In the wine world today, despite the emergence of quality wine across the globe, Bordeaux and Burgundy remain benchmarks of quality. The finely honed matches between soil, climate, and varietal in the Grand Crus vineyards and estates of Bordeaux and Burgundy have developed over several centuries and their flavor signature is unique—no other region in the world produces wines quite like these. This distinctiveness and their reputation for quality set the parameters for how we judge the aesthetic quality of wine and the intersubjective norms that give structure to the various competencies we use in wine evaluation.
But can they remain benchmarks if their wine is so inaccessible? The problem is that for most wine lovers, including highly qualified experts, the status of these wines as benchmarks is reputational rather than experiential. They are so inordinately expensive that few can actually experience them, or can manage to secure only a small tasting pour on exceedingly rare occasions. (Barrel samples are not the equivalent of tasting finished wines ready to drink.)
Cult wines from Napa pose a similar dilemma.
It is fundamentally misguided for an aesthetic community to deploy standards that are inaccessible to most people in the community; it is equally misguided to depend on reputation rather than experience to judge quality.
There is plenty of great wine being made elsewhere. It’s time we re-evaluate the position of Bordeaux and Burgundy until they make their wine more accessible.
Consider an analogy with the art world. The best paintings in the world are inordinately expensive and some works by the old masters are priceless. Yet, art lovers have access to the original because most are housed in publicly accessible museums, and reasonably accurate facsimiles exist in various media. Almost every large city has an art museum with at least some works by top artists. Art students and others in the art world can routinely experience and be inspired by works of Van Gogh, Cezanne, or Rembrandt.
Wine, of course, is more ephemeral than paintings with a life span measured at best in decades. In wine, we will have to be satisfied with reasonably contemporary versions of the “old masters.” And, more importantly, the supply of any particular wine is strictly limited. So the nature of wine poses unique challenges with regard to the issue of availability. But there is not enough real concern about this state affairs and no obvious solution. Yet, if Bordeaux and Burgundy are to remain benchmarks this situation must change. There is a lot of quality wine made throughout the world; the competition will catch up with them eventually.
One story from last week documents a baby step towards realizing there is a problem.
Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, both owned by Prince Robert of Luxembourg, are going to open a visitor center.
While such a venture might seem fairly standard fare for most wine properties around the world, in Bordeaux, and at a first growth, the concept is nothing short of groundbreaking.
That this is considered groundbreaking is indicative of how out of touch Bordeaux is. A visitor center doesn’t fix the problem but it indicates that some in Bordeaux see the need for change.