Friday, December 13, 2013

Unlucky 13? Why Bordeaux may have to rethink the way it handles its latest vintage

Should the top chateaux of Bordeaux release their 2013 grands vins? Or should they - or at least a number of them - take a stand and offer this vintage under their second labels?
If they do decide to release the 2013 grands vins, should they do so en primeur?

British Master of Wine, Richard Bampfield who works for the negociant and chateau-owning firm of Yvon Mau - and was in Bordeaux during the harvest to see just how challenging it was -  told the Drinks Businesss magazine that he knows "a number of...  savvy producers... that are thinking about not producing a grand vin this year... They know it would be a smart move... A PR coup". 

Responding to comments like these, Christian Seely of AXA, owners of Chateaux Petit Village and Pichon Baron acknowledged (in his blog) that "It would be futile to try to pretend that 2013 is a great or outstandingly good vintage: any such attempt would just lack credibility" The red wines from his properties, however are "good wines, a joyous triumph over adversity, and the best expressions possible of their vineyards in the circumstances of the millesime." And yes, they would be presented en primeur.

I'm sure Seely is right. The AXA chateaux are reliably among the best of every vintage and I'm sure they have indeed produced "good" wines for earlier consumption. But in a world that's full of great wines from a wide range of places, do I need to pay (what will still inevitably be) high prices for his or any other Bordeaux chateaux' "good" wines - however valiant the efforts to overcome adversity? Do I go to a Michelin three-star restaurant to enjoy a "good" meal prepared by a skilled chef who's made the best he could out of second rate ingredients?

Seely makes the point that every Bordeaux vintage is different and has its own personality. This is true. It is also true in Champagne where the grandes marques understand that their customers neither want nor need to experience the fruits of their more "difficult" vintages.  Sauternes, where AXA owns Chateau Suduiraut also has a history of not always coming out with a vintage.

The rationale for releasing a vintage every year (apart from the money it makes the chateaux) is that enthusiasts are ready to buy it - at prices that have gone up significantly in recent years. One of the dirty little secrets in Bordeaux, however, is that the readiness has often had to be driven by blackmail: unless you buy my substandard 2013, you will lose your allocation of the 2014 (which we have't made yet but might well be a repeat of the 2009: another vintage of the century).

Over the last few years, however, the system has stopped working. The Bordelais, buoyed up by sales to China of their 2009s, arrogantly stuck hefty price tags on their 2010s. Only to find that many of their Chinese customers decided not to take delivery of the wine they felt they had been suckered into buying. The negociants still have stock of unsold 2010 in Bordeaux - as, more significantly, do big buyers in China such as C&D who in recent years have been the world's biggest buyers of classed growths. China is suffering from two forms of indigestion. It bought far too much wine in 2010/2011 and it is now living through reforms aimed at cutting down on corruption (classy bottles given as bribes) and conspicuous consumption (classy bottles served as bribes).

The 2010 Bordeaux, however, are very good - arguably in some cases better than the 2009s - so anyone who has these will have no real long term concern about getting rid of them for a very good price. But what of the 2011s? The negociants have huge stocks that they are currently trying to offload at prices that are up to 20% less than they paid for them. Overseas buyers (especially the Chinese) aren't interested, but nor is the traditional dumping ground for hard-to-sell claret: French supermarkets. They already bought the 2011s and are eagerly selling them at prices to make the negociants wince. So, while the French negociant Millesima offers its retail customers 2011 Talbot by the case for for €466; you can head down to your nearest French supermarket pre-Christmas Foire a Vin and pick up a bottle of the same wine for €31.85. Fancy some 2011 Issan? You could give Millesima €562 per case, or buy a bottle from one of those same supermarkets for €37.90. (Prices from Wine-Searcher and le Point).

Although not nearly as good as the 2010, the 2011 was, of course a better vintage than the 2012. Which was, in turn, a better vintage than the 2013. The negociants and supermarkets that are currently desperately trying to dispose of the 2011s know that they've also got the 2012s to force onto an unwilling market. Their eagerness to buy the "good" 2013s is easy to imagine. As is the financial squeeze some of the smaller firms may be facing.
One option for the chateaux would be to offer the 2013s at a knockdown price. But to do this would a) reduce the perceived value of their brand in subsequent vintages and b) make the 2011s and 2012s even more unsaleable. It is easy to understand why Bampfield's "savvy" producers are considering the logic of selling the new vintage under their second labels.

As to whether and why to present these wines en primeur - and more importantly, whether and why anyone should buy them at that point - everything will depend on the price. As the recent Liv-ex chart above shows, people who purchased the top 30 chateaux at the London en primeur release price since 2005 would have lost money or failed to make a return in every vintage except 2007 and 2008. That's not a great track record. The fact that the - less than great - 2007 vintage has yielded a return shows that there can be a logic in buying lesser years as futures, and the en primeur tastings will reveal just how skilful particular chateaux have been at handling adversity. But even Christian Seely will probably admit that getting the wine world to place its money on 13 won't be easy.

Cartoon from cleanfunnypics

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