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Bordeaux 2004: difficult but surprisingly good

At the end of en primeur week in Bordeaux, producers and journalists alike are surprised and pleased by the quality of a 'difficult' 2004 vintage.

But they are predicting a drop in price, if not as dramatic as Jean-Luc Thunevin’s 47% drop in the price of Château Valandraud, at least low enough to tempt buyers back after the expensive 2003 vintage.

Vignerons are unwilling this year to pronounce on whether this is a vintage that will favour the right or the left bank, the Merlot or the Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker and consultant Denis Dubourdieu said 2004 is good across the board for both reds and whites.

‘The reds, both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, have a very intense colour fresh and ripe fruit, and tannic richness.’

On one point winemakers are unanimous: this was a vintage that rewarded those who put in the work in the vineyard. Two green harvests and very expensive and careful leaf control (effeuillage) seemed to be the minimum attention required.

‘It was vintage with financial implications,’ Stephan Von Neipperg at Canon La Gaffeliere said – meaning that those who could afford it had workers in the vineyard from dawn to dusk during July and August.

Those who did no green harvest produced high yields, and consequently tended to overextract in order to concentrate the middle palate and avoid having dilute wines, Neipperg added. ‘It was not an easy vintage,’ he said.

Others concurred: yield control was essential. Château Cheval-Blanc consultant Kees Van Leeuwen said, ‘the potential yield was extremely high in 2004. Those who kept the yields down had the potential to make great wines.’

This was echoed by winemaker Emilie Faniest at Château La Pointe in Pomerol, who described 2004 as ‘a very difficult vintage to vinify’ and said that vineyard management – in particular, two separate green harvests – was essential to ensure the quality of the vintage.

As far as Cabernet Sauvignon is concerned, the rains that started on 10 October 2004 seemed to be the decider. Some vignerons harvested in haste on or before that date, while others stayed their hands and managed a fully-ripe crop.

‘We decided to wait, and didn’t bring in the Cabernet until 25 October ,’ said Jean-Christophe Mau of Medoc Chateau Preuillac, adding that that was largely the decision of his consultant Stephane Derenoncourt. ‘If he hadn’t told us to wait, we would certainly have brought it in before that.’

The potential size of the vintage is exercising the minds of those concerned with the final release price of the wine.

‘2004 will not be an easy campaign,’ said Cheval-Blanc proprietor Pierre Lurton. ‘A lot of people think that this is a high-yielding vintage. The negociants are thinking there will be a lot of bottles at the end of it – and they have a great influence on price.’

Lurton predicted a drop in price but stopped short of suggesting his own property would come out with anything near the half-price cut seen at Valandraud.

Other producers echoed this. ‘I’m sure the price won’t go up,’ Neipperg said, but warned that in 2003 many St Emilion producers went down in price and to drop any further would be economically impossible.

For their part, the message from the merchants on both sides of the Atlantic is positive but wary. One well-placed insider said he had heard nothing but doom from American importers – ‘no one I have spoken to will be placing a definite order’, he said.

Other American buyers are more positive, but many are saying, ‘drop prices or we don’t buy.’ An Irish importer said, ‘If they don’t cut their prices by 20% we won’t buy anything but the wines of the highest international reputation.’

One UK merchant told decanter.com he would be buying ‘more but less’ – in other words, more wines from fewer producers.

London merchant Farr Vintners is bullish. Yields are back to normal, meaning good availability, it tells its customers. Add to this the weak US dollar and the consequent drop in price to attract the American market, and the dealer predicts some ‘real bargains’ for the claret lover.

Written by Adam Lechmere

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