History repeating itself? Bordeaux 40 years on


Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

Our Chairman, Simon Berry, first cut his teeth in Bordeaux 40 years ago. Here he reflects on how the Bordelais could learn some lessons from 1974…

Its 40 years exactly, give or take a few months, since I first visited Bordeaux. Then, aged 15, I was on “an exchange” with a boy named Gerard whose grandfather owned a château in Fronsac and whose father was a négociant. I was supposed to be learning faultless French. Instead, having caused merriment and mirth on my first evening by being unable to pronounce the month of August and announcing that I was pregnant instead of completely full at the end of dinner, I determined to teach the French how to speak English.

We spent most of the time in the charming seaside town of Pilat-sur-Mer, in the shadow of the dunes of Arcachon, straight out of M Hulot. I learnt how to eat globe artichokes, and was captivated by a beautiful girl called Lauren, with a black cocker spaniel and a moped with the engine in the front basket. This did not endear me to Gerard, who I think had designs of his own. Sadly, Lauren did not fall for my suave foreign ways, but was equally indifferent to Gerard. Quel, as I learnt back in 1974, dommage. If only Lauren had been more accommodating, maybe my French would be less pathetic today.

As it turns out, 1974 was looking like the third disappointing vintage in a row, and Bordeaux was in crisis. Furthermore, 1972 and 1973 had been overpriced, and were not selling. Would the Bordelais learn their lesson and reduce their prices? Of course not. In the end, they were rescued by a fabulous vintage a year later, and rampant inflation making their older wines look cheaper (as well as relying on the rest of the trade to absorb the losses).

Today, I’m on my way to Bordeaux for the annual en primeur bun-fight. The vintage we’ll be tasting is, apparently, the third disappointing vintage in a row. When the whole trade is warning the Bordelais that they have to drop their prices to stand a chance of selling any of their wines, the early indications suggest they have no intention of doing so. Sound familiar?

As Lauren might have taught me: “plus ça change…”

(But I’m pleased to report that the standard of English in Bordeaux has improved beyond measure.)