by Tim Atkin

Bordeaux 2010: end of term report

At last, the 2010 en primeur campaign is over. Even for people who are fascinated by what happens in the world’s largest fine wine region, it had become a bore by the end. Our in-boxes groaned with daily emails from merchants desperate to flog a few cases of generally over-priced claret.

As someone who has added to the verbiage about 2010, I promise this will be my last blog on the subject.

What lessons can we draw from the campaign? It’s only my opinion, but these are the themes that emerged.

  • The campaign was relatively, but only relatively, successful. It is difficult to sell two back-to-back “vintages of the decade/century”. There was less enthusiasm from consumers than there was for 2009.
  • In the UK, a lot of merchants worked on lower than ever margins (5% on some wines) to stay competitive. For them and the négociants (but not the châteaux), en primeur is not the cash cow it once was.
  • Anyone who took the best deal on offer, ignoring the advice of responsible critics to buy from established merchants, was crazy. The shenanigans at the Bordeaux Wine Trading Company should give them pause for thought.
  • Prices were up on 2009 by an average of 10%, although a few châteaux dropped them. The increases were partially justified by smaller volumes, but only partially. There was a lot of short-term thinking by the Bordelais this year, which may yet come back to bite them on the buttocks.
  • More than ever, the wine trade and we journalists tasted the wines too early. Some were mid-malolactic fermentation in early April. Why not taste them in May, given that the most important châteaux didn’t release their prices until June? Better still why not taste them a year later? I am more convinced than ever that tasting immature barrel samples does not work to consumers’ interest.
  • I also believe that samples need to be audited to prevent fraud. One winemaker told me that the tastings are effectively a “competition between coopers”. I think the CIVB, the region’s generic body, should take action.
  • This is not an investment vintage, at least not in the short to medium term. The prices are generally so high that it’s hard to see them going up for some time. 2000 and 2005 both increased in price while the wines were still in barrel. That surely won’t happen this time.
  • There were a number of real successes in 2010. Pontet-Canet, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Lynch-Bages, Léoville-Poyferré, Vieux-Château-Certan, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Pichon-Baron and Domaine du Chevalier all sold well.
  • Château that sold less well, at least in the UK, included Figeac, Lascombes. Yquem, Smith-Haut-Lafitte (red) and Cheval Blanc, all of which were priced too high.
  • Latour, not Lafite, was the most sought after wine in 2010. The First Growths generally sold well, even at astronomical prices. They have become luxury brands, thanks to world-wide demand.
  • The Chinese market is not (yet) buying large quantities of Bordeaux en primeur. The Chinese appear to want to buy physical wine rather than a piece of paper.
  • The American market is still quiet for Bordeaux and has been since 2000.
  • Robert Parker remains the most powerful critic for Bordeaux but, in the age of the internet, his influence is less than it once was. Some wines that Parker didn’t rate sold well despite his lack of support.
  • Talking of Parker, a critic who has always championed the consumer, why doesn’t he release his scores after the prices have come out? On his website, he argued that this would be like “asking for my retirement” but I don’t follow the logic of his position. Parker could lead the way here; many critics (me included) would follow him. More to the point, consumers would be the winners. Will it happen? It’s unlikely. But things do change. And change rapidly sometimes. Just ask Rupert and James Murdoch.