Bordeaux 2008 en primeur: What the press says UPDATED

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As the 2008 en primeur campaign begins, wine writers are pessimistic about its prospects, despite being optimistic about the quality of the wines. Stuart Peskett is looking at what the writers are saying throughout the week...

As a gloomy Prince Robert of Luxembourg, owner of first growth Château Haut-Brion, tells Roger Voss of Wine Enthusiast (www.winemag.com) that ‘we are all troubled by the market’, it is clear that price is the big issue troubling châteaux owners in Bordeaux.

Voss says that top-end châteaux are being urged to reduce their dramatically, but at cru bourgeois level, producers are ‘having a hard time justifying a price reduction, when they have hardly increased their prices for several years’.

He adds: ‘Even with lowered prices, the question remains: will buyers buy? They all have stocks of 2006 and 2007. If 2008 prices are drastically reduced then those buyers will have to discount their existing stock heavily just to move it, to make room for the new vintage when it arrives in 2011.’

Having tasted from a selection of Margaux châteaux, Voss finds highly variable quality levels. Châteaux Palmer, Giscours, Rauzan-Ségla and Margaux are all ‘deliciously fruity’, while others (he doesn’t name names) are ‘over-extracted’, with some ‘already showing signs of being over-oaked’.

James Suckling from www.winespectator.com, fresh from a trip to Basel, Switzerland, ‘visiting the world’s biggest watch fair’, is concerned that Bordeaux châteaux may struggle to shift the 2008 vintage, as they are in an awkward position.

Despite his belief that the best châteaux produced some ‘very good to excellent quality wines, despite the less-than-ideal grape-growing conditions during the summer’, it is the issue of price that could pose a problem.

Suckling admits he has ‘no idea’ how producers will sell the 2008 vintage, ‘unless prices go back to levels that make people want to buy’. But even if they do that, he fears that too heavy a fall will ‘devalue earlier vintages, making many customers extremely unhappy’.

He adds: ‘Just think if the 2008 futures prices – a vintage I hear is better than 2007 – come out at a much lower price than last year’s vintage. Anyone who has money tied up in 2007 is going to lose.’

Over at www.erobertparker.com, the UK’s own Neal Martin says that prices were ‘the talk of the town’ during the first official day of en primeur tastings.

He says: ‘I spent some time today with one proprietor vexing over where to pitch his price, seeking my advice as an ex-buyer. But there is certainly a realisation that irrespective of quality, the campaign is going to be extremely difficult.’

Martin added that the hotel he is staying in was ‘empty’, and that there are ‘certainly fewer merchants here than usual’.

On www.jancisrobinson.com, Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem director Pierre Lurton tells Bordeaux resident Andrew Black: ‘It seems pretty clear to me that transactions for the 2008 vintage are going to be fairly limited,’ adding: ‘I think all the first growths, super seconds and equivalents have got to adjust the price to the market and help breathe new life into the primeurs market…There are many excellent growths lower down the hierarchy that are already inexpensive. They cannot feasibly lower their opening prices. So what should they do? Opt out this year? Frankly, I don’t think so.’

Robinson herself will be visiting châteaux in Bordeaux, although she admits it will be a ‘purely academic exercise’, ‘for I am deeply sceptical about the market for these wines’.

She says: ‘On the face of it, it looks as though the number of potential buyers of 2008 bordeaux is a small fraction of what it has been in previous years, and the campaign could be a very damp squib indeed.’

Tom Cannavan, of www.wine-pages.com, has told his devoted forumites that he will not be attending the en primeurs for the first time in nearly a decade, even though he believes that the wines will be of decent quality. He says: ‘The market in the UK thinks top-end Bordeaux prices need to be corrected; that is pretty clear. Many (trade and consumers) will ignore this vintage unless quality is spectacularly good, or the prices drop substantially.’

Meanwhile, on www.thewinedoctor.com, Chris Kissack asks a pertinent question: ‘Who will be reading the notes, or buying the wines?’ He believes that attendances will be down, as buyers and critics ponder whether to make a trip they may see as of ‘limited worth’.

Regarding the wines, he says: ‘Based on my tasting of 2008 right-bank Bordeaux in London a couple of weeks ago, this vintage is no failure; 30 or so wines (mainly Fronsac, Castillon, Pomerol and so on) from the Cercle Rive Droite, an association of right bank estates, showed nicely.’

Oliver Styles looks at the en primeur coverage in the French press...

Like almost every other commentator on the en primeur campaign this year, French newspapers are already talking about the pricing strategy of the chateaux, irrespective of the quality of their wines.

News agency AFP admitted that while the vintage appeared to be 'good', the Bordelais would suffer from 'prudent' buyers. This year, it said, there was a 'strong taste of prudence' following the 'brutal braking of demand for expensive wines'. Its article focused on UK and US importers.

First was UK wine trade doyen John Avery MW. 'The wines taste fine, but it depends what they charge for them,' he said, sounding like just about everyone else on the ground in the Gironde.

'If it's not less expensive [than 2006 and 2007], I won't take a lot,' said George Herron of Californian importers Fine Wines of Stockton.

Swiss importer Didier Mosca told AFP: 'It's difficult to sell 2006. 2007 is expensive for the quality. We hope there will be a big reduction.'

The article touched on one of the main concerns in the region: if 2008 is claimed as a better vintage than 2007, how can the producers justify charging less? The risk, said the news agency, would be to 'sacrifice' the 2007s.

Then came an English language rewrite from AFP:

'The 2008 vintage must pay for the mistakes made in pricing the 2006 and 2007 too high,' it said. Justin Gibbs, director of Liv-Ex Fine Wine Exchange, was quoted saying that '2007 is already in London trading 30% below opening primeurs prices.' Gibbs acknowledged the 2007 vintage was 'a major problem'.

John Avery's quote was extended: 'Even if they do bring the prices down by a great deal, which hopefully they will, the market is very flat at the moment and I can't see many people buying the 2008 en primeurs. We're not expecting to sell much.'

Herve Berland, managing director of Chateau Mouton Rothschild told the agency he wouldn't discuss prices but again hinted at an early release date:

'The years in which we release the price late are always the years when the market is very positive. If the market is more stable, you have to fix your price early, and basically you know after this week and a couple of weeks later, what you should be doing. When you wait, it's because you wait for good news. With the economy we are facing today, waiting for what?'

The online edition of L'Express, www.lexpress.fr, ran with a Reuters story saying there would be a 'return to reality' in Bordeaux this year. Although it quoted Chateau Gloria manager Jean-Louis Triaud saying 'there are many excellent wines at affordable prices', the Express gave most of its coverage to the global financial crisis and its impact on the en primeur week. 'The prices will be those of the market,' says Sylvie Cazes-Regimbeau, head of the Bordeaux Grands Crus Union (UGCB), while Francois Leveque, head of the Wine and Spirit Brokers' Union of Bordeaux said there would have to be 'attractive prices for the 2008 wines'. He said the 2006 and 2007 vintages were 'overpriced'.

'But the speculative bubble has burst and they [the chateaux] must be pragmatic,' he added.

Leveque’s comments were recycled by numerous publications, including www.europe1.fr which ran a short, but no less bleak, piece. The news channel said the wine market was ‘paralysed’. It explained that wealthy chateaux clients in London and New York had ‘big financial worries’, that stocks of 2006 and 2007 wines were ‘enormous’ and ‘the pension funds that had invested in Bordeaux needed liquid assets’. It finished with Aquitaine Wine Company boss Jean-Christophe Calvet calling for a 50% reduction in prices.

A similar call came from www.france-soir.fr, whose headline ‘Bordeaux – the 2008 price lists must come down’ was followed with the opening line: ‘The taste of the 2008 primeurs campaign promises to be bitter’. The paper reported that the negociants were asking for ‘reasonable pricing’.

Regional online journal www.aqui.com led by asking if the Bordeaux prices would come down. However, aside from reproducing some of the previous quotes, including Sylvie Cazes saying that as far as pricing was concerned, she had ‘no foresight’, it came to no conclusion. ‘The pricing tendency of the Grands Crus will be known in a few weeks,’ it said. ‘This will influence the price of the whole industry.’

Local newspaper www.sudouest.com understandably devoted the most column inches to the en primeur week. As well as a piece highlighting the dilemmas facing producers as they prepare their barrel samples (‘The temptation would be to offer the sample that tasted the best but that isn’t necessarily representative of the whole of the production,’ said one winemaker), the newspaper’s biggest piece covered the main elements of the en primeur week. This included the ‘vast’ logistics of the tastings and their importance as an ‘economic indicator’. It finished by quoting a negociant ‘waiting for a general drop in prices’.

‘Several English [merchants], for example, have said they will stay away from the campaign…we’ll see,’ said the newspaper, before reminding readers that the blue chip wines make up €500m of the Bordeaux wine market, compared to €3bn produced by all the other estates.

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