Reinventing Bordeaux, Through Chemistry

The region's wine makers are taking a closer look at chemical content to address the changing palates of consumers

From its ivy-covered turrets to the barrels aging in its limestone cellars, the 15th century Château Reynier is a postcard image of Bordeaux tradition. But there's nothing old-fashioned about the bottle of Château Reynier Cuvée Heritage that proprietor Marc Lurton uncorks for guests in his elegant sitting room.

To appeal to New World consumers, Lurton abandoned his family's time-honored wine making methods to produce a drink that's lighter and fruitier than a classic Bordeaux. Cuvée Heritage, which retails in the U.S. for an affordable $8 to $10 a bottle, is one of four wines Lurton has introduced since 2000 to target foreign markets. He now exports 90% of his total production, almost double the figure from five years ago. "It used to be the client who adapted to Bordeaux," Lurton says. "Now, it's the reverse."

For generations, Bordeaux wine making was an art based on terroir, a mythic combination of soil and climate, blended with knowledge passed from father to son. Now, the art is giving way to science. More and more Bordeaux producers are relying on chemistry to guide the way they plant, harvest, and ferment grapes. The goal: To make wine that is, well, less like Bordeaux.

Pleasing Palates

"It's a profound change," says Jean-Philippe Gervais, one of a growing corps of professional oenologists, or wine chemists, who advise growers. "The wine being made in Bordeaux now is nothing like the wine that was made 20 years ago."

It's revolutionary, for certain—but Bordeaux had little choice. Bordeaux exports plunged 17% from 1998 to 2005, to about $1.2 billion, as consumer tastes worldwide shifted toward lighter, New World-style wines. Sales also declined in France, where about two-thirds of Bordeaux is sold, as taste-tests show that younger, urban French people prefer lighter wines to earthy, full-bodied Bordeaux.

Franck Lacroix, a 41-year-old Parisian enjoying an after-work drink at a wine bar off the Champs Elysées, says he's more inclined to drink wine from the Loire Valley or Burgundy, or from the U.S., Australia, or South Africa. "Today, there's great stuff everywhere," he says.

To regain their edge, Bordeaux producers are turning to laboratories such as the Grézillac Oenological Center, which sits amid vineyards in the Entre Deux Mers region between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. There are six such labs across Bordeaux, and today nearly all the region's 6,000 growers use them to analyze everything from alcohol and sugar content, to trace elements such as iron and calcium that can affect flavor.

Global Glut

Armed with the results, oenologists teach growers to alter the taste of their wine. "Oenologists used to be like pharmacists" who treated vineyard maladies, says Nicolas Guichard, president of an association of Bordeaux wine chemists. "Now, helping producers understand what customers want is part of our job."

Lurton is one client. Working with oenologists at the lab, the fourth-generation wine maker started growing vines on his 100-acre estate taller and trimming off leaves so the grapes get more sun, which increases sugar content. After harvesting, he now heats grapes briefly before crushing them, a technique that he says creates a "rounder" flavor.

Chemistry won't cure all Bordeaux's woes, though. A global wine glut, with production exceeding consumption by about 15%, has depressed prices and forced wineries around the world into bankruptcy.

Thinner Field

Bordeaux producers are also handicapped by a complex appellation and labeling system, in contrast to the slick marketing of big producers such as Gallo of the U.S. and Jacobs Creek of Australia. While the most-prestigious names such as Château Lafite Rothschild and Château d'Yquem have no trouble selling bottles for $300 and up, some 4,000 lesser-known Bordeaux producers have gone out of business since the 1990s.

And the shakeout isn't over. Although Bordeaux exports rebounded last year, rising 5.7% by volume and a healthy 23% by value, to $1.5 billion, that's still below the value of exports in the late 1990s. Stocks of unsold Bordeaux grew 15% last year, to 103 million gallons. For Bordeaux purists, better wine making through chemistry may sound like heresy. But for producers such as Lurton, it may be the key to survival.

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