​Bordeaux 2014 – the make or break campaign?

This is a very much longer version of an article published by the Financial Times. See our guide to coverage of this vintage, including more than 450 tasting notes on these young barrel samples. 

The only great wines I tasted during my recent week in Bordeaux were at the dining table in the evenings. At the en primeur tasting tables arrayed with 2014s less than six months old, the best wines I tasted were good rather than great. But my most memorable encounter was with a French term new to me, le Bordeaux bashing.

There’s certainly a lot of that going on. This is hardly surprising. The hard facts underpinning the general opprobrium heaped on Bordeaux by so many wine amateurs and professionals outside France’s most important fine-wine region were spelt out in gory detail just before the start of the en primeur tastings by Liv-ex, the London-based professional wine-trading platform.

With hardly subtle timing and title, Liv-ex decided for the first time ever to turn their mass of data on 20th-century Bordeaux price movements into a 68-page A4 booklet called Bordeaux 2014 – A price guide for Liv-ex members. There in graphic detail was the evidence showing that those buying Bordeaux en primeur had typically lost money on the last five vintages and since 2003 have made money only on their investments in the 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008 vintages. The point of buying wine before it is even bottled is supposed to be to save money but those who bought wines from the last great vintages of 2009 and 2010 en primeur are still, according to Live-ex’s figures, out of pocket by 18 and 17% respectively.

While in Bordeaux I asked various luminaries of the wine trade there whether they had seen Liv-ex’s report. Yes, they said glumly.

The Big Questions are not just how these baby 2014s are priced, but whether enough people will care even if they get the price right. There is widespread disaffection with Bordeaux among younger wine drinkers particularly. The convoluted Bordeaux system does not help to expose those who make wine to those who drink it. Between them come at the very least a courtier (or broker), a Bordeaux négociant (or merchant), then an importer, and possibly then a retailer. The château owners seem to continue to be more concerned about whether their wine is offered at a higher price than their neighbour’s (a point of pride) than whether it is sold to an end consumer. And to judge from the lavish new building programmes that are so evident at the best addresses, those at the top end are still flush with cash, or perhaps keen to hand over as little of it as possible to Monsieur Hollande and his government.

Meanwhile the Bordeaux négociants’ cellars are full to bursting with the recent unsold vintages. Life is particularly tough for them, but with the 2014 crop perhaps the most difficult job of all is that of the courtiers, who have to liaise between proud chatelains and over-stretched négociants (although there is a certain amount of overlap between these two groups). Expect to see casualties, or at least even more agglomeration, among Bordeaux négociants.

In January, the 12 leading UK-based buyers of fine bordeaux, all of whom have experienced a virtual standstill in en primeur trade over the last few years, sent a joint communiqué to the Bordelais urging extreme caution when pricing the 2014s and suggesting that a release price like that of the cheapest vintage of the last 10 years, 2008, would be in order. Asking for a decrease of more than 20% on average release prices for the 2013s, probably the worst vintage of the century, was bold, to say the least – especially since the 2014s are palpably so much better than the 2013s, and in most cases better than the 2012s and 2011s too.

The British merchants may have shot themselves in the foot by asking too much too early. A typical Bordelais response is one of anger, and even a suggestion that the UK traders were inspired by pique at seeing direct trading avenues opened up between Bordeaux and the vibrant Asian markets when in recent years so many Asians bought their Bordeaux from UK-owned companies. It might have been more effective if the Brits had held off until they had tasted the new vintage, whose undoubted quality has been another weapon in the defensive arsenal of the Bordelais.

Some of them have even been comparing 2014 with the great 2010 vintage, which is obvious hyperbole. As anyone who looks at the extraordinary weather pattern of the 2014 growing season can see, there has never been a vintage like it – or certainly not in living memory. Vegetation started early – generally a good sign – after a mild, very wet winter and there was no serious frost problem. Flowering was copious in a fine June for Cabernets. This meant that yields looked promising, which was a relief after the exceptionally light (in both senses) 2013 crop. Spirits were high. 

And then came the summer that never was. In much of the region, particularly the southern Médoc and Graves, July and August were horribly cloudy and wet, thereby robbing the vines of the crucial period of summer water stress that is deemed necessary for real fruit concentration and a great vintage. The northern Médoc was a bit drier and brighter (although some parts of the far north of the Médoc had been badly hailed in early June). The vines needed a huge amount of work to be persuaded to put any energy at all into ripening grapes instead of growing leaves; such intensive vineyard work represents an onerous, and often unjustifiable, financial burden for the less glamorous properties. A dense canopy masking unripe grapes is not what vignerons want at the end of August and there was near despair among them, until they were saved from disaster by one of the driest, hottest Septembers ever. The unusually warm autumn continued into October although rain in the first half of the month, particularly on 8 October, together with the much shorter days and cooler nights, stopped the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon from reaching its full potential. Cabernet Franc was particularly appreciated on the right bank in 2014 but many right-bank properties were picked very late as proprietors waited and waited for sufficient maturity.

The one overwhelming characteristic of the vintage is high acidity. The warm autumn helped increase sugar levels (and, together with drying breeze) also had the effect of shrinking the grapes and concentrating everything: sugars (and therefore alcohol), flavour and, most notably, acidity. The tannins in 2014 are ripe and copious enough but in many reds the acid is just a little too pronounced for comfort.

In the whites, on the other hand, both dry and sweet, this high acidity is in many cases a blessing. The dry whites are the nerviest yet (occasionally too much so), and the star performers are the sweet whites, in the best of which refreshing acidity is combined with the effects of late-October botrytis in perfect harvesting conditions. Surely the time has come to reward the Sauternais for their efforts?

But should people buy the 2014 reds? Yes definitely if the Bordelais were to swallow their pride and do what they did in 2008: offer it at lower prices than the overpriced, inferior vintage that preceded it. No if they have a cellarful of maturing red Bordeaux already. The signs so far are that release prices from the châteaux in euros are the same as in 2013 at best (Jane Anson made a good point in this article on Decanter.com that we should concentrate on 'the silent majority', those producers who have been sensible in their pricing over the last few years.). Doubtless the weakness of the euro will be used as an excuse, but the Liv-ex document shows clearly how négociants’ and importers’ margins have been eroded in recent years. Proprietors have been the unquestioned winners, and although négociants must have been sorely tempted to pass on their allocations of 2013s, they are unlikely to pass on the best vintage in the last four years.

These wines will in general be early-maturing charmers without an enormous amount of stuffing. In very general terms, St-Julien was the most consistent appellation (as so often), there are some real over-performers in Pauillac as usual, but 2014 was an excellent vintage for St-Estèphe too and there may be some bargains from even further north. Pomerols probably had the edge on St-Émilion but that appellation has largely, thank goodness, come back down to earth.

As though pricing the 2014s were not critical enough for the Bordelais, this year they are on their own. Over the last few decades château owners became increasingly dependent on the scores of the American Bordeaux specialist Robert Parker when deciding their opening prices. But Parker has just handed over the scoring pencil to his much younger British colleague Neal Martin, whose tastes are still something of a mystery, at the same time as announcing to the trade publication The Drinks Business that en primeur is ‘largely dead’. He may well be right. The en primeur system is a relatively recent phenomenon, after all. Perhaps it was a temporary one.

SOME OF MY FAVOURITE WINES

For what it’s worth, these were the only wines to which I gave a score of at least 18 out of 20. I did not taste Climens, but on past form it will probably be stunning.

Sauternes  Chx Coutet, Doisy-Daëne L’Extravagant, Doisy-Védrines, de Fargues, Suduiraut, La Tour Blanche, Yquem

Pessac-Léognan  Haut-Brion Blanc

Pauillac  Latour

St-Estèphe  Cos d’Estournel

Pomerol  Petrus, Vieux Château Certan

St-Émilion  Tertre Roteboeuf

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