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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
25 Apr 2003
 

In the bitter engagement that is the current Franco-American relationship the first real casualty - setting aside the linguistic one of French fries - has been French wine in general and its most commonly exported form, bordeaux, in particular. For Americans wishing to make an anti-French point, wine has been just so obvious a target, so quintessentially, well, French.

At a time when the Bordeaux wine trade, France's most significant and most rarefied, is facing its worst crisis in a generation, spurning French wine has been elevated to an act of patriotism. Previously obscure liquor store owners and restaurateurs have earned immeasurable amounts of publicity simply by pouring away the odd bottle filled by the ingrate French or deleting the bordeaux and burgundy sections on their wine lists.

Not that this has represented any great privation for the average American who either does not drink at all or drinks beer, and certainly does not own a corkscrew. The United States may be France's most valuable export market for wines and spirits (and second most valuable for wine alone after Britain), but most of the buying is done by a relatively small number of well-heeled connoisseurs who have been particularly faithful followers of bordeaux vintages in recent years. What has been the effect of the current wave of anti-French sentiment on this rarefied business niche?

In certain quarters it is simply no longer acceptable to continue to love, admire and drink Châteaux Mouton and Lafite. America's most famous wine guru Robert Parker reports hate mail and a number of cancelled subscriptions to his Wine Advocate newsletter in response to his continued enthusiasm for great French wine, including one from someone who described him as 'an Iraqi-loving pussy'.

But according to Michael Aaron of Sherry Lehmann, the prominent New York wine merchant, his firm's total French wine sales fell only five per cent last month and his customers' buying patterns seem to vary according to the inflammatory index of Chirac's latest pronouncement. This is borne out by an email received by his rival Jeff Zacharia of Zachys on the day the news networks decided represented the fall of Baghdad: 'We've been boycotting French wine but can now afford to be gracious in victory. Just ordered a case of the Haut-Brion and looking forward to it.'

Exactly one week before at a formal dinner at the American embassy in Paris attended by leading Bordeaux wine producers, the ambassador was asked whether he intended to divest the embassy cellar of its French wines. 'Certainly,' he said, 'bottle by bottle'. A diplomat indeed.

Anti-French sentiment has of course been very much less marked on the west coast, but the Bordelais can hardly expect salvation from peace-loving Californians. They have first of all to bail out their own ailing domestic wine industry - far bigger in total than Bordeaux's and currently suffering grape glut and prices in free fall.

Bordeaux's prices are not (yet) in free fall but there is the very real feeling of an impending sea change in the comfortable, multi-layered distribution system that is the Bordeaux place. Traditionally château owners have sold their wine via brokers to négociants, or merchants, who sell on to importers before the wine gets anywhere near a potential drinker. They have become accustomed to releasing most of their infant, unblended, unbottled wine from the last harvest in September at this time of year en primeur, as futures - a system which has for the last few decades yielded an enviably early return on the increasingly high cost of making top-quality wine.

The Bordelais are now in the habit of inviting the world's wine traders and commentators to come and taste these inky infant liquids each spring so as to ignite the market - and in recent years have come to lean substantially on the pronouncements, and points out of 100 in particular, of Robert Parker whose confident predictions have been seized upon by new wine collectors in the US and elsewhere. Château owners have even allowed the precious points to dictate, or at least influence, their opening prices, so it is particularly fascinating for us Bordeaux-watchers to observe the effect of Parker's own particular French boycott. He has not made his usual spring trip to taste the primeurs this year, at the request of his wife and daughter, so the Bordelais are having to re-learn the art of selling a whole vintage, 2002, without his help.

The leading American wine magazine Wine Spectator (which has pointedly avoided featuring French wines in its most recent issues) sent a team but Parker was by no means the only American to give this year's en primeur tastings a miss. Peter Morrell of Morrell & Co was absent, not out of any antipathy to the French but because he, like so many American wine merchants, is still so encumbered not just by 2001 bordeaux and but by wines from the exceptional 2000 vintage too. In fact he was planning to cross the Atlantic to a much more lowly wine event in Limoux in the Languedoc just after Bordeaux's primeur circus had subsided. Like many an American wine merchant, Morrell plans to taste the 2002s when he attends Bordeaux's biennial Vinexpo international wine fair in June. Jeff Zacharia of Zachys will do the same, and sounds if anything rather relieved by Parker's absence. 'I am sure that Parker's absence will force people to take a hard look at their businesses and decide on their own what they should buy instead of just depending on the critics.'

There was an eerie sense of voyeurism about this year's primeur tastings. The Bordelais have enjoyed the most extraordinary economic run. Although the greater Bordeaux region's biggest headache is the ocean of unwanted, very ordinary wine produced there, well over ten million bottles are filled with seriously fine bordeaux each year - far, far more than in any other still wine region. The 2000s sold, two years before delivery, at prices per 12-bottle case of up to more than £1000, occasionally $2000. Even the Bordelais had to acknowledge that in most cases 2001 was a less successful year however and so reduced prices by 20 to 25 per cent - and even that was not enough to enthuse the market. There is still an ocean of 2001 languishing in cellars in Bordeaux, as well as significant quantities of the 1999s and some 1997s.

So what on earth are they to do with the 2002s? The French domestic market is dire. The Americans hate the French. The US is still effectively at war. SARS has annihilated the Asian market, long viewed as the back-stop for any shortcomings in American demand. There is a global economic malaise of the sort that is hardly conducive to investment in the luxuries of life. And not only is the Paris Bourse performing dismally but the Bordelais' chief buyers, the British and the Americans, are convinced that the euro will fall back to more affordable levels later in the year.

As Dominique Renard of important négociant Bordeaux Millésimes puts it somewhat helplessly, 'What is the argument to buy 2002? Absolutely none unless the prices come down a very great deal.'

'Something needs to change,' agrees Anthony Hanson, senior consultant to Christie's wine department. 'It does seem to me that négociants and proprietors have been flying around in cloud cuckoo land since the '96 vintage. A lot of the wines released since then are either still available at their opening prices or have dropped in value.'

Usually by this time there has been a flurry of opening offers, proprietors announcing their first tranche prices in a profitable display of self-esteem. So far with the 2002s, opening prices have been trickling rather than pouring out. The major beneficiaries of the Bordeaux market's unaccustomed stasis, I would suggest, are the telecoms companies. There must have been even more and longer telephone calls between the two opposing factions the proprietors and the négociants than ever before, mediated as ever by the courteous brokers (courtiers). The merchants were trying to convince the owners to reduce their prices by far more than the 20 per cent initially proposed which, they argued, would represent no reduction at all in dollars and sterling.

The famous five first growths (Châteaux Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton and Haut-Brion) traditionally dance the first dance in the complicated gavotte that is the en primeur market. Partly because of this, the market had been expecting a substantial reduction from last year's first-growth opening prices from the château door of 85 euros a bottle but it was disappointed by the first to open, Ch Latour, where the team is so proud of its 2002 that it would reduce the opening price only to 65 euros. Châteaux Lafite and Haut-Brion have followed at the expected 60 euros, which means that it has been possible to secure a case of first-growth bordeaux at under £700 per dozen bottles on the London fine wine market in the last week. Even so, demand has been far from frantic.

A few Bordeaux châteaux such as Cos d'Estournel owned by Swiss businessman Michel Reybier and Rauzan Ségla owned by the family behind Chanel can afford to wait until a more propitious time to launch their 2002s. Both Jean-Guillaume Prats of Cos and John Kolasa of Rauzan Ségla and négociant Ulysse Cazabonne are both in favour of a campaign in September, which would filter its way through to the American public in time for November/December, traditionally more of a spending season than now.

But more typical proprietors have been watching the buds opening on the black vine stumps and realise that in only a few months they will have the responsibility of paying to produce and then finding a market for the 2003s.

So far the relatively few châteaux which have released their 2002 prices have dropped them by 20 to nearly 40 per cent. But even this reduction, and some reduced merchants' margins, has hardly resulted in a rush to buy. Château Gruaud-Larose, for example, deemed a 'super-second' just below first-growth status, released its wine more than a week ago at a price which allowed London's leading fine wine hawkers, Farr Vintners, to offer it at just £190 a case. They have so far sold a mere 20 cases - virtually unheard of in the company's recent history.

According to the well-connected négociant Pierre Lawton of Alias, 'some château owners are talking of postponing releases, mostly to avoid facing the truth of the market. I do not think that the wines will be easier to sell on a longer term as economic problems are unlikely to be solved in a matter of months.'

Until now the Bordelais have been consoled by the fact that the world will eventually be forced to buy their fine wines since they have so completely dominated the hearts and cellars of wine connoisseurs. Now not even this comforting maxim can be depended upon. It is clearly no longer the case that to love wine you have to love bordeaux. Bordeaux may have produced the vast majority of the greatest wines I have ever tasted but, like so many other wine enthusiasts, I am now tempted by the more reasonably priced wines of Burgundy and the Rhône Valley, the extraordinary quality of the best wines of Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria - not to mention the most remarkable efforts of New World wine-producing countries, most of which have recently planted so many vineyards that they are suffering from over-supply.

So what hope is there that Bordeaux will manage to sustain its extraordinarily self-indulgent system, unique in the wine world, of selling its embryonic wines en primeur? Very little in the US, I would have thought. According to Michael Aaron, 'the one who's going to determine this in the end is Chirac'.

I find myself almost feeling sorry for the Bordelais.

Oh, and the wines themselves? Bordeaux made some extremely impressive 2002s - and scores of very disappointing ones. See my purple pages for overviews and specific tasting notes and scores.