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A LITTLE BACKGROUND | New Wave Bordeaux by Radford Dale Imports

A LITTLE BACKGROUND | New Wave Bordeaux by Radford Dale Imports

By Daléne Fourie - News24 - 13 April 2023

- Radford Dale Imports has, for the first time, imported a small selection of New Wave Bordeaux wines direct from the Château.
- While traditional Bordeaux Wines continue to define the fine wine category, there have been rumblings of a New Wave of Bordeaux wines.
- This is achieved by using minimal intervention in the cellar and producing earlier drinking examples rather than the cellar-worthy, investment wines Bordeaux is so prized for. 
- These wines also come at more accessible price points and address the prohibitive pricing issue and the hierarchy in the investment wine distribution model.

 

Drinking Bordeaux in South Africa can be an oxymoron at times. 

Look at the statistics. The probability of being able to afford a decent Bordeaux on the Rand is dubious, given superior quality South African wines at half or maybe even a third or quarter of the price - why risk it? (if you have the money, to begin with).

And while you might be able to afford it, you won't get it. Premium Bordeaux sells itself, allocations are jealously guarded by private customers with cavernous cellars, and the negociants and importers that have forged lifelong relationships with their preferred Châteaus have also secured their customer allocations a long time ago.

Eben Sadie wrote me yesterday commiserating that he had no wine to spare, with an ever-growing wait-list. But you see, THAT'S the thing about fine wine, patience. You forge relationships with producers. More than the wine, you gain a story, a (transactional) friendship, access, and even in some small way, ownership of a brand, its pedigree, and its history. You walk the langpad  (long road) with them.

It's complicated

Though Bordeaux in Africa presents a conundrum of sorts and a level of effort and know-how. When you get the opportunity to taste it and perhaps even buy a bottle or two, you have to. The principles of Bordeaux wine inform the world, arguably the most famous wine region in the world, it IS the standard in fine wine (though every year it gains another contender in that category). And it is devilishly complicated.

Did you know that Bordeaux has more land to vine than South Africa? 110,000 vs. our dwindling 90 512 hectares. It is France's biggest wine-producing area (an estimated 500 million bottles a year) and shows you just how small our wine production is in the greater scheme of things. With 57 appellations, six classification systems, not to mention the "satellite" appellations, and over 9000 Châteaus, the more I know, the more I find there IS to know. But to taste is to understand. 

Crappy weather makes elegant wine

Last night I sat next to Jolette Steyn, Sales Manager of Wine Cellar and winemaker of The Vineyard Party (Semillon from Bot River), attending a Radford Dale Imports event hosted by Tom Prior, her boyfriend, and British wine aficionado, on New Wave Bordeaux wines. What a pleasure!

We talked about the fact that in South Africa, you always taste the sun in our wines, in the tropical fruit flavour profiles, the rich, robust tannins, and the elevated texture of the wine. We sometimes forget that France's top wines come from the North. Crappy, grey weather that restrains the wine makes for low alcohol, elegant, refined tannins, more secondary flavour profiles (like perfume, spice, and herbaceousness), and because they usually have more money, a lot of oak and maturation, by extension, more tertiary flavours (vanilla, cigar box, leather)- thus complexity. *This is not to say South African wines cannot practice restraint or complexity.

It is merely that we have scope to do both, though our entry-level wines, more often than not, retain that sunny disposition. Also, please note that even Tim Atkin MW admits that only 25% of Bordeaux wine production sits at the top-end, 45% is mid-market, and 30% is what he calls basic stuff and sometimes undrinkable - so don't get the idea that all Bordeaux is good Bordeaux.

Though when it's good, it's benchmark kind of stuff, and I believe that to understand fine wine and our place in it, you have to understand the rules. And while I could attempt to write you an encyclopaedia on Bordeaux, it is best to have a guide, an insider's guide, if you will. 

Your insider's guide

Radford Dale Imports is run by British Burghound (a wine term describing people who immerse themselves in the culture and wine of Burgundy), Alex Dale. Managing Director of Radford Dale, and Radford Dale Imports (what they call the fine wine arm of their SA wine brand of the same name), I trust Alex to advise me on wine things I don't understand. He virtually grew up in Burgundy (Beaune), his family owned properties there, and he shuttled between the UK and France.

At 15, he moved to Burgundy to do his first vintage and attended the University of Djion and Wine School in Beaune - making him THE insider. Though, by their own admission, they have not dabbled extensively in importing Bordeaux to South Africa, most SA importers already have allocations of the top-end stuff, the selling of which degenerates into a numbers game—making this New Wave selection of Bordeaux wines that much more interesting.

I have long heard rumblings of a new wave in Bordeaux. Perhaps not a NEW WAVE so much as a return to their roots, to a time before the influence of US critics created a demand for more indulgent, highly extracted, oaked, made wines from Bordeaux. And perhaps back to a sense of place and natural expression. 

What is traditional Bordeaux?

So let's understand what traditional Bordeaux is first. In broad strokes, it is BLENDS, red and white.

The grape varieties are limited to six red and three white. The make-up of the blend is dictated by the appellation and, more broadly, on what side of the Gironde Estuary (where the Dordogne and Garonne rivers meet to run into the Atlantic Ocean) it is planted.

The Right bank is Merlot dominant, and the Left bank is Cabernet Sauvignon dominant because of the Clay and Gravel soils, respectively. Blends ensured that they were able to create beautifully complete wines irrespective of the vintage conditions (remember the crappy weather) by playing around with greater percentages of well-faring grapes in any given year. Bordeaux wineries are called Châteaus, while in Burgundy, they are called Domaines.

Interestingly, Bordeaux is classified by their Châteaus, irrespective of whether they lose or gain vineyards. In contrast, Burgundy is classified by the vineyards rather than the "brand names," if you will.

There are traditional bottle shapes, six to be exact, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Sparkling, Port, and Dessert. A Bordeaux bottle is one of the most common shapes, cylindrical with high shoulders, and will usually contain the Bordeaux-approved varieties, while the Burgundy shape has more sloping shoulders and is known for containing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay- though there are no formal RULES regulating this.

Traditional Châteaus only sell their wine via their preferred negociants, and if you've been reading the news, lower yields due to climate change and greater demand for these world-class wines have seen prices sky-rocket into millionaire and billionaire territory unless you want to own a bottle of wine, instead of a car... or a small house. 

What is new wave Bordeaux?

Things that determine a NEW WAVE Bordeaux include the following. Single-varietal wines are increasingly being made, perhaps because of the changing climate.

They are producing single-site, single-varietal wines, like a full Merlot, Cabernet Franc, or Cabernet Sauvignon, eschewing the traditional blends.

While Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot retained the dominant position in traditional blends, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and sometimes Carménère acting only as "seasoning," new wave Bordeaux are starting to include more significant percentages of these grapes, in some instances even becoming the new dominant.

The New Wave producers are also quite irreverent (you know as much as wine geeks can be) in their bottle shapes. You often now see a Bordeaux wine in a Burgundy bottle. It is quite exciting to see this quiet act of rebellion {I imagine Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games whistling the cry of the Mocking Jay}.

There is also a drive toward organic certification, though many producers still prefer to follow organic techniques but do not necessarily want to pay for certification. They are using less oak, experimenting with amphorae and clay eggs, following the trend of minimal intervention, and producing more (what Tom calls) glouglou wines, a French term for quaffable, beverage-style wines, usually meant to be enjoyed earlier than their traditional cellar-worthy counterparts.

Though more serious new wave wines are also being made, more representative of the terroir, with a focus on the purity of the fruit, and not so much on engineering something you'd EXPECT from Bordeaux, just rather what it is. That, combined with the fact that these wines are not made by young, disruptor-type winemakers but by big, established names, proves a real grinding of the firmament of old Bordeaux.

The wines are more accessible in price-point and available direct from the producers / Châteaus, making it easier to get your hands on Bordeaux and potentially, in the future, drink MORE of it. 

The Verdict

Radford Dale Imports' most recent shipment and the wines we tasted last night came from four of these so-called New Wave Châteaus, including Château Le Rey (owned by the Kwok family, a Vietnamese/Chinese family that owns 6 other Bordeaux Cháteaus - the original Crazy Rich Asians), Château Mangot, Château Daugay, and Domaine de l'Aurage. We tasted eight wines in total, and they all had that inky, dark purple Bordeaux hue that stains your teeth on the second sip.

Of the wines, it is funny that both Jolette and I preferred the oldest of the bunch, the Cháteau Mangot Todesschini 'Distique 9', St. Emilion grand Cru 2016 - an unusual blend of Cabernet Franc (40%), Cabernet Sauvignon (30%), and Merlot (30%), fermented in 50% amphora, and 50% French oak with a lovely presence on the palate, beautiful fruit, and depth. The wines were intriguing to a man and so DIFFERENT, from the scent of an old carpenter's workbench to the distinct wow factor of a Super Tuscan-style wine and the quiet deference of a well-balanced blend.

It is heartening to see Bordeaux alive, searching for fruit purity, honest wine and experimenting with these younger drinking wines at more accessible price points. It is invaluable to taste and understand just where WE (SA wine) fall in the greater scheme of things, and I suggest you find out for yourself. 

For more information on these wines, visit Radford Dale Imports' website here.

 

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