Comment - Wine - Bordeaux En Primeur: If You Thought 2009 Was Good...?
With Bordeaux's en primeur tastings set for early next month, Chris Losh has been taking a look at how the 2010 vintage is shaping up. After 2009's extraordinary performance, thanks mainly to the far east, how does the land lie for the latest from the Bordelais?
The en primeur tastings about to kick off in Bordeaux next week are going to present the Bordelais with something of a challenge. Namely, having used up all their hyperbole for the (admittedly magnificent) 2009 vintage, what on earth is there left to say about 2010?
Perhaps they could learn from Apple’s spectacularly bathetic slogan for its second version of the iPad and describe it as ‘The vintage of the Century. Again.’
To be fair, I don’t think even the Bordelais could pull that one off. I’ve met a few producers who have tried the "personally, this is more my style than 2009" line, but they don’t look entirely comfortable doing it. Like a car salesman trying to convince you that a Mazda MX has the same credibility as a Porsche.
In fact, 2010 is regarded by most respected observers as at least a very good year. Its problem is not so much that it’s being hyped beyond its means as that, whereas 2009 came after a string of generally less-collectable vintages, and looked even better in comparison, 2010 inevitably suffers because of the fireworks that went before it.
"The raw ingredients are quite exciting," says Adam Brett-Smith MW of UK merchants Corney & Barrow, "it was a lovely growing season. The trouble is that it would have to be unbelievable to be better than 2009."
The saleability of Bordeaux, though, has always been at least as much about the state of the market as the actual vintage.
Essentially, there are two key issues: how much of a shadow 2009 will cast over its sibling; and how much appetite there is generally for investment from economically-depressed markets. Affecting, and affected by both of these factors, of course, will be the prices coming out of Bordeaux.
Historically reasonable operators who I’ve spoken to have signalled that they will open at around 2009 levels, though not everyone is so cautious.
The directeur général for one fourth growth chateau told me that "it’s not a problem to increase the price. Even if I went up by 40% I would still be lower than most of the other wines of Margaux".
2010, then, while it’s inevitably of a lower quality than 2009, doesn’t look like being any cheaper than its predecessor, and may well, in fact, be more expensive. The question is whether the Bordelais have got carried away with their own optimism or whether investors will, indeed, pay more for a lesser vintage?
"The market is strong and shows no sign of weakening," says one UK merchant, "so, from the point of view of the Bordelais, an opportunistic move on price stands a chance of succeeding. And who can blame them for that?"
With the majority of European markets experiencing, at best, turgid growth or, at worst, full-on fiscal implosion, talk of "strong markets" seems peculiar. But in fact, with bankers now back from the naughty step and trousering vast bonuses once again, the money is definitely there for big gun offers, whether prestige cuvee Champagne, Burgundy or first-growth claret.
The issues of price outstripping the market are more likely to come at the lower end of the Bordelais food chain. And, this could be where the role of the US is critical. Having largely sat on their hands last year, the Bordelais are confident that the Americans are ready to re-enter the market.
In this, I have to say, they are more bullish than the Americans themselves, most of whom remain somewhere between cautious and undecided. A good rating from Robert Parker might sway those who skipped last year into taking a punt on the 2010s, but it’s far from guaranteed.
In his recently-published report on the US market, John Gillespie of the Wine Market Council described it as ‘volatile’, quoting Christian Miller, research director for US market analysts Wine Opinions to back up his point.
"Substantial numbers of high frequency and high end consumers are still reducing their purchases of over US$30 wines," said Miller, "especially classics such as Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux. Yet, some consumers were [also] returning to those categories."
Any Bordelais who fix their prices on the back of a resurgence in the US market, in other words, do so at their peril.
If the US looks hard to read, then China, ironically, looks far less inscrutable. Sales (by value) to Hong Kong and China doubled from 2007 to 2009, and then again from 2009 to 2010. The economy grew 10% last year, and the World Bank’s chief economist has suggested that it will overtake that of the US in 20 years’ time.
It’s this, rather than any putative recovery in the etiolated US market, that is causing the Bordelais to lick their lips.
"Three years ago, people spoke about China but it wasn’t real," says Guillaume d’Ally of Ch la Dauphine. "China was 0% of our business in 2005, now it’s 20%; our third biggest export market."
But, while China might be expected to supply much of the energy for this year’s en primeur campaign, the question remains whether there is sufficient depth to the market to reach beyond the trophy wines and into the ‘good and worthy’ $4-500 a case level.
Because of the way the Chateau owners sell their wines (through the négoce) they often have a fairly warped view of the markets in which their wines are sold. They would do well to remember, though, that 2009 was such a great vintage that it largely defied the recession. That it was, if you like, an exception.
Holding release prices around the same as last year (coupled by plenty of vigorous PR) may well be enough to tempt part-time investors back, but I would question whether there’s the appetite in most parts of the world for double digit increases.
Even if it is ‘The vintage of the century. Again.’
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