I love Bordeaux, no smirking at the back, I really do. I love the wines and the intricacies of the region with its complex characters, its fascinating dynasties and, well, there’s no other wine quite like great Bordeaux.
The tasting of young Bordeaux barrel samples has for some time been one of the highlights of the year. No matter how blasé or jaded you feel, as soon as you hit the Route des Châteaux, that first frisson brings anticipation of the nubile new wine and memories of bottles long since emptied.
En primeur is a fun week without a doubt, often wonderfully sunny, spring-like and as filled with expectation as, er, the start of an England football team World Cup campaign. Even when it’s wet and miserable, nothing can rain on your parade because you’ll be sharing fine food, wine and gossip with old friends, the many new ones you meet on these occasions, and, lest we forget, the Bordelais.
Last week I asked a cross-section of press and the trade what they were hoping to get out Bordeaux primeurs this Spring. Here are some sample responses:
Press. “I know it may not be a great vintage but I know that at least I can get a story out of it”.
Trade: “We go every year because we like to compare our notes with the previous year. We then go back a few weeks later and taste the wines again.”
Press: “As a journalist I’ve been going for 16 years but I never write about Bordeaux en primeur. I’m going for the parties”.
Trade: “I’m going because we need to secure our allocation for a great vintage like 2009 and 2010”.
Press: “I’m relatively new to this and so it’s really good experience for me”.
Of all the opinions canvassed, no-one actually claimed they were going because they thought their readers or customers might be interested in buying Bordeaux 2011 en primeur.
It’s become a seductive habit to stick the Bordeaux en primeur stamp in the passport year in, year out. The Bordelais are only too happy to oblige with lavish hospitality and, as my journalist friend of 16 years partying experience attests, the show they put on is second to none. In return for the blandishments, the reverential enthusiasm of press notes and scores for unfinished barrel samples has led to a reliance by the châteaux on the press, most notably the big daddy of them all, Robert Parker, to set the price agenda.
Ensuing price inflation has created an investment vehicle, some might say monster, that’s taken dozens of top châteaux beyond the budget, and dreams, of all but the best-heeled of wine lovers. The secondary market for wine investment, most of it based on Bordeaux, is now estimated at around £4 - 6 billion.
Last year Jancis Robinson MW questioned the reliability of unfinished barrel samples and took the responsible step of querying the habit of publishing notes and scores before the châteaux had set prices. ‘I can see that I play a part in a process that really does not benefit the consumer’, she said. She even tried to enlist Robert Parker’s support for change. ‘I do increasingly feel like a pawn in a game designed to part you with as much money as possible’, she continued.
She said that Anthony Hanson MW of Haynes Hanson and Clark and Christie's had strongly urged her to hold off publishing individual notes and scores until the prices had been announced. ‘I am seriously tempted to see if I can persuade some other commentators to hold off in a similar fashion. Perhaps if enough of us do it, we might have some deflationary effect’. Unfortunately the press, Parker in particular, declined to play ball.
Chris Kissack, aka the Wine Doctor, in his entertaining blog, An Alternative Guide for Critics, tells us that ‘the practice is here to stay’. http://www.thewinedoctor.com/blog/index.php/2012/03/bordeaux-en-primeur-.... But is it really essential to dance to the Bordelais’ tune every year? It’s true that there are many powerful vested interests ranked against change. But so there were in 1789 before they separated Louis XVI’s head from his body. If consumers were to vote with their feet, the pre-conditions for selling en primeur would disappear and change would follow.
The en primeur system today is in danger of losing its relevance. Fed up with handing out fat margins to the trade, the châteaux are wresting back the initiative. Few sell en primeur at a sufficient discount to make it the attractive proposition it once was. Even a great vintage like 2010, priced with an expectation that the Chinese would take the Great Leap Forward, is gathering dust on the shelf.
A poor vintage is a rare occurrence today and 2011 looks every inch one of those ‘drinkable’ vintages that will sell well in due course in restaurants and through the big French supermarkets when the wines are released in bottle. Prove me wrong but the chances of it being much more expensive than it will cost on release this year are negligible.
As 2010 Burgundy and Rhône show, not to mention great Barolo and Tuscany fine Spanish red and increasingly elegant California and Australia, there’s so much great wine to cellar that it seems otiose to overdose on Bordeaux. Do we really need to buy Bordeaux en primeur for long-term cellaring in anything less than the best vintages?
I will miss the ambience and friends from Bordeaux and overseas. Instead, I’ll be praying for Spring sunshine in London, and a chance to fire up the barbie.