With the 2011 vintage decidedly average, and a grand name questioning the system, what is happening in Bordeaux?
This year, I learnt two new words while tasting in Bordeaux. The first was cramé (singed) which I picked up at Château Haut-Brion, where they were sighing over last June’s four-day heatwave – temperatures reached 40C (104F) and they lost 30 per cent of their cabernet sauvignon crop to sunburn. The second was échaudage, a more polite way of saying the same thing.
But never mind the vagaries of the weather.What people really want to know about when it comes to upper-echelon bordeaux – or bored-oh! as some cynics have taken to calling it – is the money. Here, too, the word cramé might be appropriate.This is the time when the Bordelais sell the wine from last autumn’s harvest en primeur – while it is still sitting in the barrel. But this year, what I asked myself after tasting was: how low would prices have to drop before I’d consider buying any 2011s, when there are so many other wines I could have instead?
During the past decade we’ve had four hyped bordeaux “vintages of the century” (2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010). Release prices for some prized châteaux have soared up to eightfold, silvering the pockets of growers and speculators.So perhaps it’s not unfair to say that, for drinkers who’ve had to adjust to the idea that these are no longer wines but commodities, there might now be a hint of schaden-freude in the air. The huge inflation has been powered by the Asian market’s sudden interest in high-status bordeaux, and growers have been eager to fall into the arms of their new suitors.
Taste the 2011 at Latour, who as I reported earlier this week have just announced that they are pulling out of the en primeur system, and you’re offered a leaflet in French, English and Mandarin. Over at Branaire Ducru in St Julien, the slogan on the windows of their barrel room is etched in eight languages, including Korean, Mandarin and Japanese – presumably a reflection of their biggest spenders. But whereas last year mention of “the Asian market” to a Bordelais elicited a glow of content, this year the mood is more wary.
Négociants – the middle men who buy stocks of wine from châteaux and sell them on to merchants – were full of tales of cancelled orders of 2010s made for Chinese clients, apparently running into the tens of millions of euros, though none of them would go on the record.“Cancellations? Yes, it happens,” says Adam Bilbey of Berry Brothers’ Hong Kong office.
“We haven’t had anything close to that magnitude, no. But remember the Chinese economy went through a difficult time. Sometimes, with clients in the Chinese mainland, you can’t get hold of them for weeks…”“They see the wine hasn’t appreciated, and they pull out,” chips in another merchant. “It’s like having a win-win bet.”
Nothing more, no doubt, than a small wobble. But now consider that 2011 is what is euphemistically referred to as a “drinking” (as opposed to investment) vintage. Granted, the wines are far better than they might have been: hard graft and, for those who can afford it, brand-new optical sorting machines to get rid of unripe or rotten grapes have seen to that. (Optical sorters? €100,000 a throw, considered a “gadget” in 2009 and 2010 but suddenly essential in 2011.)But as release prices begin to seep out, back-vintages are looking quite tempting. The 2001 and 2004 bordeaux are drinking beautifully right now, and relatively well-priced.
Tesco would quite like you to buy into the 2009s. Two years ago the supermarket sent their poker-faced buyer James Griswood into the en primeur fray. For a week, he tasted his way round Bordeaux, airily explaining to anyone who asked that he was merely there, “for educational purposes”. Then he came back and spent over 4million euros. The supermarket hoovered up allocations from four of the five first growths, as well as buying from assorted other châteaux. These 2009s will soon go on sale, mostly online. “We wanted to make fine wine more accessible,” says Griswood, “so we’ll be selling it in six-packs.”
This will certainly bring bordeaux to the attention of more people. But I might prefer to buy from traditional merchants, who also have access to back-vintages, and who already make bordeaux accessible by using their considerable expertise to guide you personally through it. Lea & Sandeman, for example, also offer six-packs for those who ask (check out their wonderful mixed sixes of sauternes).
As far as prices go, Tesco is competitive with the current market which means they’ll make a small fortune selling Pichon Baron ’09, whose price has risen very sharply since it was released two years ago en primeur, at £139.99 a bottle. Chateau Margaux’s Pavillon Rouge ’09, at £99.99 a bottle would have cost about the same en primeur and more now so looks quite a buy.Wine is like houses. Buy to drink, or for the sheer hell of it, not to invest, and you won’t be cramé. – Thetelegraph