Mastering Bordeaux: The Generation Gap in the Gironde - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Mastering Bordeaux: The Generation Gap in the Gironde

illustrations by Michael Hirshon

“Some of the greatest wines I ever tasted were from Bordeaux,” recalls Christie Dufault, associate professor for wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). “When I was working as a somm, some of my most glorious moments were serving a ’47 Cheval Blanc, or wines from the ’59 or ’82 vintages.”

Dufault’s reverence for Bordeaux is echoed by other wine educators around the country. Those who began their careers 20-plus years ago grew up tasting legendary wines that inspired passion and devotion. Michael Weiss, co-chair of wine studies at the CIA, remembers tasting great vintages from the ’50s and ’60s as a young sommelier in Miami.

Back then, Bordeaux stood at the pinnacle of the fine wine world. That’s not the case among young sommeliers today, and yet it maintains a prominent place in the curriculum of most wine schools. “Bordeaux is always first,” says Linda Lawry of New York’s International Wine Center. “It’s so influential in the wine world. Even if you never drink a glass of Bordeaux, you have to understand its influence.”

The last part of Lawry’s comment hints at a growing chasm between instructors and students. While Bordeaux maintains a heralded status among those who teach about wine, their students come to class with a different mindset. Many know little about the region, and have never tasted a wine from Bordeaux. According to Sandy Block, a Master of Wine and wine instructor at Boston University, “We’ve now gone through two or three generations of people who don’t drink Bordeaux and understand it only in an antiquarian sort of way.”

“We’ve now gone through two or three generations of people who don’t drink Bordeaux and understand it only in an antiquarian sort of way.” —Sandy Block, MW
Wine educators point to several factors for this change, including the rapid expansion of the wine world over the last two decades. Bordeaux may have been the region back then, but for today’s students it’s just one of many. “Students now have a lot of choices, and did not grow up with Bordeaux as the be-all-end-all of wines,” says Dilek Caner, a Master of Wine who runs the Dallas Wine Education Center. At the CIA, Weiss says, students get more excited about wines from the New World, as well as from countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain.

Many teachers attribute this to the idea that American students are accustomed to the bold and fruity flavors of New World wines, and can be put off initially by Bordeaux’s more herbaceous and mineral character. “People are attracted to wines with lots of fruit extraction and obvious flavors,”
notes Block. “They don’t want to wait around for a wine to show well.”

Price has become a prohibitive factor as well. While value-priced Bordeaux wines exist, the classified growths have become inaccessible to most consumers. “Somms haven’t been brought up on these wines because they’re beyond reach,” observes Scott Carney, MS, of the International Culinary Center in New York City.

Price is an issue for instructors as well. “We used to be able to afford classified growths; we can’t do that anymore or we’d only be able to pour two or three wines,” says Block. According to Dufault, “We could taste first growths even ten years ago, but not anymore. And that’s part of the lesson—that those wines are out of reach.”

As an instructor, then, how do you communicate the classic character of Bordeaux to today’s students? Some, like Carney, believe you have to bite the bullet and buy some top wines despite the high prices: “We’re a trade school, and we try to offer iconic, benchmark wines to which [students] can later make comparisons, so we have to pony up and spend some money.” Even so, those bottles might come from less-heralded vintages, as with the 2004 Château Rauzan-Ségla Margaux, a second growth poured for one of his recent classes. In years like 2005 or 2010, the level of hype sent prices into the stratosphere, making it nearly impossible to introduce students to top wines from those vintages.

For Keith Wallace of the Philadelphia Wine School, having top wines isn’t a requirement. “[Bordeaux’s] mid-tier is seeing more good winemaking and better quality,” he says; he finds he can get the point across with less expensive wines. Bordeaux will continue to be taught in wine schools, because, as Boston University’s Block says, “It’s still the number one fine wine region in the world, and it’s something [students] need to know to pass the class test. They don’t get it at first, but by the end of the class they develop a respect for it.”

But respect is different from interest, or the kind of fascination prior generations had with Bordeaux. Among students finishing the CIA program, Dufault sees little enthusiasm for exploring Bordeaux further: “When students finish the program, they’ll often want to take a trip. They almost always go to Burgundy, or the Loire Valley, or Champagne. I can’t think of anyone who’s gone to Bordeaux.” Maybe, in part, that’s because of the reputation the region has developed among younger wine drinkers. As Wallace says, “I’ve noticed more negativity from somms. They won’t come to Bordeaux classes, seem bored with it, and have almost an anti-Bordeaux attitude against what they see as a snobby or elitist region.” He recalls the reaction of some students during a trip he led to the region: “If you didn’t speak French, or look the part, you got a different experience. That aristocratic attitude puts Americans off.”

That sort of indifference raises the question: Today’s leading wine educators continue to sing Bordeaux’s praises, but will tomorrow’s?

This story was featured in W&S Fall 2015.
illustrations by Michael Hirshon

is the Italian wine editor at Wine & Spirits magazine.

This story appears in the print issue of fal 2015.
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