In kinder terms, the 2010 Bordeaux en primeur campaign can be viewed as disappointing; under a harsher light, it is a total disaster. What started out as a campaign with so much potential fizzled out by the time the wines finally came to market. 2010 was a vintage that most critics and commentators deemed ‘superb’, ‘impressive’ and on par with the great 2009 and 2005 vintages. The buying power of collectors in the United States, the Far East and many parts of Europe were stronger than in 2009. Most importantly, the mainland Chinese, with their increasing disposable income and deep pockets, were eyeing this vintage and watching the releases and prices very closely. According to several fine wine brokers based in Hong Kong, the 2009 vintage attracted many new mainland Chinese punters to en primeur buying, where wines still in barrel are purchased and reserved about eighteen months before they are bottled and released. They expected 2010 to be an even more successful campaign. En primeur commentators like myself returned from Bordeaux in early April very impressed with the vintage – along with concentration and depth, the wines possessed balance and expressed great long-term aging potential. We waited eagerly for prices to be released, some hopeful that the Bordelais would conclude that another expensive vintage might turn off buyers, but many were realistic and figured that if the market could support higher prices, then 2010 would be more expensive than 2009. We waited. April passed, then May. No major releases. We waited some more. In early June as Vinexpo, the most important wine exhibition in Bordeaux, approached, it was obvious that the first growths and other top wines were not going to release until after June 24th! There was such a long lag between the positive press commentary on the 2010 vintage and the opportunity to buy the wines that interest had already started to wane. When prices did come out, it was obvious that most were raising prices from their already high 2009 prices – some were more than 30% higher like Chateau Pontet Canet, but the majority came out at around 10% higher. A few chateaux like Ducru-Beaucaillou and Cos d’Estournel reduced prices slightly from their 2009 prices, but these were very rare cases. Like 2009, there would be very few bargains among the top wines in this vintage. Traditional Bordeaux buyers would be priced out of this vintage once again. One Hong Kong collector who has been buying en primeur for more than ten years told me, “The prices for my favourite Bordeaux wines are now insane. I stopped buying en primeur in 2008. I would rather buy the older vintages which are bargains in comparison.” Many people ask me, “Is 2010 really worth buying?” I usually respond with, “What is your purpose in buying 2010s?” Obviously it is a vintage that will require a minimum of 10 years of aging for the top wines and ideally 20 years before it can really be appreciated. If buying for drinking pleasure, it may be for your children and grandchildren. If buying for investment, be wary about how high the prices on release already are at the moment. 2009 prices have not crept up very much since its initial release a year ago and 2010s are likely to be in the same situation. If it is purchased to complete a collection (e.g. own every vintage of a particular wine), then why not wait until the wines are already bottled? Price increases will likely be incremental given the already high price tag. Any way I look at it, I find it difficult to answer the question in the affirmative. Buying en primeur makes sense if the prices on release offer better value than buying the same wines in bottle two years later. It also makes sense if the wines are very difficult to purchase and quantities are limited or if many large formats (which are more rare) are desired. Most top Bordeaux chateaux produce over 120,000 bottles per year. And not many people around the world are prepared to buy a case of infant wine that will require years of storage and pay a sum (HK$120,000 or higher) that is equivalent to a few months rent or a second-hand car. The well-oiled Bordeaux marketing and distribution machine, otherwise called ‘place de Bordeaux’ is the ultimate capitalist system at work: if demand is high, prices will rise; when market sentiment is positive as it is now, then demand spirals upwards with no limit in sight. Sadly, it appears that top wines are not for drinking anymore – they are as much for traders as they are for wine lovers. I am finding even the most uncommercial wine lover becoming commercial. Many friends who are exactly like me – having never traded or sold a bottle of wine in our lives – now suddenly whispering in my ear, “Where do you think I can get the best prices for my Lafite, Carruade de Lafite and Petrus? Should I go to an auction house or which merchant do you recommend?” Wine is meant to bring pleasure. The sad reality now is that it becomes harder to enjoy a bottle of wine when you know that it could potentially add tens of thousands of Hong Kong dollars into your pocket.
Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post