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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
11 Nov 2001

It seemed almost intrusive to discuss current events with the Krug family of Champagne. After all, if all you produce is distinctively luxurious bottles of the fizzy stuff selling at well over £70/$US100 a bottle retail but more usually several times that in a snazzy restaurant, you are arguably more directly in the firing line than Osama bin Laden himself.

In late October Henri, Rémi and Caroline Krug were all remarkably sanguine however. Even they admit that theirs is one of the last bottles people will think of ordering nowadays - and sitting things out until conspicuous consumption is once more permissible must be much easier in the warm embrace of LVMH (which now owns Krug) than it is for the champagne houses that are still independent.

The champagne industry in general is in a sorry state - although it has sucked so much money from us so effortlessly in better days, it is hard to feel any real anguish at its plight. The 2001 vintage is just what was not wanted: massive in quantity (producing 16 to 18 thousand kilos a hectare rather than the 11 that is the official maximum for champagne production) and extremely uninspiring in quality (thanks to prolonged rain before the harvest).

This comes after disastrous miscalculations about just how much champagne would be consumed during millennial celebrations (we do have only one gullet, after all). The result is that there are still considerable stocks of champagne, particularly the more expensive bottles, and especially in North America.

And sales of wine in general there are distinctly sluggish. It is not that people are being abstemious. Wine's special attribute is its ability to provide comfort and succour in some earthy, grounded, primeval way. If I had a dollar for everyone I met in New York (normal people, not wine fanatics) who told me that they were using 'the current situation' as an excuse for pulling corks on special bottles, I would be happy. But with an extraordinary affront so obvious on the Manhattan skyline and anthrax perhaps just a mailbox away, they tend to be consuming what they have already bought rather than acquiring new possessions.

According to Michael Aaron of flagship Madison Avenue wine merchants Sherry Lehmann, his September wine sales were 20 per cent up on the previous year until September 11. The month ended a 'devastating 28 per cent down' and this continued throughout October. The store's previous average sale of $US290 per customer (a figure British wine merchants will view with considerable envy) has shrivelled. Again, it is not that people are not drinking, but that there has been a visible move towards simpler, less showy wines. Aaron has not so far cancelled any of the orders he has placed, but does not expect to have to re-order until long after the holiday season.

Similarly, New York's neighbourhood restaurants have been finding life much, much easier than the city's high end places - although Daniel Johnnes at Montrachet somehow managed to find more than enough takers for a Burgundy dinner at US$495 a head in mid-October.

Francophile Frank Prial, the New York Times wine writer, wrote a triumphant piece recently reporting practically zero sales of Californian cult wines (the upfront Cabernets with prices in inverse proportion to the quantity produced) in the city's restaurants. I suspect this is more a question of price than provenance, but surely, surely, surely the time has now come for Californian wine producers to re-enter the earth's atmosphere.

I think we have to accept that there will always be people prepared to pay silly prices for certain trophy wines made in minute quantities. What I object to is that madness and the fortunes made from it have boosted prices of even quite ordinary Californian Cabernets and Chardonnays far, far above their true worth.

This situation cannot be sustainable. According to Bruce Cass, wine educator and author of the Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America

'wine is backing up in the pipeline. Supply far exceeds demand - at least at these prices - and everybody is jumpy. Nobody made any moves during harvest, and most will maintain their stiff upper lip through Christmas. But I expect a significant downturn during Jan-Feb.

The high end '98 Cabs all showed up during the last six months. The vintage is not very good quality. If ever there was an opportunity to do some price retrenchment without losing face, '98 Cabs were it. Nonetheless everybody at the top end asked for a slightly increased price over '97. That was an example of whistling past the graveyard, and sales have been VERY slow.

Meanwhile, for the first time in eight years the bulk market has started to fill up with supply. We're sitting on a lake of cheap Chardonnay.'

In Bordeaux too, prices for the 2001 vintage just going into barrels are expected to be considerably below those of the exceptional 2000 vintage, whose record prices are already softening markedly according to the wine trader Bordeaux Index which is now quoting both buying and selling prices. The transition of such wine from libation to commodity is certainly well advanced.