Apr 16

Difficult for Bordeaux to swallow

Tag: Regionensigi.hiss @ 21:06

By Jancis Robinson – The trouble with the 2008 vintage Bordeaux that I tasted last week, along with many from Britain and Asia though fewer from the US, is that it looks really rather good – certainly very much better than the wildly overpriced 2007s, even though last year’s summer was scarcely more propitious.

In at least one important way, it would have been much more convenient for many interested parties, and especially the top Bordeaux châteaux owners, if 2008 had been even less successful than the 2007. That way, in recognition of these extremely straitened times, they could easily have dramatically reduced the opening prices traditionally announced at this time of year, or even abandoned altogether the relatively recent tradition of the primeurs campaign, whereby proprietors manage to sell the new vintage two years ahead of delivery. There would be no loss of face and no knock-on effects on the prices of other recent vintages.

Proprietors of the very few dozen most sought-after wine names in Bordeaux are still flush with the proceeds of their sales of the last few vintages. The 2005s were a soaring success and the wines are now sitting in temperature-controlled storage around the globe, losing value after an extraordinary peak in prices last year. The ambitiously priced 2006s were much less popular with final consumers. As for the rather scrawny 2007s, partly because they were offered this time last year while prices of the 2005s were still sky high, and partly because of the „tradition“ that Bordeaux’s principal middle men, the négociants, keep their allocations only by continuing to buy, the châteaux owners managed to sell their 2007s and move them notionally (they are yet to be bottled) as far as the merchants‘ warehouses around Bordeaux. But a vast proportion of these 2007s are still sitting on the merchants‘ books, unloved, unwanted and, if Bordeaux gossip is to be believed, threatening the very existence of several négociants. More than ever in Bordeaux wine everything, but everything, is for sale.

The global economy is such that it is difficult to see these 2007s finding a ready market in the near future – especially at the inflated prices at which they were offered, which made them costlier than many a fine mature vintage. The only ready markets for the 2007s seem to have been emerging wine-consuming countries, such as South Korea, whose big companies‘ leap into the fine wine market most unfortunately coincided with a vintage such as 1997 that more experienced buyers could see was overpriced.

As I reported three weeks ago, the British fine wine trade, usually the most active buyers of Bordeaux en primeur, insisted that there will be no primeur campaign at all this year unless 2008s are priced considerably lower than the 2007s. Despite this, Bordeaux châteaux owners were trying to convince us tasters last week that they could not reduce the price of their 2008s because that would be an insult to those who had bought the 2006s and 2007s.

But on Monday, Hubert de Boüard of St-Émilion, whose empire has been rapidly expanding lately, took everyone by surprise by announcing an opening price for his Ch Angélus, at 40 per cent less than his 2007 was offered, making it, along with the 2004, the cheapest vintage available (though still more than £700 a dozen for those paying in sterling). Since then there has been stasis while the Bordeaux gossip machine grinds at full tilt in an effort to fully digest the implications of this dramatic gesture – and the even more significant news that – even at this price – Angélus 2008 is proving far from an easy sell.

Last week, Jean-Guillaume Prats of Cos d’Estournel, one of the most ambitious second growths, had carefully told the large group of British wine writers with whom I tour the tasting rooms of the Médoc, that he was inclined to sit out the 2008 campaign. „People can buy it if they want,“ he said. But if the négociants choose to avoid the 2008s, they will not prejudice their allocations of the 2009s and 2010s, which will be based on how much 2007 they were good enough to take off his hands. After all, the châteaux owners need to finance the 2008s at only the cost of production, which is a very modest fraction of any likely selling price. As for what price the 2008s might fetch, according to Prats, it was all down to the first growths, who shoulder an enormous responsibility. In fact, this is probably the only time you will ever hear him say that he is happy not to have first growth status.

The first growths could well afford to sit out a 2008 primeur campaign altogether, but there will be pressure on them from below to announce opening prices for some wine – however small a portion of this relatively small crop – just to get the market going for everyone else. Part of the problem for the first growths is that where they decide to pitch the prices of the 2008s will affect both the négociants – who will find it so difficult to borrow money to buy this new vintage – and those properties lower down the feeding chain whose prices have failed to increase as dramatically as those at the top. These are the Bordelais who, with the négociants, are under real pressure at the moment, caught in a vicious circle whereby in many cases their wines sell at too low a price for them to be able to justify the immensely detailed upgrades in technology, personnel and rigorous selection that the most glamorous châteaux have been able to afford.

This makes it all the more remarkable that some of the most exciting wines among the hundreds I tasted last week came from relatively modest addresses. I shall give more detail on the wines themselves (which are, alas, mere bit players in the Bordeaux market) next week, and try to unravel just why such a miserable summer produced such cheer in the thousands of tasting glasses emptied last week.

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