Tim Atkin | Master of Wine

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15th Apr 2010

Bordeaux plays cat and mouse

by Tim Atkin

 

There were sixteen flags fluttering forlornly in the drizzle outside Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, each representing a different nation. Some of them were making their debuts at the 2009 en primeur tastings, specifically installed to welcome visitors from the Far East. For the first time, China, Japan and Singapore took their place alongside traditional Bordeaux-buying countries such as America and the United Kingdom.

The Asian presence was bigger than ever in Bordeaux this year, but will punters buy the wines en primeur? The Bordeaux château owners and négociants certainly seem to think so. As Corrine Mentzelopoulos, the owner of Château Margaux, told a roomful of visitors: "The difference between the 2009 and 2005 campaigns is that we have more markets than ever now. You've got the whole Asian phenomenon."

If the Far East does buy the 2009 Bordeaux -- and it seems likely it will, given the general quality and hold-the-front-page reputation of the vintage -- my hunch is that it will concentrate on the top 20 wines: the First Growths, the Super Seconds, the odd Sauternes and a handful of châteaux from the Right Bank, notably Ausone, Pétrus, Cheval Blanc, Le Pin, Lafleur and Trotanoy. A lofty score from the American critic Robert Parker may enable others to join this elevated group, but don't bet on it.

Prices for these elite wines are likely to be very high indeed, inflated by worldwide demand. One en primeur specialist predicts that Lafite will open at £5,000 per case in bond and be trading at £10,000 within a matter of days. So much for the recession...

Speculators will be keener than ever to get their hands on the investment wines. Whether they will be able to do so is another matter. "The demand is ludicrous," says Simon Staples, sales and marketing director of Berry Brothers, who already has 1,000 wish lists from customers on his desk. He is worried that "people will be tempted to take orders that they can't fulfil. It's going to be cowboy central this year. I would advise people to be very careful who they buy from."

Partly because of the enormous sums of money at stake, this could be one of the most drawn out en primeur campaigns in history. The leading châteaux won't make the mistake of releasing their prices before Robert Parker delivers his verdict at the end of April, as Haut-Brion did in 2005, and will almost certainly wait until after Vinexpo Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong from May 25th to 27th, and quite possibly beyond that. The campaign could still be running on Bastille Day.

The top châteaux may garner the headlines and the high prices, but what about the rest of Bordeaux? Talk to people on the ground and, if they're honest, they'll admit that 2009 is a godsend after two less than successful years. Many châteaux and négociants have a lot of unsold wine from 2007 and 2008 sitting in their cellars, so the cash flow from the 2009s will be invaluable. It's even possible that some will oblige customers to buy wines from these two vintages to get their hands on the 2009s.

And the wines? There are so many superlatives flying around at the moment that objective assessments are hard to find. I expected some wine merchants to talk up the 2009s, given their need for cash, while the Bordelais have no shame in declaring the third vintage of the century in a decade, but the comments from some quarters strike me as ludicrously exaggerated. Yes, there are some brilliant wines out there, but there are some over-extracted monsters, too.

The vintage is a tale of two banks in many ways. On the Left Bank, where Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, many of the wines are spectacularly good. Of the major communes, only Margaux made wines of mixed quality. Pauillac, Saint Julien and especially Saint Estèphe have all produced some wonderful clarets. The key here, common to all of the best wines, is an underlying freshness, which balances the ripeness and tannin levels of the fruit.

Over on the Right Bank, where Merlot rules the roost, things were very different. Saint Emilion, in particular, seems to have suffered from the heat in 2009. There are some very alcoholic, pruney, extracted wines out there, with flavours that are closer to the Napa Valley than Bordeaux. A number of Right Bank châteaux side-stepped the tricky conditions to make truly great wines (Le Pin, Figeac, Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Trotanoy and Pétrus, for example) but quality is far less homogenous than on the Left Bank. Overall, 2005 was a more uniform, better balanced vintage.

Now that the wines have been tasted, the campaign begins for real. Sit back and enjoy the cat-and-mouse negotiations between the different sectors of the trade and the sight of the châteaux trying to out-price their neighbours. We may be sick of the 2009 en primeurs by mid-July, but for now it's an interesting distraction from the election.

Originally published in Off Licence News

Related topics: France, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Other Reds, Column

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