released. Many see these wines as an investment as they gain value as they age but the starting points for these wines are so out of reach compared to just a few years ago that the idea of aging fine wines is lost to most.
Entire regions cannot and should not be judged by the highest of the high end. The majorities of winemakers in both regions are making much more modest wines but somehow you feel that these wines are riding the coattails of their more well heeled brethren. You still feel as if these wines are intended to deliver a glimpse of luxury at a more reasonable price instead of trying to stand on their own. Wines from these regions at the $10, $20 and sometimes even the $30 mark can be a but boring and feel as if they are just checking boxes rather than delivering a truly good wine. When these regions were all the rage then these wines may have been able to get away with trying to copy the big names, the expanding availability of wines from around the world combined with changing tastes has made these offerings look especially old fashioned and over valued.
Its the end of Bordeaux as we know it
No matter how you look at wine, wines from regions like the Napa Valley and Bordeaux are about to see their prominence come to a screeching halt. Climate change could push these regions to making wines they are not comfortable with, or find it very difficult to achieve vintages that command their price points without having to resort to over manipulation. At the same time no matter what they do, whether it is the business model and brand positioning that they find themselves adhered to, the process through which they make their wines, or simply the wines themselves, they are out of step and out of touch with a younger generation who are fast becoming the taste influencers of the wine world.
For years wineries in these prestigious regions have been able to push the envelope because people demanded bold, heavy, and rich and equated these characteristics with being the pinnacle of wine luxury. So what happens when people no longer want what you are selling. These are questions that winemakers in both regions will have to answer sooner or later or it will be the end of the Napa Valley and Bordeaux as we know it.