The wine co-operative leading Bordeaux into the future
Wednesday 02 February 2022
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One of France’s largest and most progressive winemaking co-operatives, Bordeaux Families was created almost a century ago, between the wars, to give small, regional winemakers some much-needed mutual support at a time when the industry was on its knees. Today, it retains that same ethos of solidarity and protects the character of its individual winemakers, while also giving them access to state-of-the-art equipment, expertise and international reach.
“Right at the start there were about 126 wine growers, who all joined together, sharing everything they had and working as a unit,” says Alex Waddelow, the co-operative’s European export manager. “Since then, it’s grown organically, with other co-operatives popping up and eventually also joining together. F
rom that original 126 wine growers, we’re now up to roughly 300, ranging from tiny Châteaus with three or four hectares up to major growers with 50-100 hectares, depending on what they produce.”
Even as it’s grown though, Bordeaux Families has resisted the push to homogenise, either in terms of winemaking or culture.
“We didn’t want to become one of the big industrial giants just ploughing through volume,” continues Alex. “Every harvest, we parcel out and separate a certain amount of wine from each Château, so each still has its own signature. That’s allowed us to keep very different products and keep everything interesting.”
The co-operative is careful not to prescribe to its members, who are free to make their wine in any way they choose. Instead, there is a healthy culture of sharing knowledge and ideas, as well as resources. Alex cites the example of a growing number of châteaus selling rosé wine; it’s going well, as they’re each able to see the results of the others’ experimentation and learn as a group.
Another excellent example is the co-operative’s shift toward organic and sustainable viniculture, which started relatively small but is now growing exponentially throughout the 300 member winemakers. Bordeaux Families currently includes around 590 hectares of organic vineyards, but that is projected to rise to around 1000 hectares by the end of next year. It also has 1000 hectares certified under the Terra Vitis scheme – which focuses on environmental, societal and economic sustainability – and has recently completed its adoption of HVE3, which replaces chemical products with alternative techniques.
“The beauty of being a collective is that it only takes a few to start the ball rolling. When a winemaker sees his neighbour is doing exactly the same things that he is, but because he has an organic certification his wines sell for a higher price, it doesn’t take long for the interest to spread. And a lot of the time, it is all the paperwork and checks to become certified organic, but the fact that we can help with all of that again makes it more attractive.
“At the end of the day, regardless of the crop, these guys are farmers and they want to work with the plants and the soil in the best way possible. They’re the last people that want to see chemicals being poured all over it all, though sadly at one time the market kind of demanded they do that to improve yield. Now the market’s gone the other way, toward less intensive farming, a lot of them are actually relieved to go back to just doing what they wanted in the first place. And don’t forget this industry is hugely dependent on climate, so that’s at the forefront of their minds too.”
While certain aspects of viniculture within the co-operative may be consciously stepping back to a simpler time, it has also seized on positive innovation. Particularly at its state-of-the-art winery sites the latest technology and techniques are being harnessed to give the fruit the best possible journey to becoming consistently excellent wine.
“The winery is a very modern setup. For any wine really, the goal is always minimum intervention; you don’t want it to be sitting outside, or spending too long in pipes, or between one place or another. So we’ve invested in this site, as well as four other sites that we have, all to make sure our winemakers are working with the best possible equipment.”
Alex admits this does sometimes come as a surprise to visitors, whose vision of a Bordeaux winery is often more akin to Château Margaux, with its magnificent stone mansion houses out in the countryside. “We’ve been constantly upgrading and adding, to the point where some of the older chai we don’t even use any more; we’ve got new ones with automated and controllable traps, to open and to move wine around, we’ve got thermally controlled tanks so that everything is monitored down to the smallest degree. These give our winemakers as much control as possible over the process to keep our wines consistent, but also to allow them to do new things,” he says.
These deep-seated ideas about Bordeaux wine and winemaking are as much a curse as they are a blessing. They undeniably give a certain romantic flair and – despite the sad degradation of the Bordeaux brand during the 1990s – mean the region is still associated with quality, tradition and exclusivity. The downside though, as Alex sees it, is that Bordeaux’s reluctance to keep pace with the modern wine world has severely limited its potential market.
“There is and always has been two Bordeauxs,” he says. “There’s the Bordeaux of the Grand Cru, that remains frozen in time, and then there’s the rest of Bordeaux. But I think the biggest issue the region had is that, for years, it was just too opaque. Everybody recognises ‘Bordeaux’ on a label, but very few people know what that actually means. So, you’d be at a wine fair selling Bordeaux and someone says, ‘oh, sorry, I only like white wine’. So you’ll show them a white Bordeaux and they respond ‘oh, but I only like Sauvignon Blanc’. Of course, it is a Sauvignon Blanc, but it doesn’t say that anywhere on the label! Unless you were in the know, you wouldn’t have any idea.
“Our aim here is to try and modernise a little bit, get away from the typical sort of ‘châteaux on the label’ and heavily oaked profile. Because if you ask most people which grape varieties they know and like, in the UK you get a lot of Malbec, but otherwise it’s Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, all of which Bordeaux has in abundance. So we have what people want, we just need to do better at letting them know it’s here!”
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