Bordeaux 2008: what the merchants say

While UK merchants are more upbeat about the vintage than anticipated, though by all counts, it’s a sleeper. The sticking poing, of course, is price. The chateaux have had their poker faces on, giving no indication of whether they’ll hold or fold. And the problem with 2008 is not 2008, say the merchants, it’s 2007. Maggie Rosen reports on what is proving the strangest en primeur campaign in memory.

Simon Staples, Bordeaux buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd said last week that he would ‘not buy a single case of Bordeaux 2008 for stock unless the chateaux reduce their prices by half’ of what they were last year.

'No-one has been excited about Bordeaux since 2005, the consumers are either bored of the prices of bored of buying five and six vintages on the trot,' he said.

However his ostensible boycott has not extended to tasting, as Staples has been in Bordeaux for the last week ‘for better or worse’ in order to bring the truth about the vintage to his customers.

Apparently, the truth doesn’t hurt as much as expected.

Following lunch at Chateau Palmer (someone has to do it), Staples told decanter.com he couldn't think of a comparable vintage.

'We’ve tasted 240 wines so far, and we can’t think of a vintage that this reminds us of. It's probably a mix of 2006 and 2004, to give a rough idea – and more precise than 2007. It's not a Left Bank or Right Bank vintage, or a Merlot or Cabernet vintage. But anyone who tells you it’s like 2005 is talking utter rubbish. If vintages go with countries, this one’s for the UK - cool and classic. There are some crackers [including Haut-Bages-Libéral, Moulin-St. Georges, Pavie Macquin and Doisy-Védrines]– but they’re not for the short-term, these are super-keepers.'

The petit chateaux, on the other hand, were hard-going.

Staples said his goal was to find 10 'value' wines at £240 a case or less, and so far he has found six. Whether the pricing will be acceptable is another story, and for the moment, he says he has had no indication from the chateaux that it will be.

'If they don’t reduce the prices substantially over 2007, it means they’re happy to cut the UK out of the equation. This leaves the euro countries as pretty much their only market, and there's a lot of 2007 – even 2006 – still out there,' he said.

'The chateaux that can afford to might take a gamble and hold onto the wine for a couple of years while they wait for the economy to improve. That is a risky game and I’m willing to let someone else play it,' he added.

'I have been on my soap-box, shouting but I think they think I’m joking.'

Will he, won’t he? Stephen Browett, of Farr Vintners has been rather coy about whether he’s going to taste. The chateaux seem to be expecting him ‘next week’, but he says he won’t go unless he has an indication that the prices will come down at least 20%.

‘It’s a unique situation,’ he said. ‘In the present economic climate, it’s a bit ridiculous that they seem to be in such denial. The world is in financial crisis, but not a single chateaux has rung up to say “we appreciate the pound is weak and the market is stagnant, we’re willing to work with you”.’

He’s heard the wines are good, he says, but ‘if they release them even at the same price as last year, that's still a 20% increase over last year – when they weren’t so good – and at that rate, 'we’d be ripping our customers off.'

The only year Farr didn’t buy at all was 1997.

'The prices were simply too high,' he said, 'and in 2007, we bought to order only. So we have virtually no stock.'

He's one of the lucky ones. The negociants and the French supermarkets, he says, are awash in the stuff. 'Just wait until the foires aux vins this year, you'll find plenty of 2007.'

Browett thinks the chateaux 'have reached the end of the road. Either they price the wines keenly, or keep them at home.'

'They released the 2007s at the top of the market. If you’d said to people last year that half the banks in the world would be bankrupt by now, nobody would have believed you.'

But they still have a choice.

'Either they make 2008s attractive for customers and kill the market for the 2007s for once and for all, or they support their over-inflated 2007s and hurt everyone in the food chain.'

As for turning his back on 2008 and putting future allocations at risk, Browett said 'we'd rather miss out on the next year then be stuck with unsellable stock this year. This campaign is not about the wine, it’s about the prices. And that's just wrong.'

Corney and Barrow's Adam Brett-Smith has only tasted in the Medoc so far, but isn't enormously impressed.

'It can be reasonably said that the vintage is better than expected. Has the earth moved? Not a bit.'

But he, too, says this is rather beside the point.

'We've been saying for the last few months that the problem with 2008 is not the intrinsic quality, it's how they priced the 2007.'

He cites the 'disconnect' that the Bordelais have shown, in difficult times, between perception of quality and the realities of the market.

'They can’t keep automatically putting prices up based on nothing but what they charged for the previous vintage. They have to take a long, hard look at the market and let that guide them.'

He won't apply a blanket threshold by which the prices need to come down in order to entice him, however.

'It's more complicated than just saying "they need to reduce them by x%" . It comes down to the individual chateaux, their pricing history and strategy over the last 15 years, and our relationships,' he said.

'Some people have been consistently reasonable, sensitive and pragmatic [such as the Moueix family] about pricing. Their wines will sell even in difficult markets.'

That said, Brett-Smith says there's 'no question prices will have to be much lower than in 2008. The world is very different this year.'