A good year for the ducks19th September, 2013 by Ben Kennedy
It’s la rentrée, the beaches are deserted, the kids are back at school and putting my shoes and socks on again feels rather awkward after months of relaxed living. So, au boulot!
It’s five years now since I moved to work in Bordeaux. It’s a charming city driven by a fascinating business, and right now is a particularly interesting time to be based here. 2013 in France has been a stormy affair in one way and another, and it’s not over yet.
Leaving aside the soul-destroying fact that some producers here have lost their entire harvest (and will probably have nothing to pick next year either), for those who have good volumes the harvest is looking decidedly dubious in a year when the sun only shone for the two months of the school summer holidays. The weather has definitely turned and there is no sign of the high temperatures needed to ripen the grapes they do have, so 2013 looks like being très compliqué. (Don’t count your chickens, though, we have learned by now that Bordeaux can make very good wine in difficult conditions…)
When I arrived here many colleagues believed that, financially, the top châteaux were in a position to ride out three vintages of poor en primeur sales, and nobody expected to see such a thing anyway so life was good. Now though, we are staring down the barrel of a third consecutive hard-to-sell vintage, right on the back of China’s ban on spending party funds on Château Lafite which has soured a very special relationship, so 2013 could prove pivotal.
There’s still a lot of building going on around the region, but now when you drive past a building site you ask yourself if it’s a new winery going up (like before) or a warehouse to store the unsold wine. I’ll wager that the Firsts and Super Seconds will be fine, but things could get pretty tight for the hundred or so other crus classés. And how about the beleaguered middle men, the négociants, who are expected to pay up and carry the can for the producers in years when margins are low and sales are slow, for fear of losing their allocations? Many of these firms are now reeling under the weight of their stocks and in certain cases something is going to have to give. Perhaps we will see allocations going unclaimed, or back vintages being released at very attractive prices? Any such operations must be undertaken with sensitivity to the longer term consequences, the place is a very delicate machine. There will be some very difficult decisions to make.
It’s also been a year not quite of revelations, but of realisations on this side of La Manche. The French people have realised that the monster of European recession, or crise économique from which the welfare system had so far shielded them, is now rising up to bite them on the behind, and that even their most trusted political leaders and their most treasured celebrities are running for cover in Belgium, Switzerland and even Russia. In short, they’ve been plastering over the cracks for too long and now the house is on the verge of falling down, and the current caretaker is, let’s face it, not the best man for the job.
My concern is that something similar might come to pass in some of Bordeaux’s top châteaux or négoce houses. In the luxury goods business you mustn’t let the cracks show, so who knows what structural faults may lurk beneath, ready to be exposed by yet another irksome vintage of costly bottles?
On the plus side, though, Bordeaux the city is most definitely on the up. Anyone who has visited in the last few years will have felt a confidence, a buzz, a new lease of life for this “sleeping beauty” that had been neglected for too long. It has taken time and plenty of money, but mayor Alain Juppé’s gift to the people is a reinvigorated place to live and work, with a new high-speed rail link in the pipeline (just 2½ hours to Paris, attracting a wave of weekly commuters), acres of smart new eco-housing and a bold museum of wine culture which have combined to put Bordeaux at the top of all the national opinion polls about the most desirable place to live, the highest salaries, top tourist destinations, and so on. And even with the rains, we’re deep in the south west of France so we can just say, “It’s been a good year for the ducks”
Rive Gauche Wines is a Bordeaux négociant which offers a range of wines for everyday drinking as well as Crus Classés and other Fine Wines. The company was established in 2011 by Ben Kennedy, formerly Bordeaux buyer for a leading St James’s merchant. The wines on our list are hand-picked on the key criteria of quality and value-for-money, and include numerous undiscovered gems that are exclusive to Rive Gauche.