Next week our Fine Wine Director and Purchasing Team will travel to Bordeaux for the annual En Primeur tastings. As ever, with a new vintage comes renewed excitement and curiosity over how well the wines will perform and, ultimately, what their release prices will look like. It’s another new year in Bordeaux and that means a wealth of new chances for the châteaux to put their best efforts forward for us all - the front line representatives of the fine wine trade and the industry cognoscenti - to closely evaluate.
However, we’ll begin our preview with the solemn promise not to use the term ‘miracle vintage’ this year. After the last three En Primeur campaigns, a true miracle vintage would be one in which the châteaux demonstrated that they actually understood the very legitimate concerns of the wine trade and the purchasing populace. The miracle would take shape as a significant, 180 degree turnaround on release pricing strategy and it would mean allowing the opening value of the releases the opportunity to gradually rise in value over the next 18 to 24 months prior to the wine’s physical availability. The real miracle would be to provide fine Bordeaux with the ability – via seriously attractive initial pricing - to once again find its way into the cellars and onto the dining tables of wine lovers around the world on a regular basis instead of simply as an occasional experience.
Now, with the history and that disclaimer out of the way, what we know and what cannot be denied is that the 60 days of beautiful weather that commenced at the end of August 2014 completely changed the direction of the vintage we’re about to sample…
[Above: vineyards at Château Palmer]
After a wet and relatively warm winter the vines were set for an early start. Given the mild temperatures in the spring there was relatively little frost damage and, whilst May remained somewhat damp, June was gloriously sunny. This allowed for good fruit set and optimism was high. The remainder of the summer was warm yet not exceptionally so, with just three days over 30C in July and none at all over 30C in August. This meant that ripening was gradual but there was no risk of sunburned grapes. September was both the third driest and third hottest of the last 100 years and the weather continued through to the end of October, allowing for a long and full maturation period for the bunches.
As we head to Bordeaux to taste the 2014 barrel samples, it will be interesting to see how the (presumably) high levels of flavour concentration and alcohol that are likely to have been achieved due to the extended and warm autumn are integrated with the lower pH levels and higher acidities that likely occurred during the early, cooler months of the summer. It is our hope that the winemakers will have been able to coax the best characteristics of these disparate and competing qualities to create wines with fresh fruit character, while maintaining a sense of richness and concentration on the mid-palate. Once again, it is likely that this will be a somewhat irregular and non-homogenous vintage, so it will be fascinating to see how each appellation and individual château has fared.
[Above: Château Pontet-Canet was one of 2013′s outstanding performers despite the difficult vintage conditions]
Until this week, relatively little has been spoken about the vintage in the press, however the pre-tasting campaign push has now begun to gather steam. A group of UK merchants has publically called for pricing to return to 2008 levels. However, by all accounts, this request has been largely dismissed by the châteaux owners. In a few weeks’ time we’ll know the full intentions of these managers, so all we can do at the moment is sample as many wines as possible and wait. What we do know is that, outwardly, this appears to be a better vintage than the three that have preceded it. Therefore, even if prices remain the same as 2013 then the current, rapid depreciation of the Euro against the Pound should result in lower pricing.
Given the continued conglomeration of estates in Bordeaux under large holding companies (eg. insurance, finance, telecom) with demanding boards and shareholders, we feel that a widespread return to 2008 pricing is unlikely. What is undeniable though is that what must happen is a return of a ‘feel good factor’ for buyers. The whole point of En Primeur, the true, original intent, needs to be resurrected in order for the system to survive. The incentive to buy must be that there is a noticeable return on investment, as shown by an increase in case value, by the time the wines are bottled.
The other big news prior to the tasting is that Robert Parker will no longer taste and review new Bordeaux vintages from barrel. The British critic Neal Martin will be taking over tasting duties and it will be interesting to see how the market responds to the change. Neal has been visiting Bordeaux and tasting En Primeur for 18 years, and authored the acclaimed book ‘Pomerol’ in 2012, so the region appears to be in safe hands.
Above all, what we would really like to see is a good, but not great vintage, with great, and not merely good, pricing!