The Losh Cause – Bordeaux's long shadow
Bordeaux not only has the most famous, most expensive wines in the world but casts a broad shadow, much to the chagrin of its competitors. Chris Losh sympathises with Bordeaux's less famous rivals as they struggle for share of voice, thereby demonstrating Bordeaux's uncanny ability to garner column inches.
There are, as we all know, many problems with Bordeaux, from endemic overproduction to a tragic predilection for tweed on the part of its château owners. Yet one of its most annoying habits must surely be its tendency to smother anything else around it.
Take the way it lays claim to vintages. (I tend to think of 2000 and 2003 as generally good years and 2004 as not so great because that's what happened in Bordeaux, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary from other regions). Or the way in which it dominates the wine newswires from April to July with the whole en primeur schtick. Bordeaux simply attracts so much attention year after year that it batters the competition into insignificance, even in unremarkable vintages, so what chance when it genuinely has something exciting to say?
2005 seems to have been a terrific year across the whole of France, but has the consumer cottoned on to Loire reds, Beaujolais or the Rhône from that year? No.
If you were a producer in Chile, say, being upstaged by Bordeaux might be mildly irritating. But if you're a winegrower from the same country, the way Bordeaux dominates thoughts - and order forms - must drive you to distraction, especially as it seems to be able to charge as much as it likes to boot.
Last year, for instance, Château Palmer's en primeur price was GBP600 a case. This year it was GBP1,500. Everyone knew the 'let's test the customer and see how hungry they really are' move, and some merchants even warned against buying it on that basis. Yet the wines sold out. And Palmer isn't the only one to have chanced its arm on the release price and got away with it.
Admittedly, it's partly because of the exceptional nature of the 2005 vintage, which has been so universally good that it's attracted one-off speculators who feel confident enough to take a punt and buy en primeur for the first time ever.
But there's more to it than that. The whole circus of journalists and buyers visiting the region and then sending their divine wisdom down to the commoners, followed by the drip, drip, drip of price releases, anticipated then discussed, agonised over and, perhaps, believed, has a terrific theatre to it that nowhere else can match.
You might, for instance, have thought that this obsession with Bordeaux would have induced fine wine fatigue amongst the world's buyers, making them less likely to buy Champagne, Port, Super Tuscans, etc? But far from it. Indeed, Burgundy's negociants are looking at the circus across the other side of France and have clearly thought it's too good a chance to miss, with many more Burgundians planning to sell their 2005s en primeur.
'The impetus from this has come from the customer, not us,' says Louis-Fabrice Latour, chairman of the biggest negociants Louis Latour and head of the region's negociants' association. "Every good Burgundy grower or negociant will do some en primeur with 2005," says Latour. "I've never seen such pressure."
Whether this is a long-term trend or a short-term blip, caused by an exceptional vintage creating a spike in demand, remains to be seen. But if the en primeur phenomenon is to spread, as it seems to be doing, then it's to be hoped that all concerned don't see it as a passport to unconditional riches. Other regions may be frustrated by Bordeaux's high profile but to imagine that aping the en primeur concept will provide the answer may be a tad fanciful.
En primeur might be good at generating excitement in stellar years, but consumers are not so fooled by the hype as they once were, and are rather cannier about where they spend their money. 2004 Bordeaux, for instance, was neither bad nor overpriced, but is proving incredibly hard to shift.
And having the chance to buy everything from Rhône to Rioja a year before bottling isn't going to make a flat vintage into a world-beater. It will be interesting to see how the Burgundy en primeur experiment fares but Bordeaux's rivals may have to think rather more out of the box if they are going to give the world's most famous wine region a real run for their money in the celebrity stakes.
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