Déjà vu in Bordeaux

third-growth Margaux Château d’Issan picture by François Poincet

A version of this is published in a Bordeaux supplement in the Financial Times today. 

If you’ve been writing about Bordeaux for nearly 40 years as I have, you cannot help but be struck by the cyclical nature of its wine business. When I started out, the Bordeaux wine trade was in the process of recovering from a massive scandal affecting one of the smartest merchant families, Cruse, (in 1847 they bought the entire crop of Château Lafite) and the disastrous effects of the 1970s oil crisis which saw first growths on sale in Augustus Barnett’s unglamorous off-licences at £3.99 a bottle.

Today Emmanuel Cruse runs third-growth Margaux Château d’Issan (pictured here by François Poincet) impeccably, and in May chose to celebrate the anniversary of wine from this unusually long-established Médoc estate’s having been served at the 1152 wedding that brought Bordeaux under the English crown for three centuries, with a black tie dinner at Westminster Abbey, no less. None of us could quite understand why the 863rd anniversary was particularly worthy of celebration, but we lapped up an imperial (eight bottles in one) of 1985 Issan in the Abbey’s recently refurbished Cellarium and were presented with gilded, be-tasselled menus and Issan-embossed pigskin card cases. The dinner was pictured below by Amy Murrell (one of the female minority present).

Last month’s biennial international wine fair Vinexpo was punctuated by a series of lunches and dinners more lavish than in any other wine region. The busiest tradespeople in Bordeaux currently are not those in the wine business but the traiteurs who provide all these meals, and the builders who continue to tart up the masonry of the better-known producers as though there were a Best Kept Château competition. There isn’t. And nor is there much of a tourism business in the Médoc, considering the international fame of so many them. (Compare and contrast, messieurs et mesdames, with that other centre of Cabernet Sauvignon greatness, the Napa Valley.)

Such spending is commonplace at Bordeaux’s better addresses because, although the last four en primeur campaigns have been damp squibs, the château proprietors made such a killing with the 2009 and 2010 vintages. I recently came across this passage in The Wines of Bordeaux, a magisterial work by my predecessor as FT wine correspondent Edmund Penning-Rowsell: ‘speculation had encouraged growers to ask and secure prices unrelated either to the cost of production or to the ability or willingness of the consumer to pay’. He was referring to the vintages of the early 1970s, when the current system of offering six-month-old wines en primeur to consumers was born, but what he wrote could just as well have applied to the situation 40 years later.

With the lacklustre 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages, sold – or rather offered – while prices for the 2010s and 2009s were falling, the wine-buying public became less and less enthusiastic about laying out money in advance for embryonic, unproven wine. The much better quality 2014 vintage offered the Bordeaux trade a chance to recoup some goodwill and re-engage potential en primeur buyers by reducing prices to attractive levels, but – perhaps because still financially cushioned and/or egotistically convinced that opening prices are a measure of status – all too few proprietors were prepared to do so. The first growths set a decent example and were far from rapacious with their 2014 pricing, albeit at a premium level. And those smart names whose owners deserve a special mention for relatively friendly pricing of their 2014s include most notably Lynch Bages together with Armailhac, Calon Ségur, Canon, Domaine de Chevalier, Haut-Batailley, Pichon Lalande, Prieuré Lichine, Rauzan Ségla and Talbot.

Some more modestly priced 2014s that took my fancy include Capbern, Le Boscq, Bernadotte, Bellevue, La Croix de Beaucaillou, de France and Gloria, although there is probably no need to buy these less sought-after names en primeur.

The strengthening of the US dollar has helped re-invigorate the bordeaux market a little in both the US and Asia, but too many Bordelais seem not to care that their wines are currently out of fashion with so many of the world’s wine drinkers and, significantly, the opinion-forming sommeliers. The two most prominent St-Estèphe châteaux, Montrose and Cos d’Estournel, seemed particularly out of touch, metaphorically thumbing their noses at consumers via their ambitious 2014 pricing.

But, being part of such a massive, and cyclical, wine-selling machine, with its producers, brokers, merchants, importers, traders and retailers all playing their parts, the Bordelais are clearly not plunged into gloom by an event I attended recently at the modish Clove Club in Shoreditch called ‘So un-cool it’s cool: The Bordeaux Lunch.’

Meanwhile it looks as though my beloved Rule of Five (whereby vintages divisible by five have been pretty good throughout France since 1985) may be coming into play for the forthcoming 2015 vintage. The flowering went exceptionally well and, so far, it looks as though they may just have a seriously promising vintage on their hands at long last – and perhaps justification for high prices.