First of a three-part series on Bordeaux
This was Vinexpo week in Bordeaux, a five-day trade fair held every odd-numbered year since 1981 in a cavernous exhibition hall along a manufactured lake on the northern outskirts of this historic city, once the center of the world wine trade. More than 2,300 wineries, international wine companies, importers, negociants and national trade associations vied for the attention of 48,000 attendees of 120 nationalities: importers, retailers, brokers and journalists looking to pad their wine lists and article portfolios.
Yet while any trade fair strives to project energy and a positive vibe, Vinexpo 2015 is fighting a tide of competition from other fairs and other markets. Globalization of the wine industry has created new centers of power hoping to lure buyers and consumers, creating problems for more traditional markets, including Bordeaux.
To consumers, these trade fairs might seem like inside baseball, but they play an important role in getting wine onto retail shelves. A fair such as Vinexpo gives importers and retailers a chance to meet winemakers from around the world without the expense of traveling to each place. Deals are done here, and within a few weeks or months, a wine will appear on a shelf or restaurant list in New York, Washington or Dallas that might become the new rage in the local market.
Producers exhibit here because they want to reach new markets. Importers and retailers come because they want new products that will set them apart from their competitors back home. Products range from high-end, first-growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru champagne to more proletarian products. (Trend alert: fruit-infused wines.)
Michael Flynn, familiar to Washington diners as the former sommelier at Kinkead’s, came to Vinexpo as the Texas state manager for a boutique wine distributor called Favorite Brands, looking to bolster his Bordeaux list at a number of price points. When I met up with him, just a few hours after the fair opened, he had already branched out. “I just found a new line of Chablis to replace one I can no longer get,” he said. “And a producer of fabulous Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé I’m very excited about.”
Just walking through the 13-acre hall at the Parc des Expositions is overwhelming. Within two hours’ time, I was able to whipsaw from Argentina to Portugal to France and then Austria. I tasted a savory malbec from Portales del Fin del Mundo, a riveting semillon from Mendel Wines, then the exquisite White Stones and White Bones chardonnays of Catena Zapata, from select vine rows high in the Andes foothills of Mendoza. Minutes later I was sipping a tawny port from Taylor Fladgate vinted in 1863, the year of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. Then a champagne tasting, comparing not wines but the glasses they are served in. (For the record, Lanson Gold Label 1995 is delicious in any glass but more expressive in a white-wine glass than in a traditional champagne flute.) After scarfing a sandwich of pata negra jamón on a crusty baguette, I was (in spirit) cruising the Danube, tasting the electrifying grüner veltliner and Riesling wines by Gobelsburg and Bründlmayer. A few more steps took me back centuries to the very beginning of wine and the racy rkatsiteli white and savory saperavi reds from Georgia, fermented in clay amphorae called qvevri.
Despite that vinocopia, there was a sense of decline and ennui around this year’s Vinexpo. Several producers I spoke to commented that the crowd seemed lighter this year and that a competing trade fair called ProWein, held in Dusseldorf, Germany, each March, attracts more business. “People only come to Vinexpo for the parties,” said one veteran wine writer, who admitted he had ventured into the convention hall press center merely to collect the free courier bag given to visiting journalists.
The lavish black-tie dinners this year included a feast in honor of the international press held at Château Margaux, a first-growth chateau, and cooked by three-star Michelin chef Guy Savoy. The week ended with a similar event, the Fête de la Fleur, at Château Montrose. Those parties feature wine as part of the good life, with the good life defined as luxury. That’s an essential part of Bordeaux’s self-image. It’s also part of its problem as wine becomes a populist drink throughout the world. Less-expensive Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux are on display here, but the emphasis clearly remains on the pricey classified growths.
“Vinexpo is a good combination of business and glamour,” said Xavier de Eizaguirre, Vinexpo’s chairman. “Only Bordeaux can offer this, because the life around Bordeaux is unique.” Then, as if sensing ProWein and other trade fairs and markets emerging, he added, “That doesn’t mean we should be sleeping on our laurels.”