Red Obsession: How China Conquered Bordeaux

You hardly have to know much about wine to know Bordeaux. The renowned growing region with its eponymous wines has been at it for hundreds of years, growing grapes in the stony soil and through judicious applications of science and alchemy vinting ruby rich liquid for the consumption of kings. If you’ve actually had a big-name Bordeaux, kudos to you. Lafite or Margaux, the stuff ain’t cheap, as Red Obsession explores in great detail. But the image of the stuffy wine-snob drinking and spitting is only a first taste of this documentary’s deep dive into the business of France’s most exclusive wine. For Bordeaux has a new aficionado, the wealthy elite of China, and their money is propelling the business into the stratosphere.

Russell Crowe is the note-perfect narrator of Red Obsession. Crowe himself is a renowned oenophile, and clearly relishes the story he’s telling. Directors David Roach and Warwick Ross start simply, building on the history and uniqueness of the region. We meet the Bordelais, the owners and vintners of the big French châteaus, as well as noted critics coming to a tasting. A great wine is much like a great painting, they say, a unique work of art that touches on the past and the present. But even rarer, for once it’s been consumed, that wine is gone. And in these rarified circles, there are vintages of truly exceptional quality, when weather, growing conditions and careful management converge to create something extraordinary, a Picasso for your mouth. With only 1947, 1982 and 1990 standing out as the very best of the 20th century, we’ve been unusually blessed with three spectacular vintages already since entering the 2000s. The movie picks up from the legendary 2009 vintage and follows the journey of two subsequent years in the business.

In and of itself, the first twenty minutes make for a sturdy and interesting study of craftsmanship and mercantilism. But where the film really takes off is when the Chinese appear on the scene, and they are Red Obsession‘s real focus. China, in case you haven’t noticed, has money. A lot of it. They’ve also suffered through the soul-searing deprivations of the Cultural Revolution, and now that capitalism has utterly taken over the store, they want all of the best the West has to offer. This numerous few, the unfathomably wealthy segment of the Chinese population, are warping markets worldwide, as their unfettered appetite for luxury knows no bounds. And the Bordelais love them, wisely cozying up to the cash-cow that will help drive their fine vintage valuations through the roof. With the excellence of the 2009 vintage creating record prices for Bordeaux wine, the pressure is on for 2010 to meet the same heady expectations.

Here we see the Bordelais stage a wine-tasting merged with a Chinese Miss Universe contest for a marketing ploy savvy and sly. And we meet Peter Tseng, a sex-toy magnate with a taste for Bordeaux so deep he has $1,000 bottles of Lafite lying everywhere around his home. It’s enough to make for some extremely big business, so big that high-end wine is now an investment commodity. There are firms buying lots of wine worth millions of dollars in trade, speculating on their future value. And like any sky-rocketing investment, the fear is that all this interest is fuelling a gigantic bubble, and I don’t mean champagne.

Red Obsession moves with alacrity from sellers to buyers to counterfeiters (yep, there’s fake primo vino too!), painting an indelible picture of an industry undergoing a remarkable and perhaps alarming transformation. For after all, there is only so much land, and only so much wine to be made from that land. As demand grows exponentially, lower-level consumers have no chance to stay in the game. Roach and Ross’s doc makes a fascinating study of a relationship driven by quality, profit and insatiable appetite, one the French surely hope won’t collapse, as so many bubbles have before, to a dim sum.

Red Obsession debuts at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, September 27th, and will play through Thursday, October 3rd. For full schedule details and to buy tickets, see here.

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