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Does Britain still love claret?

We Brits still hold onto our ancient links with the southwest of France, but things haven’t always been plain sailing.

Apart from the region’s wines, the most famous export from, and ambassador for, this part of the world is Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of both France and England (at different times).  It is said that when she married Henry II in Bordeaux in 1152, the wines of Issan (probably modern-day Château d’Issan, 3rd Growth Margaux) were served at their nuptials.  Even she had a tough time of it when she arrived in England, though she proved the test of time and survived almost all her children to pass away at the fine old age of 82.

You could say the same goes for the region’s wines: long-suffering and persistent are two words you could also use to describe the fortunes of claret in our fair isles, especially over the last few decades.  Since Oddbins et al introduced the wines of Spain and the New World to our shores back in the 1970’s, claret – happily ensconced by then for more than eight centuries – has taken quite a battering.  The rise of the supermarkets has not been kind to Bordeaux, as they demand volumes that simply cannot be met by a region whose overall area may be vast but whose complex structure and divisive appellation system prevent it from entering the branded wine market in any really competitive way.

The recent divergence of Cru Classé prices from anything resembling affordable, and the result of purely speculative hoarding of the best wines to push prices upwards, have turned another wave of traditional claret drinkers away to find value in other regions.  I find now that “Bordeaux-bashing” is all the fashion, and de rigueur among many of the nation’s merchants and journalists.  So is there any good news to be had?

Absolutely!  My recent visit to the UK proved two things: first, that finding importers who still have much of an interest in Bordeaux is getting harder; second, that those who do still shift good quantities of claret tend to be the most able to communicate effectively to their customers, and therein lies the point.  There are plenty of criticisms that one can level at Bordeaux wines in general, for example that they are overpriced, or they lack fruit, or they are austere when young.  These are generic truisms easy to promulgate in a region of 60 appellations and over 10,000 wineries but it does not take much to scratch beneath the surface and discover so many small producers offering excellent tasting wines and brilliant value-for-money.  It’s not even just an age thing, really, Bordeaux has plenty to offer the younger consumer.  It’s a communication thing: grabbing the chance to show that claret can compete with Europe and the New World, definitely in flavour terms even if sometimes the price issue can be a close-run thing (we have the EU and the 35-hour week to thank for that.)

I’m really tempted to borrow from John Major (remember him?) and urge people to ‘get back to basics’ – you know, forget the novelty wines, the ‘great-with-pizza’ concoctions, the samey, flashy fruit of many almost identical wines of unknown origin that give only superficial, fleeting pleasure, and the latest rapper-endorsed Champagne cuvée.  Remember what wine should really be – something interesting, engaging, yes definitely pleasurable, but which also asks questions, talks about where it’s from.

So my question to “fashionable” professionals and consumers alike is this, if a wine from Bordeaux was not expensive and tasted great, would you buy it? And I am happy to say that working at the grass roots level the answer would appear to be a confident “Yes”.  This is what I found over the last week around the UK, where those who are prepared to forego the easy criticism, to taste and try, can still get exactly what they’re looking for: an exciting range of mid-level Bordeaux wines that kick off at well under a tenner on the shelf.

And when we do “do” claret in Blighty, I promise you we do it better than anyone else, as you can see from the photo which I took last week while “negotiating a sale” with one new customer in London (aka having a jolly good lunch).  Even the châteaux themselves sometimes ask us Brits how best to store, prepare and serve their own wines.  So claret still has a special place in the British wine universe, Queen Eleanor’s legacy lives on, and she can rest easy for the time being.


Ben Kennedy
Tel: +33 (0) 5 56 57 18 65
Twitter: @thewinebuffer
Facebook: Rive Gauche Wines

Rive Gauche Wines is a Bordeaux négociant which offers a range of wines for everyday drinking as well as Crus Classés and other Fine Wines.  The company was established in 2011 by Ben Kennedy, formerly Bordeaux buyer for a leading St James’s merchant.  The wines on our list are hand-picked on the key criteria of quality and value-for-money, and include numerous undiscovered gems that are exclusive to Rive Gauche.

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