Attack of the Super-Cuvées

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the different strategies winemakers use to sell their products and I find myself coming back again and again to a particularly good column by Andrew Jefford in the June 2008 issue of Decanter magazine.  Jefford demonstrates how important economic factors are in shaping what gets poured into your glass.

Bordeaux, Burgundy and Super-Cuvée

Winemakers generally find themselves working with variable quantities and qualities of fruit and the individual wines made from that fruit.  What should be done if some of the raw materials are much better than others as is typically the case?  Blend them all together?  That’s what happens sometimes, especially in the less sophisticated cooperatives in Southern Europe.  The result is often a whole that does not exceed the sum of its parts.  Historically, Jefford explains, there are two dominant approaches to the problem of wine quality to take into account variable wine quality.

The first is the Bordeaux strategy.  The best lots are blended into the grand vin — the one that sells for a high price (in good years at least).  Good wines that just don’t make the cut for the grand vin go into a second label.  Lesser wines are sold off on the bulk market or even a third label.  The system is transparent, relatively consumer friendly and the wines are as good as the vintage allows.  In The Wine Advocate’s report on 2005 Bordeaux, for example, the grand vin Latour (96+ points, 12,000 cases) costs $1125 while the second wine Les Forts de Latour (92 points, 10,000 cases) is less than $200.  A third wine, designated simply Paulliac (89 points) sells for about $60.  Something for everyone, I guess, and a pretty clear hierarchy of wines, although not every Bordeaux producer listed in Parker’s guide displays such a clear link between price and apparent quality.

Burgundy provides a second model, according to Jefford.  The top wines are released as individual vineyard-designated wines and the remaining wines are blended together in to an appellation-designated wine.  I am not an expert on Burgundies, but I have seen this in Oregon, where some wineries release a one Willamette Valley Pinot Noir along with several vineyard designated wines.  This makes the wines very interesting if you are able to taste them side-by-side, but it can otherwise be confusing.  I think it shifts a bit of power to the wine critics and specialists.  But that’s fine if the terroir really comes through and the wines are significantly different.

The third strategy, which Jefford links to the Rhône, is to create a tiny amount of a sort of super-wine that is made, more or less, to gain high scores from wine critics.  I know that wine makers always say that they don’t make wines to get high scores, but a few have privately told me that big Parker numbers are so valuable that they don’t hesitate to make some wines to try to impress wine critics like RP.  Most customers won’t have a chance to buy the Parker wine, it is true, because the production is so small, but the benefits to the winery’s reputation may extend down the line and boost prices and sales of the other wines.

Money, Taste and Power

“Let’s set aside the question of income,” Jefford writes, because he is concerned with the effect of the three systems on the quality of the wine.  The Burgundy system, with its stress on terroir, makes sense when there really is terroir, but otherwise he argues in favor of the Bordeaux plan because it produces more complete wines, wines of good “disposition,” as he puts it. Wines that are good to drink.

The Super-Cuvée strategy, he fears, makes wines that are good to taste (and rate), but not to drink because they are wines of “accumulation,” monster wines, where winemakers seek high scores by adding more and more layers of identifiable attributes to the super-wine at the expense of the quality, complexity and completeness of the wines that make up the bulk of production.

On the face of it, Jefford’s critique of super-wines and the rising power of critics associated with them is based upon taste, but as the column continues it is quickly apparent that he cannot leave the wine economics out of it, because it is at the heart of the problem. The Bordeaux model doesn’t just make better wines, he suggests, but also better incomes in the long run for all producers.  The simplicity of the single Grand vin strategy makes wines more understandable and a “perfect building block,” as he says for a reputation.  He credits Bordeaux’s use of this system in part for their consistently strong reputation and ability to attract investment and maintain strong prices.  He contrasts this with the “chaos and frenzy” of the Super-Cuvées and the “false intellectual challenge” of the many single-vineyard offerings.  Pretty strong words, I would say.

The Burgundy and super-wine strategies depend in different ways on the power of wine critics (like some of those who write for Decanter).  Wine critics validate the legitimacy of single-vineyard offerings and create super-markets for the Super-Cuvées.    It would be interesting to study what factors lead winemakers, especially New World producers, to choose one approach over another.  Perhaps it is terroir.  Perhaps it is scale, training or philosophy.  Or perhaps it is access to wine critics and the power they can have in the marketplace.  Watch this space for more research on this interesting question.

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One response

  1. Mike,
    Good synopsis of the article. What is left out, however, is that Bordeaux, being a blended wine, lends itself easily to a three-tiered approach. Burgundy, being a single grape wine, is necessarily vineyard/appellation driven. The Rhone, lacking either the historical cachet of Bordeaux or the tiered appellations of Burgundy, has developed a third approach – superblends. Here in the New World, producers emulate one of the three according to their own business model, ambitions and ego. I really think that “playing to the critics” is far less important than you make it out to be. In Oregon, as I’ve written before, it is simply easier and far more profitable to make 6 or 8 pricey single vineyard Pinots – even though the blends are often as good, sometimes better, and almost always far better values.

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