A vintage of 'finesse, elegance and longevity'; is Robert Parker's verdict on the 2004 vintage in Bordeaux, but it will only sell if the price is 'significantly' lower than last year.

Parker has released his top scores for the vintage, along with the explicit warning, ‘Keep the prices down’.

The ratings – there are 68 chateaux which get at least 90 points – have surprised few people, though some are saying they expected his scores to be lower, given the traditional nature of the vintage.

Sephen Browett at London merchant Farr Vintners called the wines ‘classically structured, traditional, and not sexy in any way.’ Another Bordeaux observer said he was surprised that Parker’s views seemed to accord with his own.

Parker says 2004 is uniform at the top level, with the finest wines ‘pure and aromatically expressive.’ But the vintage is ‘difficult’ at the properties that couldn’t afford the intense work needed in the vineyard and at selection to keep yields down. Wines below classed growths are ‘decidedly mediocre.’

He also takes issue with the opinion that was current in Bordeaux at en primeur time that this is a vintage on a par with 1996, or even 2000. ‘That seems overly optimistic if not wishful thinking.’

Of the scored chateaux, Pavie gets one of the highest marks (95/97+), with Latour getting 96/97, Haut Brion 93/95, and Lafite and Margaux 92/95. Mouton comes in at 91/93, a (relatively) low score echoed by most of the trade.

The Pavie mark has raised some eyebrows. Opinion is as polarised as it was last year (when Jancis Robinson and Parker were involved in a very public war of words: she called it ‘ridiculous’, he called her comment ‘a nasty swipe’).

Several UK critics have been outspoken in their dislike of the 2004 Pavie. Robinson gives it 16.5 out of 20, and suggests it is almost as egregious as she considered the 2003.

‘Quite a spread of inky fruit across the palate but then those tannins start to insist….if Pavie 2003 is like an exaggerated version of the characteristics of the 2003 vintage, this is certainly its 2004 counterpart.’

There are also old Parker favourites on the list: Michel Rolland’s Bon Pasteur and Fontenil score 90/91. Lynch Bages (which Steven Spurrier gave four stars in Decanter) is conspicuous by its absence.

Although the US critic says this is not a vintage that could be said to favour either the Cabernet of the left bank or the Merlot of the right, the right bank features heavily in his list. More than half the top scorers are St Emilion or Pomerol.

Parker’s deliberations usually cause intense activity on both sides of the English Channel and the Atlantic. Commercial directors of the chateaux use the scores to a greater or lesser extent to set their prices, while the big American and British merchants make decisions as to what they will offer their customers.

This year things are slightly different as most commentators consider this a vintage that will be bought by traditional, non-investing claret lovers but won’t be snapped up by investors. It’s the latter, especially in America, who use Parker as a guide. Parker himself agrees that it’s not a vintage for investment. ‘With the weak dollar and a less than great vintage, there are serious doubts as to whether any of these 2004s require purchasing as futures.’

There’s some doubt therefore that the release of the scores will cause the chateaux to price highly. The general opinion is that across Bordeaux, owners have taken in the message that wines should be priced sensibly.

Every critic and every merchant, with few exceptions, is saying the same thing, however: keep the prices low. ‘Prices are the big issue,’ Browett said. ‘They have to come down.’

Browett said Farrs would not be offering Sociando Mallet, which yesterday released its price at the same level as last year, because it didn’t represent good value for money. One influential insider was scathing at what he saw as Sociando’s irresponsibility at pricing itself so high.

Paul Milroy at Berry Brothers said, ‘If the prices are the same as last year we will advise our customers not to buy but to wait for 12 months when the prices are certain to come down.’

And Parker is as explicit, saying the world marketplace will be receptive only ‘if prices drop significantly.’

He goes on, ‘If they (the chateaux) persist in believing this is a great vintage and it should be priced accordingly, the negative consequences will be significant.’

He concludes, ‘there are many wines that will merit scores in the 88-90 range, and could represent great buys if priced reasonably.’

Written by Adam Lechmere