"How good it feels for the boot to be on the other foot with the merchants this vintage!!" was a typical comment from one Yorkshire subscriber to my website last week.
After the short, exceptionally hot and much-vaunted 2003 vintage in Bordeaux when prices were high and quantities were low, 2004 brings a refreshing blast of consumer power to the annual primeur campaign. Last week I described how the red wines were made and how they are tasting at this unusually embryonic stage. This week let us look at how they are selling, and whether indeed there is any need for lovers of fine wine to buy this vintage so early, two years before they are likely to take delivery of it and up to two decades before some of the wines may reach their full potential.
This year's total production in Médoc, Graves, St Emilion and Pomerol, where virtually all Bordeaux's fine red wine is made, was a record total of almost 1.8 million hectolitres, a whole third more than the 1.35 million hectolitres of wine harvested in 2003.
Meanwhile the euro has strengthened even more, and is particularly strong against the dollar, so that only the most important American merchants even bothered to visit Bordeaux for the primeurs tastings at the beginning of this month (although I noticed a significant number of Asian buyers). Those who have been buying bordeaux for many years and already have considerable stocks may well feel that this large, long-term, good-but-not-great vintage is one they are happy to skip. Those newer to the game – for game it certainly is – may well still feel stung by the fact that their purchases of 2002s en primeur have failed to appreciate in the last two years and will be particularly wary of investing in yet another unglamorous vintage.
Adam Brett-Smith of Corney & Barrow is, as he has to be, bullish. "There will always be a market for these wines. It's just a question of finding the right price in order for them to fly." As exclusive UK importer for the wines of J P Moueix (Ch Pétrus et al), he is in a good position. Christian Moueix has long taken a pragmatic attitude to pricing, as he can afford to with so many exclusivities. He has just announced discounts across the board on 2003 prices of up to 28 per cent (for Ch Magdelaine in St-Emilion).
Much less inspiring was the first major 2004 price to announced in the bullpit that is the open Bordeaux marketplace, Jean Merlaut's reduction of seven per cent for the price of Ch Gruaud Larose in St-Julien which left it above the current price of the 2002 when all observers were agreed that prices would have to drop below 2002 levels to really kick start the market.
Few tasters found the wine itself to be one of the most exciting St-Juliens in 2004 but, fortunately for them, the pack of tasters sent out by Berry Bros to roam Bordeaux's tasting rooms during primeur week were thoroughly beguiled by it and so have managed to sell a good quantity of Gruaud at £216 a dozen in bond, thereby rattling other UK merchants who thought they were perhaps missing out on some serious business - and may go short of supplies of 2005 Gruaud because they failed to buy the 2004.
All are agreed that prices need to represent serious reductions on 2003 levels for the primeur market to stand any chance of taking off this year – not least because the single most important commentator, the American Robert Parker, is expected to pronounce only on his favourite wines rather than on the usual comprehensive range in his Wine Advocate newsletter due out next week. Yet, as the Bordeaux proprietors point out, there has been wide variation between them in their pricing policies over the last few vintages. Some wines cost almost the same in 2003 as in 2002 whereas for others there were steep rises. So there can be no easy rule to follow such as a reduction of x per cent on the 2003, or even 2002, price when trying to work out which 2004 price is sensible. Caution is wise when reading merchants' bruiting of percentage discounts on previous prices.
Nor can we count on the useful unanimity which used to prevail for opening prices of the all-important first growths. The ambitious director of Ch Latour is hardly likely to fall in with the pack when his 2004 was one of the most obvious successes. We may hope, I suppose, that the team at Ch Margaux are not too rapacious but, as Edward Demery of Justerini & Brooks puts it, "There certainly is not the buzz that existed a year ago."
As one perennially in favour of the underdog, I would like to create a small buzz around the dry white wines made in 2004. The prolonged growing season of 2004, unplagued by tropical temperatures, together with increasing skill in white winemaking, has resulted in some delicious dry white bordeaux which combine wonderful freshness with real intensity of flavour. Some particularly cool nights in mid September probably rewarded those who were able to pick Sauvignon Blanc and Se<aa>millon grapes grown in Graves and Pessac-Le<aa>ognan afterwards rather than before. That said, both the renowned dry whites made by the Haut-Brion team, Ch Haut-Brion Blanc and Ch Laville Haut-Brion, are delicious in 2004 even though the harvest for these wines began characteristically early on 06 sep after three particularly hot days. (Ch Haut-Brion is in a very different environment from the other first growths, effectively warmed by the surrounding suburbs of Pessac.)
As for the 2004 sweet whites, the vintage is not as consistently successful as some recent years, and in most cases lacks the weight of its immediate predecessor but, as one might expect, it has very refreshing acidity and, in those properties where strict selection is an affordable philosophy, a good level of the famous noble rot, or botrytis fungus. Sauternes is never easy to produce but it was particularly difficult in 2004. The vineyards needed a particularly thorough clean-up of all the grapes affected by less noble rot before the first proper pass, or trie, through the vines to collect the richest botrytised grapes from 27 sep until rains arrived on 07 oct. Then more botrytis set in, if capriciously, and most properties were able to pick more nobly rotten grapes in late October and even early November, but the juice from these later-picked grapes tended to be less concentrated.
Because botrytis was so much more generously spread in 2003, Sauternes is the one sort of Bordeaux wine which is likely to be available in smaller quantities in 2004 than 2003, but remember, take your time over buying the 2004s of whatever style. As one prominent fine wine trader put it to me last week, "what we need now is customers not wine".
My favourite white bordeaux 2004
Pavillon Blanc de Ch Margaux
La Tour Blanche