Bordeaux is arguably the world’s greatest fine-wine region, a touchstone for generations of wine lovers. More fine wine is produced here than anywhere else, and a case of a great vintage from a top château can cost as much as a family car. Recently, though, Bordeaux has been hit by waves of tumult. First, prices spiraled to unprecedented heights for the 2009 and 2010 vintages as Chinese buyers became enamored with its wines. Then, just as quickly, they became disenchanted and, at the end of 2011, prices plunged. Today, thousands of cases of unsold, young Bordeaux lie dormant in merchants’ warehouses. Not a major problem for the top 60 to 70 châteaux, but many of the remaining 7,000 struggle to find buyers.
Price spikes linked to the buzz around different vintages have always affected Bordeaux, but they have never been quite as steep as today. Expect to pay double the price for a first growth from the 2010 vintage as you would for the same wine from 2013. Meanwhile, the transformation in styles over the past several decades has been equally dramatic – from lean, moderate and restrained to full-bodied, ripe and powerful: testosterone-filled wines catering to critics’ rather than consumers’ palates.
The maelstrom is mirrored in the hierarchy of classed growths, which is also less stable than in previous years. Bordeaux is the only French appellation where it is the producer – rather than the vineyard – that is ranked, and these producers’ holdings have changed hugely since they were first graded in 1855. A clutch of ambitious estates now consistently perform above their classification status, fetching significantly higher prices than their peers. Lynch Bages, Pontet-Canet and Grand-Puy-Lacoste, all fifth growths, are tremendously successful, as is the well-deserving Palmer, surely misjudged as a third growth. Beychevelle, Duhart-Milon and Branaire-Ducru also perform at least a notch or two above their fourth-growth status, in quality as well as in price.
Some châteaux, on the other hand, seem to lag behind. Second growths Brane-Cantenac and Gruaud Larose should be achieving higher prices, while Dufort-Vivens, Rauzan-Gassies and Lascombes often under-deliver. Meanwhile, third growths such as Kirwan, Desmirail, Ferrière and Boyd-Cantenac seem to have lost their way. In such an unstable world, proven performers are welcome for their consistency.
2010 Powerful, intense and long-lived
2009 Opulent, ripe, appealing
2005 Traditional, structured, with great aging potential
2001 Underrated, perfumed and harmonious
2000 Balanced, supple but over-hyped
1996 Robust, complex, starting to peak
1995 Balanced, supple, ready to drink
1990 Voluptuous, ripe, at its peak but with 20-plus years to go
1989 Structured, firm and less open than the 1990
1986 Big, still powerful and harmonious
1982 A true legend that has stood the test of time
1970 Starting to fade
1961 An eternal wine, with the best still going strong
2012 Lively, balanced and elegant
2010 Great concentration, long-lived with great freshness
2007 Fresh, focused and pretty now
2006 Pure, balanced and lively
2005 Concentrated, intense, reaching its peak
2002 Wonderful intensity, ready to drink
2001 Detailed, vivacious and elegant
1998 Attractive, ready to enjoy now
1996 Crisp, lively, a pleasure to drink now
1994 Top wines are still going strong
2011 Sumptuous, sweet and age-worthy with firm acidity
2010 Vivacious, detailed, lovely acidity
2009 Opulent, concentrated and rich
2007 Generous, intense, complex
2005 Balanced, focused and elegant
2003 Sweet, dense, unctuous
2001 Complex, harmonious, still youthful
1997 Attractive, intense, just opening up now
1996 Lacy, elegant, with fine detail
1990 Rich, generous, at its peak
1989 Exciting, layered flavors and ready now
1988 Elegant, balanced, drink now
1986 Beautifully expressive, ready to drink
1983 Pure pleasure
VINTAGE PRICE FLUCTUATIONS
Not only has the price of Bordeaux’s top wines come tumbling down in recent vintages, but the value of these wines has also fallen dramatically since they were first released, leaving many buyers staring at a loss on their investment.
2.Cos d’Estournel 2009
5.Mouton Rothschild 1990
The 12 best vintages of the 12 best producers
La Conseillante 1990
Cheval Blanc 2001*
IN THEIR PRIME
4.Le Gay 1989
5.Gruaud Larose 1990
LIVING UP TO DESIGNATIONS
Though the 1855 classification has stood the test of time, some properties perform significantly above – or below – their official rank. Pontet-Canet, for example, a fifth-growth estate, regularly sells at higher prices than several third and fourth growths.
Place de Bordeaux on the Edge
The majority of fine wines in Bordeaux sell through a multitiered distribution system called the Place de Bordeaux. The process starts in the April following the harvest, when thousands of trade buyers and critics gather to taste the young barrel samples on behalf of their customers and readers during the crucial en primeur week. As ratings and commentary are released, prices are set by the châteaux on ‘La Place’, merchants make their positions, and the wines are offered to consumers to buy as futures, two years before delivery of the bottled wines.
The system has given rise to a well-oiled, multilayered, global distribution network, but recent disenchantment, particularly in China, reveals problems. Traditionally, buying early meant getting in at the lowest price. But prices can decline, as they have in the 2009 and 2010 vintages. The current oversupply means new releases should be appearing at lower prices, but this hasn’t happened, with producers worried about devaluing unsold back vintages.
Some châteaux like Latour are now leaving the system and choosing not to sell futures, creating a rift. Critics of La Place claim the system is antiquated when it is now so easy to identify customers and sell direct. Defenders point to the efficient distribution channel that can shift tens of thousands of cases around the world in a day. La Place is now at a precarious stage, having to prove its relevance in a new, transparent marketplace with customers fully aware of the various layers within the system and wary of tying up their money too early.
Currently, the power rests firmly in the hands of the top châteaux. This is a golden age for them, with vintages like 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010 helping them to amass huge financial reserves. The châteaux have little incentive to sell at a price that would undermine their long-term pricing strategy. Meanwhile, négociants and merchants are finding it challenging to sell wines that are unrealistically priced.
If such a situation persists, say some, there will be casualties, with the whole system potentially heading for a crash. While La Place is likely to survive in the short term, its longevity depends upon the ability of the châteaux to read the market more accurately and adapt long-term rather than opportunistic pricing strategies.
The communes (villages) of Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estèphe are locked in eternal combat for the hearts, minds and wallets of the world’s fine-wine collectors. With first-growth prices still high, Cabernet Sauvignon-based ‘super second’ growths like Ducru-Beaucaillou, Cos d’Estournel and Léoville Las Cases are ever more in discerning consumers’ minds. These wines may have increased in concentration and alcohol over the past decade, but they are now coming back in balance and retain the essence of their respective commune terroir. Outliers such as Grand-Puy-Lacoste (Pauillac) and Lafon-Rochet (Saint-Estèphe) have been excellent buys in vintages like the 2009 and 2010, when their more celebrated peers have been overpriced; for great value in recent vintages, look for Calon-Ségur (Saint-Estèphe), Du Tertre (Margaux) and Clerc Milon (Pauillac).
Recent years have seen the rise and fall of the garagiste winemakers in Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, where wines are dominated by Merlot and Cabernet Franc, respectively. For a period of time, these small producers made intense, powerful, highly extracted wines that are now fading from fashion, thankfully. As well as the great names such as Pétrus and Le Pin (Pomerol) and Cheval Blanc and Ausone (Saint-Émilion), look out for the balanced, beautiful wines from Troplong Mondot, Clos Fourtet and Canon-la-Gaffelière from Saint-Émilion, and La Conseillante, Trontanoy, Vieux Château Certan and Le Gay from Pomerol. Meanwhile excitement continues with many producers unhappy with the recent 2012 Saint-Émilion reclassification that saw Angélus and Pavie rise to Premier Grand Cru Classé A, joining Cheval Blanc and Ausone.
Château Haut-Brion, the only first growth outside the Médoc, has shone consistently in recent great vintages without its prices hitting the hyped-up levels of some vintages of Lafite or Mouton Rothschild. La Mission Haut-Brion, its stablemate, is the only winery that sits between the first growths and the ‘super seconds’ – in vintages like 2010 and 2009, it proved on a par with the first growths. And a little further south are the increasingly fabulous dry whites and reds from Pessac-Léognan as well as the unloved (by the fine wine market) sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Other notable appellations include a handful in the north and east of the region, particularly around the satellite villages of Saint-Émilion.