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Fine wine comment: Bordeaux 2010

As prices are released for Bordeaux 2010 en primeur, Mark Savage MW asks the question, is it a good buy?

mark-savage-2.jpgFor a game to be worth playing it must be fun for all the participants. I think we are long overdue a look at the playing field with regard to Bordeaux 2010 and whether it is still worth running onto the pitch.

The original reason for the en primeur market was a) to provide the châteaux with cashflow after the costs of the harvest and b) to give the early buyer a price advantage. The first reason is no longer valid. The top châteaux are awash with cash, to such an extent that the price now bears little relation to the costs of production.

Hence a wine that opened at £60 per dozen in the 1982 vintage may well be coming out at 10 times that figure in 2010. Construction cranes hover over the châteaux as their surplus profits are spent on the creation of ever grander chais and tasting rooms, none of which incidentally make the wine taste any better than it did before.

As for the second reason, there is decreasing evidence every year of any advantage to be derived since the price after bottling may well be no higher than at the en primeur stage. There is in fact a possibility that it will actually be cheaper should the pound strengthen against the euro.

Ever since I first started to offer Bordeaux en primeur with the 1975 vintage, I have always reminded myself and my clients of the criteria required to justify taking the risk, and summarised them as follows:

a) exceptional quality;
b) limited availability;
c) a price advantage for early buying.

I rule out the need for buying “petits châteaux” early on the grounds that their quality is likely to be respectable rather than exceptional and that it is wiser to buy such things after bottling. The same applies to “second” wines, although the picture here is changing and there may be opportunities for the early buyer in future, especially if one can identify wines that are not significantly inferior to the grand vin. I have myself on occasion given the same score to both wines. In other cases the gulf in quality and the purpose of careful selection are made admirably clear.

The category that still deserves attention is that of limited availability. It makes sense to buy early if there is a risk of not being able to find the wine again. But one may ask how many wines now qualify for this category. I cannot help observing that if you wish to buy 10 cases of a first growth in any vintage of the past couple of decades, it is perfectly easy to do so. All you need is money, lots of it. So the image that these wines are rare is an illusion. My conclusion is that the more stratospheric the price, the less is actually drunk. The wine becomes simply an object to be traded.

It is worth considering some of the stealthier ways in which the price of a famous wine may be increased. Proprietors have become shrewd at manipulating the market by adjusting the balance of supply and demand. Thirty years ago it was normal for a classed growth to bottle as much as 80% of its production as the grand vin. That has dropped to nearer 40%. This might strike me as simply incompetent were I not aware of more devious designs at work here than the desire to raise quality by draconian selection.

A well-managed vineyard ought to be able to produce at least 80% of its wine to the highest standard, but I imagine that the prices would be harder to maintain if the volume of production was doubled. Furthermore the top growths now see growing potential for overall revenue by making a second and even a third wine.

Another device is that of releasing only a tiny percentage as first tranche, to be followed rapidly by a more expensive second one, justified on disingenuous grounds that demand in excess of supply proved that the initial price was too low. In days gone by, a first tranche was released in the spring and a second one in the autumn, an honest and sensible practice. Nowadays you might expect a first tranche released after breakfast to be followed by a second after lunch!

This ploy achieves the object of raising the price of the wine and thereby the prestige of the château, but the higher the price goes, the more certain it is that less of the wine will be purchased by actual consumers. One is then left with a game of pass the parcel that must come to a sticky end for the person holding the overvalued goods when the music stops. The Place de Bordeaux is happy to perpetuate the game, but some of the players are becoming disillusioned.

Mark Savage MW, from the June 2011 edition of the drinks business

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