Friday, 11 April 2014

Are the 2013 Bordeaux Primeurs worth buying?

Alexandre Thienpoint, the philosophical quiet, owner of Vieux Chateau Certan in Pomerol told me last year that the key decisions for a Chateau owner are:
1. The date of harvest.
2. The precise date and conditions for bottling
3. Setting the correct release price for the wine.

Many chateaux owners are twisted with angst as they are busily working on the third point above. How do you sell the 2013 vintage....and at what price?
When Bordeaux vintages are great ....such as 2005, 2009 and 2010.....the decision(for the chateau owner) might much can I really achieve in this bright new world of incredibly expensive wines?
In 2011,2012 and particularly 2013 when the wines are clearly not as good, the decision can be tricky. However the Bear market financial strategists can still make money, if they are clever.
Lets consider some basic costs:
A new oak barrel costs between 6-800 euros per barrel. A barrel holds 300 bottles. Therefore the ageing cost is 2-3€ per bottle.
Agricultural workers are paid the minimum wage of €9.53 per hour in France.
At each chateau there will also be higher salaries for the technical team, the marketing and administration staff.
New fermentation tanks, new cellars, new bottling lines, new tractors are all major capital costs that have to be considered.
BUT even with variable costs and long term finance considerations the average production costs for a bottle of top quality Bordeaux wine will not exceed 15€ per bottle. And in many cases the cost of production will be between 5 and 10 euros.

So why do First Growth chateaux sell their wine for €600 plus ex negociants in a good year such as 2009 or 2010 and then €200 in a lesser year such as 2011 or 2012?
The First growths are still the most sought after wines in the entire world. The words Latour, Haut Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild are revered and respected in every country. If you want the best of the best you pay the price.
I recently had some Russian clients in Bordeaux. They exclaimed that if something is great quality you MUST expect to pay far more for that product. That sounds like a simple comment. But it is at odds with much of the bargain hunting mentality or discount culture that pervades UK consumerism at the moment. Wine and various products sell better in the UK if the price is slashed/reduced/butchered. This also confuses the consumer as a previously lauded and respected wine is savaged in price. Therefore at the same time the esteem for the wine is reduced. If you spend 20,30, 50 or 100 years establishing your wine (or brand) and invest in education, marketing, distribution and engendering brand loyalty why on earth would you then slash the price and, by so doing, send out a message to the consumer that there is a fault. Serious long term Bordeaux buyers will look back at the 2009s and 2010s and buy as much as possible. The wines are actually cheaper now than at the Primeur sale.
But this is the rollercoaster of making quality wine in Bordeaux. The climate is such an important factor for dictating the rise and fall of the prices.
BUT nowadays with instantaneous tweets, messages and information the consumer can not be fooled. 2013 is not a great vintage in Bordeaux. There are certainly some good wines. There are some fruity light clean styles of wine. But there are very few wines which can be recommended for long term maturing and investing.
The prices have to be in line. Ie at least 20% less than 2012 in most cases.
I will buy certain wines such as Pontet Canet, Lynch Bages, Grand Puy Lacoste, Domaine de Chevalier, Haut Bailly and Smith Haut Lafitte in order to continue my cellar. But I am aware that these wines will be popped and poured within the next 10 years just as the 2009s and 2010s might be starting to come around  to the start of their drinking window.
One awkward aspect for the chateaux and quite positive aspect for the negociants is that due to the severe selection and weather conditions during 2013 the volume of production is very low. So we will move on quickly.......

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Bordeaux 2013 Primeur tastings

The impressive new barrel cellars at Chateau Montrose

It has been an exceptionally busy week tasting the 2013 Primeur barrel samples. This is always a highlight of my year as we assess the quality or style of the previous vintage. This year it was particularly interesting as the growing season had been very difficult during 2013, as detailed here.
My week was basically:
Monday: Tasting at many small tasting on the Right Bank near Saint Emilion and Pomerol. Tasting the wines made by Stephan Derenoncourt and Michel Rolland as well as many others.
Tuesday: Individual Chateau visits at Pavie, Canon, Cheval Blanc, Vieux Chateau Certan, L'Evangile as well as many group tastings organised by the Union des Grands Crus (UGC)
Wednesday: Individual Chateau visits at Calon Segur, Montrose, Cos d'Estournel, Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Grand Puy Lacoste, Pontet Canet, Leoville Las Cases, Ducru Beaucaillou as well as covering all the main St.Estephe, Pauillac and St.Julien wines at the UGC tastings.
Thursday: Individual Chateau visits at Palmer, Rauzan Segla and Margaux as well as tasting all the Grand Cru Classe Margaux and Pessac Leognan and Sauternes wines.
Friday: Visit and tasting to Haut Brion, Climens and Pape Clement.

Tasting at Chateau Mouton Rothschild.....always a pleasure.

My overall impression is that there have been some pretty, fruity wines produced. There are some strong styles and definite distinctive 'terroir' characters that come through. However there are also some real disappointments. There are some incredibly soft and very light wines that resemble the deep rose called 'clairet' rather than the dark crimson deep ruby wines that are age worthy. And that is the crux of the question: Will these wines age at all?
There are also some wines that are hollow and are awkward to taste. When we taste barrel samples we are looking for a balance of acidity, fruit and tannins. We are tasting for potential rather than immediate enjoyment. I will be intrigued to taste these wines after the 12-18 months barrel age, when the wines are in bottle. I think some of these wines will need to be delicately handled if they are to survive.
The best wines produced in 2013 were the sweet wines from Barsac and Sauternes as well as the dry whites. Unfortunately these are a small percentage of the total production of Bordeaux. However they are terrific. Chateau d'Yquem is sublime and will last 50 years. Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2013 has all the minerality , flinty fresh character and pure class that you expect from this estate. Clos Haut Peyraguey is a beautiful balanced sweet wine and Guiraud and Coutet are delicious.
The new cellars at Chateau Angelus in Saint Emilion.

A white horse ploughing some vines in front of the cellars at Cheval Blanc!

The tasting at Chateau Haut Brion in the Orangerie.

Some old bottles at Chateau Gruaud Larose. Not sure that the 2013 wines will last 200 years let alone 20.

My selection for favourite wines from the 2013 barrel samples tasted last week:

Grand Puy Lacoste
Domaine de Chevalier
Calon Segur
Haut Bailly
Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge
Cos d'Estournel
Clos Haut Peyraguey
Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc
Chantegrive Blanc

We are now starting to trade these wines. It might not take that long as there will not be high demand and the prices will not be very high and there is not much quantity.
Lets look onward and upward for a better quality 2014. The sun is shining today on 8th April 2014 and the buds have burst on the vines and if we do not have any frost, hail, rain, disease, rot, rain, snow, hail or problems everything will be fine for 2014!! Fingers crossed........