Thursday, 11 March 2010

Bordeaux 2009 (Part 2) - Prices

Following on from my previous Bordeaux 2009 post, I want to look at the potential pricing of the 2009 Bordeaux vintage.

Firstly, let's play the game of the Bordelais this time and ignore all the people that say you must wait until you've tried the wine before you judge it (a call that generally applies to journalists and merchants, not necessarily to the end consumer)...

OK, not being one to make sweeping generalisations, I think Robert Parker will like it - if not love it. I am slightly miffed by many people attacking his palate for being predictable because he does champion some beautiful wines (ref. 2001 Yquem), but I do think this vintage ticks all his boxes.

It was late, very ripe; has high alcohol levels, and high tannins [see below]. Again, one mustn't generalise but Parker will definitely like it.

So what of the prices?

Well, the first option is to price them low, to make them a bargain in order to stimulate more interest in Bordeaux. But how low? The problem is that if you price it at 2006, 2007 or even 2008 levels, you risk making all the customers of those vintages very angry indeed. You're essentially saying they paid too much for their wines (which they probably did, but that's another debate) and you're also highlighting the fact that in another superb vintage (2005) you took everyone for all the money they had. So no, I don't think it will be priced low.

On the other hand, the price tag could be set higher than 2005. Assuming that everyone reckons this is the vintage of the decade, that makes sense: it's the best wine of the last 10 years, so it should be the most expensive of the lot. But I don't think this will happen either.

Firstly, no matter how much Bordeaux everyone says they've sold in the past few years, I simply don't believe it. Secondly, with a poor economy, I think this would be a silly move, not least for the message it sends the rest of the world.

Another, albeit slightly tagential, part of the problem here is that, with all the hyperbole heaped on 2005, if 2009 is considered even better, where do the parameters of greatness fall? If 2009 is greater than the great 2005, could 2010 be greater than 2009? Of course it could.

My reckoning is that the Bordelais will market the 2009 vintage at around the same price as 2005 and incite the notion that this is a great, bargain vintage. This seems to be the only thing they can really do while (a) not devaluing any previous wines and (b) appearing to offer a good deal.

And all it will prove is that, for all those concerned with buying and drinking the stuff, 2001 and 2004 were the best Bordeaux vintages of the last decade...

  • You can download Bill Blatch's highly-detailed Bordeaux 2009 vintage report here - simply right-click on the link and left-click 'save target as' or 'save link as' and you can read it yourself! And please take the time to check out Bill Blatch - he is the Bordeaux insider's insider....

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  • Wednesday, 24 February 2010

    Wine classification: do we really need it?

    My initial reaction to reading Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer's (3rd) classification of New Zealand Pinot Noir was akin to that of watching your 15 year-old brother being dragged out of school to go and work in the mills. Why does such an interesting and growing wine country need a classification that only implies stasis?

    Well the first answer is probably that the classification is revised yearly, so no stasis is implied. The problem with yearly revisions (similar to St Emilion's abortive attempts at a 10-year classification) merely hints that classification as such is impossible.

    As a potential guide to the current darlings of the region, that's fine. But set in stone? I doubt it. It's simply Jukes and Stelzer's 'favourite wines so far'. So why call it a classification?

    Wine writing is merely the attempt to make the ephemeral concrete. Just because a critic doesn't smell or write down 'the aroma of camphor' or 'my granddad's aftershave' doesn't mean it isn't there. But that doesn't mean the wine writer won't give it a go. So the same with classifications.

    Faced with such a vast array of wines, I believe there is a desire to pin down the best. And to do it in a league table? Perfect: it's like Polo rankings and booze combined. You can talk about it until the cows decide they've had enough wandering in other paddocks and prefer the comforts of the hearth.

    I believe that part of the desire to classify wines also serves no other purpose than pure bragging. It is the perpetuation of the notion that the likes of Jukes, or Langton's (which classifies Australian wine), is 'supposed to know' more than the rest of us. If he did not believe he was the authority on New Zealand Pinot Noir, would Jukes say: 'Three years ago I had a bit of a rant and told producers they weren't as good as they thought they were'?

    The point, I think, is that wine cannot and should not be classified. The ultimate classification, the 1855 in Bordeaux, is so distanced from reality I believe that its perpetuation is due to the desire to keep five châteaux at the top of the pile with a few other potential investment opportunities below. Imagine a Dow Jones or a FTSE where five companies were always at the top and could be guaranteed as such. Haut-Brion, Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Mouton are those five companies.

    Perhaps we should all draw our inspiration from Pomerol and leave aside a classification.

  • Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we should physically force all wine critics nail their flags to the mast and classify each region according to their taste? In fact, I would love to see that.

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  • Monday, 8 February 2010

    Bordeaux 2009 (Part 1)

    About this time last year I was at a Sauternes tasting in London and a very cross Christian Seely pulled me to one side to give me a good dressing-down. Over the past couple of months I'd been writing news reports on the possible state of the 2008 harvest. It was wasn't flattering, I'll be honest, but it was what was circulating at the time. I had quoted much of the French press who were playing it down, saying how bad the weather was before the harvest, etc. etc.

    Seely had taken umbrage. Essentially, he said: 'how can you make judgements on the wines before anyone's tasted them yet'. Believe me, he's not the first person in Bordeaux to have said similar things.

    So let's admit he had a point.

    Now lets also take a minute and think about how much hype has been generated within Bordeaux for the 2009 vintage. There have been endless reports on how great the vintage is. Just recently, Bill Blatch has written a huge report on, yes, the weather on Jancis Robinson MW's site. Has Christian Seely given Bill a call and told him off for talking about the weather and the wines before En Primeur? It's probably safe to assume he hasn't.

    So the first conclusion we can make is that when you hear nothing from Bordeaux it's likely to be a mediocre to poor vintage.

    And let's think about the weather for a second. A while ago I made the point that most winemakers from Bordeaux will tell you not to talk about the weather and wait until you've tasted the wines at En Primeur, after that they say you have to wait until they're bottled; once they're bottled, you have to wait for them to get a bit of age before they're ready, and then, in 20-30 years time, you open the bottle and all anyone in the room can talk about is what the weather was like during the vintage.

    Let me make a second point - about winemaking. Any winemaker who knows what s/he's doing - and there are a few in Bordeaux - will know pretty much straight away how good the wine is going to be. S/he also knows how good/bad it is compared to other years. You don't need to wait for En Primeur for that. So once again, you can assume that if all is quiet in Bordeaux, it's a mediocre year.

    But why stop the press from reporting this? Well, simply because it makes business sense. After all, last year the UGC 'pleaded' with the press to help make consumers love their wines.

    So what can we conclude? Well, if everyone was honest, we'd be able to get a general idea of the vintage from the winemakers themselves in September, six months before En Primeur. And with all the hype this year about a great vintage, how long can Bordeaux go on complaining about the bad press in the not-so-good vintages?

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    Thursday, 4 February 2010

    The Elite drinking, not binge drinking, is the problem

    The rich and powerful constitute the biggest threat to the wine world, not the nebulous attack on society's binge drinking.

    Health lobbies and scientists in the western world are currently spending much of their time telling us about the dangers of drink. In the UK, binge drinking has been a cultural phenomenon for years. Judging by my friends from there, it has been much that way in France too. Although in France it seems to occur behind closed doors, not spilling out from the pub.

    Wine is one of the major targets for the health lobby at the moment. The first attack is that wine is too cheap - it's simply too easy to buy too much, and therefore drink too much. This was addressed, pathetically, by Decanter editor Guy Woodward in his latest editorial.

    'The real problem,' Woodward writes in the March issue of Decanter, 'lies with supermarkets who use wine as a loss-leader, slashing margins, bullying suppliers and dragging down prices in order to attract customers...Selling wine at a loss helps neither consumers nor the trade.'

    Blaming the supermarkets has become the easy way out of any consumerist issue. They're bad, they're cheap, it's their fault. However, it does not address the fact that their power stems from our patronage. If anything, the supermarket phenomenon is merely an expression of our economic system.

    In any case, you can still find stupidly cheap bottles of wine from any handful of high street wine shops. The problem is our economic outlook itself, especially when a packet of paracetamol costs the same price as a bottle of Muscadet.

    If you have been following some of my blogs, you'll know that I am all for capping wine pricing, but as long as we cap prices at a maximum as well. I agree that wine cannot be allowed to slip away from its cultural significance by becoming a loss leader, or a quick-and-easy way to get drunk. But by the same token, it must not be allowed to slip from our grasp.

    Let me illustrate this.

    If you can read French, have a look at this news report about a Bordeaux wine festival. If you're not a francophone, it basically says that the Bordeaux regional council will not help subsidise the Bordeaux wine festival - it will be holding on to its €80,000.

    And then look at this (also in French): a Bordeaux and charcuterie evening for the country's deputies held in an 'open bar' at the French National Assembly. Reading about French politicians drinking and shouting away while regional funds are withheld from a wine tasting for the people they represent really sticks in my throat.

    A tipsy Deputy comes up to me. "Say, miss, which newspaper do you work for? You look like a lefty. Libération? No? Jolly good, or we would have been forced to undress you and hang you from the window, haha." Haha.

    We live in a world where those at Davos are served 1959 Yquem and French Deputies get drunk on Côtes de Castillon. All while we are bombarded with the dangers of drink and funds are stopped for public wine events (ref. even the New York Wine & Grape Foundation).

    The greatest danger the wine world faces today is in not that the general public will turn its back on the bottle for health reasons, but that it will turn its back on it because it feels that wine does not represent them.

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    Monday, 25 January 2010

    The wine news roundup (25 Jan 2010)

    I was in London last week, tasting Burgundy, Oregon & Washington, anything that looked appealing from Liberty and tea. I can thoroughly recommend the TeaSmith masterclass and Canteen in Spitalfields is now confirmed as my favourite place to eat. Anyway, here's what you might have missed:

  • Maybe it’s to be expected that a financial institution, the FT, publishes a piece on investment in wine. But this time it’s as long as a column by their wine correspondent, Jancis Robinson. Who, one suspects, is likely to be less enamoured of the concept of wine as an investment vehicle.

  • A group of New Zealanders are to use their ‘marketing force’ (ie, wads of cash) to persuade the world that they make ‘fine wine’. Which is great, in and of itself, but what happened to the persuasive art of actually making fine wine? As I keep saying, wine experts will be bypassed in the future, with wineries relying on marketing and new media.

  • Mariah Carey turns bad PR into good by using her embarrassing acceptance speech to promote her Champagne. Good work by the Guardian but (a) no need to be quite so harsh – by all accounts her performance in Precious is very good - and (b) had you been reading my blog, you might have noticed this last year.

  • Bloomberg publishes an embarrassing gush-fest on the late Italian winemaker Edouardo Valentini. The opening gambit alone (‘I’ve been drinking wine with pleasure for a very long time…’) prepared me for the rest in the way saliva and stomach spasms makes me reach for a bucket. From the description of his personality in the piece, I doubt Valentini would have enjoyed it much either.

  • Eric Asimov produces yet another interesting piece for the New York times on affordable Bordeaux, saying that much of the low-end stuff is ignored and publishing the results of a small tasting of wines between $10 and $20. All well and good but when you look at the wines that came top, they’re still the likes of Liversan ’05, Olivier ’06 and de Sales ’06. Six of the top 10 were priced $19-20 and all were above $15. Perhaps not the best illustration of ‘affordable’ Bordeaux.

  • Worst article Goes to the Daily Mail (the paper you love to hate) for its piece on the Marques de Riscal winery which opened four years ago. Not that you could tell from the headline: ‘Guggenheim architect Frank Ghery to create City of Wine complex for Marques de Riscal’ which suggests the future but is in fact talking about a past event. Still, those kind of headlines are great for SEO, right? For a minute I thought the piece might be an examination of how the Marques de Riscal winery has fared since its opening, but it turned out to be yet another puff piece that left me wondering whether writer Graham Keeley had been a guest at de Riscal in the not-too-distant past.

  • Runner up for best article Only for the sake of puerile amusement, this goes to a bunch of lads who decide to microwave a bag-in-box wine. The whole thing explodes in four minutes. Or is it a fake? Either way, you might entertain a few people.

  • Best article Goes, without a doubt, to Mark Schatzker of the Toronto Globe and Mail for investigating the loophole in Canadian legislation that allows shops to sell, tax-free, ‘sacramental wine’. It’s no different from any other wine (albeit much cheaper) but you’ll need a signed letter from your Rabbi, Priest or Vicar to buy it.
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    Friday, 15 January 2010

    Why is there no militancy in wine?

    Loving wine is a hobby of the affluent. The ones that don't love it quite so much buy Jacob's Creek or Yellow Tail. And we're fine with that. But the ones that truly love wine, that buy En Primeur, that sit down at dinner tables and try to catch people out with blind tastings, the ones that will always love Lafite, they're the ones that have the money, that have the power, that represent everything that is so so wrong with this world.

    I am prompted to write this by the reaction of the wine world to the disaster in Haiti. Disaster it undoubtedly is. As I write, everyone who's anyone in that closed little world is on Twitter trying to encourage people to give money or to encourage wineries to donate tasting fees to victims, etc (I might make the snide comment that retweeting something that encourages someone else to help people in misery is morally lazy, but I won't). Still, it won't surprise me if there were some benefit tastings set up so that people can give some money and sip a decent claret while Haitians pile bodies on the roads.

    But my real point is this: what were we doing for Haitians before the earthquake? What were the wine groups in America and France - two countries so complicit in the county's previous misery - doing to help them?

    What is the wine world doing about the human rights abuses in China?

    What did the wine world do about the plight of the Palestinians, about that of the Iraqis, and so on and on and on and on and on?

    What did it do? Not a lot. Because it follows the general direction of right-wing politics because as I said, those that really love wine, probably voted Conservative or Republican. Because wine lovers are happy while the money is coming in and while we can drink our Lafite, the plebs can hoover up the Yellow Tail.

    Why does nobody, and I mean no-one, in the wine world take a stand on some of these issues? Why does Robert Parker pay tribute to the sacrifices of the American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan yet fail to mention the plight of the people of both countries? Why? Because the people that buy good wine will probably walk away from them if they do. An earthquake is different. A natural disaster has no politics.

    Let's go back to China. Not one word of criticism for Lafite buying vineyards in the country? No, because it makes sense. It follows the line of investment, of growth, of exploitation. Perhaps it follows the line of early 20th century liberal economics (trading with 'bad' countries will eventually encourage them to see the wisdom of liberal values), but no one wagged their finger or shook their head did they?

    I'll take another example. The market price of barrels goes down to around €500 in Bordeaux and the south of France. Producers start to moan, and we ignore them - it's the lesson of a free market, it's surplus to requirements so it's natural. The CRAV get active in the south, and we are outraged. Again, they should just get used to the free market.

    But when this happens in the Mosel, suddenly we're facing a catastrophe. All of a sudden everyone (who's got the money) has to spend it on Riesling. We have to try to buck the trend, there has to be a solution, this is a cultural disaster.

    Only the unwashed and uneducated drink Bordeaux Supérieur or a Languedoc Merlot. Mosel Riesling is a nobler product, worth saving.

    And as you watch the prices of top Bordeaux get higher and higher while the supermarket shelves bulge with ever more reductions, perhaps you can draw the parallels between our economic system and our total lack of moral integrity.

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    Wednesday, 12 August 2009

    Climate change and wine

    There's a problem with affluent men above the age of 35. They don't believe in climate change. Utter the words 'climate change', 'global warming', 'total destruction' to them and they plug their fingers in their ears and start humming the tune to the Dambusters.

    It's odd, isn't it, that such conservative views (right-wing, king-of-industry, protect my right to pollute) should have absolutely nothing to do with the conservation of their world. Or the wines they love. Perhaps, of the hippy generation, they only care about the now, about themselves, about the wines they love to drink now. They love their world so much, they are intent on destroying it. Blindly.

    I was a climate change sceptic until I phoned the Met Office in the UK a couple of years ago - the place that looked after our weather reports (not that that lends them any basis in fact, but they know more about the weather than most of us). I asked. They replied. It's quite simple people: climate change is a fact. No matter how much you trot out your dodgy arguments, or say 'we'll it's been colder than usual this year', the people that look at the weather are agreed.

    Now, just how dangerous we are making our planet for ourselves I guess is up for discussion. But can we please get to this stage and start talking about what the hell we are going to do about it.

    Because otherwise, my fat, rich, Merc-driving friends, Burgundy, Napa, Bordeaux, Barolo, Rioja, the Mosel and Champagne will not be making the wines you so love to gobble up.

    Not that you have will have to drink the soupy Shiraz that Bordeaux will be making in 100 years' time. You couldn't care less about your sons and daughters right?

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