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Jefford on Monday: Bordeaux 2010 – The Titanic Campaign

Agreed, it is too soon to reach definitive conclusions, but the word 'Titanic' springs to mind in connection with the Bordeaux 2010 sales campaign.

Note the capital letter. Don’t expect a titanic struggle to wrest a case or two of your favourite château from the coy arms of your preferred en primeur merchant: I suspect you can have more or less whatever you want this year.

Instead, I’m thinking of a magnificent vintage of unsinkable quality leaving port, buoyed by a nation’s pride – and heading for a rendez-vous with a very large iceberg.

The iceberg is made of frozen pounds, euros, dollars and yuan. The warmth of Bordeaux’s long, dry 2010 summer looks insufficient to melt them.

There are two differences with the incident of April 15th, 1912. The first is that, unlike Captain Smith, we can see the iceberg coming. Bordeaux’s proprietors could, indeed, sail around it – by lowering prices, say, by 20 per cent.

They won’t, though: amour-propre decrees that prices must be close to those of 2009. And, in the words of Farr Vintner’s Tom Hudson, buyers “can’t get up for it again. They don’t have the appetite, and they possibly don’t have the money, either. They were gouged on the prices of 2009. Interest this year is about 20 per cent of what it was last year.”

I know one private buyer who spent well over £50,000 on 2009s last year. He’s decided not to buy a single case of 2010 on the basis of 2009’s stationary prices (and Parker’s decision not to refine the 2009 scores at this stage, guaranteeing further stagnation).

The second difference is that of course the iceberg won’t actually send the 2010 vintage to the bottom of the Atlantic. It will, though, take a lot longer to sell through than 2009, and post en-primeur prices may dip and stagnate as well as (eventually) rising, as the 50-year prospect swings into view.

Given the amount of money now involved in tying up stock of top Bordeaux, those squirming most uncomfortably will be Bordeaux’s négociants, since they are the ones who will be called on to finance unsold allocations until the iceberg has disappeared in the dented ship’s wake in perhaps four or five years’ time.

Yes, I know that the 2010 Beychevelle sold out briskly enough at prices 24 per cent higher than in 2009, despite a desultory Robert Parker score of 90-92. Special circumstances: it was one of the few 2009s to have moved up in value, since it would appear that its ‘dragon boat’ label suggest good fortune in the market on which 2009’s largely speculative prices were predicated. But it’s still a punt: buyers on the Chinese mainland remain bemused by the en primeur process, and stay out of it.

Most 2009s, though, haven’t moved in price at all. Bottom to top: you can still buy Haut-Brion, Mouton and Cheval Blanc at last year’s opening prices. If that is true of two outstanding first-growths and a right-bank lodestar in a heart-throb vintage like 2009, described by Decanter’s Steven Spurrier as “the greatest vintage of my lifetime” (thus superior in quality to 1945, 1947, 1949, 1959, 1961, 1982 and everything since), and which was lauded almost as glowingly by every other critic including Robert Parker, then why would customers unclench their buttocks and wave their hands for the sterner, less beguiling 2010s at almost identical prices?

A few stellar properties aside, it will be far more prudent to make a move on most promising 2010s shortly before Robert Parker releases his first scores on the wines in bottle. Or indeed afterwards – which is what the wine funds will do. Parker’s 2008 score revisions, and the attendant drop in prices, haven’t increased confidence.

Not everyone, of course, sees the campaign in this way. Adam Brett-Smith of Corney & Barrow, for example, reports “strong, steady interest” from his customers, and has (unsurprisingly) sold out of the small-production Moueix exclusives and the Mitjavile wines; Gary Boom of Bordeaux Index claims that “demand for the 2010s from the Far East is high”. Like Tom Hudson at Farr, though, Simon Staples of Berry Bros & Rudd also fears that without significantly lowered prices, “the whole process will stutter and stall”.

Last week’s release of Les Carmes Haut-Brion at prices 10 per cent beneath 2009 and, especially, Sociando-Mallet at almost 20 per cent down on 2009 would, if duplicated by the classed growths, steer 2010 round the iceberg. But will Léoville-Las Cases and Pichon-Lalande be guided by Sociando-Mallet? I suspect not. Indeed later releases in the week (including Lafon-Rochet) were actually up on last year, suggesting the boat remains on a steady course for the ice mass.

One final word of caution. Bordeaux in 2011 has had a phantasmagorical spring of warmth, bright sunshine and early flowering: just the start you need for yet another great vintage. What if it all happens again this year? What if ‘great’ is the new normal? It would be wonderful news for drinkers (and meteorologists would point out that it’s wildly improbable too), but the certain effect of that scenario would be to make 2009 and 2010, for all their varied splendours, look like the most over-priced Bordeaux vintages of all time.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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