Britain's wine merchants are warning Bordeaux châteaux of an impending fiasco unless prices for the 2001 vintage are dramatically lower than for 2000.

Last year some châteaux – especially the first growths – raised prices as much as 75% on the previous year. Other lesser names increased exponentially, finding customers partly because it was a good vintage and partly, say UK trade buyers, ‘because of the magic number 2000’.

Now merchants say they are concerned there will be a further price hike for the 2001 vintage.

‘We and others are quite worried about the situation,’ Claire Mackenzie, broking manager at Justerini and Brooks, told ‘We have to face them with the fact that 2000 was exceptional. Quite a lot of our customers are telling us that they bought last year but won’t do so again.’

British merchants are haunted by the prospect of a repeat of 1997, which failed to sell because it was overpriced. ‘We still have quite a lot of stock of that vintage,’ said Mackenzie. ‘It tends now to be selling for less than it was first offered for.’

Stephen Browett of London merchant Farr Vintners agreed that 2000 – with exceptions such as Léoville-Barton – was ‘an incredibly expensive year’.

He also warned that merchants who burnt their fingers with the 1997 offer would simply fail to buy in 2001 – ‘which would be a fiasco’.

Roy Richards of the importers Richards Walford points out that many wines from 1997, and the following two vintages, are still available for the same price at which they were offered en primeur. He believes that unless this time prices fall ‘dramatically’ the credibility of Bordeaux could suffer irreversible damage.

There has been talk of a joint approach by the UK merchants to their Bordeaux suppliers. But industry observers say the British trade tried this ’round robin’ appeal – a letter to châteaux signed by prominent merchants – a few years ago and it had no effect in moderating prices.

As for the owners themselves, there is little evidence they fear losing their credibility. Stephan von Neipperg of Canon la Gaffelière said he anticipated ‘une campagne sportive’ when prices started coming out. Antony Barton of Léoville Barton said, ‘It will be quite amusing to see what happens.’

Written by Patrick Matthews8 March 2002