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Bordeaux 2011: The Fat Lady has Sung

They say it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. Well, when it comes to Bordeaux 2011, I think the fat lady sang last week. Or rather, an ex-lawyer from Baltimore sang. And although it didn’t exactly bring the house down, it certainly brought the tragic opera of Bordeaux 2011 to a close…..before the campaign ever really began.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that 2011 is not a great vintage. Nevertheless, I think many thought that of 2008, and then Parker came out with some very positive scores, with 167 wines out of 416 wines rated (40.1%) achieving a score range starting at 90 points. And there were some high scoring wines; Lafite, Petrus, Ausone and Trotanoy all had scores indicating a potential 100 points.

Those that released early got burnt; prices rose, and the châteaux missed out on potential profit. They saw the vintage differently to Parker, and they paid the price. In a time where en primeur prices are being pushed upwards to keep the profit with the châteaux and not the traders and speculators, that really hurt.

Back on March 30th, when all the talk was of an early and quick campaign, I tweeted: “RP has made positive comments. They [the Bordelais] will wait for his scores. Remember ’08?“. To me it seemed inevitable that would be the case; although Parker had made some very negative comments about 2011 before tasting, on his return he backtracked, commenting on his site that the vintage was “better than expected“. There was hope for the Bordelais after all. A few came out early of course; Lafite, despite being extraordinarily expensive, judged the market right (all they had to do was make it the cheapest Lafite on the market for the speculators to bite, of course). Others failed. Cos d’Estournel was too expensive, even with a large percentage reduction. But most waited. After all, once Parker published his scores, the market would rally – just as it did in 2008, right?

Wrong.

Parker’s scores were pretty dismal. OK, so he opened his report with a conciliatory comment on the vintage, that it “could turn out to be close in overall quality to years such as the underrated 2001 and 2008“, but the scores were way down. In 2011, of 365 wines rated, 115 were given 90+ point ranges (31.5%). That’s only three-quarters of the 90+ scores dished out for 2008, not really comparable (unless that is an admission the 2008 vintage was initially over-rated, of course). Ausone received a surprise nod with 96-100, but otherwise few scores touched a potential 95 or 96. And there are more scores in the mid-80s than I have seen for a long time. Lafite was a surprise low, at 90-93 (is there another story hidden in this score?). You can spin it whatever way you want (and the merchants have – remarkable how positive the emails dropping into my in-box are!) but Parker has destroyed any hope of selling this vintage the Bordelais might have had.

Looking back to another of my pre-campaign tweets, on March 29th I wrote “There is a potential for a massive stall if the prices are too high“. In the face of such low scores this seems inevitable. So, with Parker’s scores in their mitts, what will the Bordelais do now? We are due a rush of releases today (Wednesday May 2nd), after two days of holiday in France (a Tuesday public holiday, and what the French call a pont, a bridge, where everybody takes Monday off as well).

It seems to me there are two options:

(a) release now at a reduced price. I think it would be applauded by potential buyers, and it might generate some interest, but from the Bordelais point of view, how will your neighbours view it? Does this admit ‘defeat’ in some way? What effect will it have on the prices of other vintages? How will it look when the fabulous 2012s (you never know…) are released at an increased price again? And, with low levels of enthusiasm and low Parker scores, will the wines sell at any price?

(b) release now at a comparable or even increased price. We can call this hubris (“my wine is superb every year“) but maybe it makes commercial sense for the Bordelais. Write the vintage off. Buyers will look at the comparable prices of 2009 and 2010 and back-fill with the better vintages for the same money. When the superb 2012s (see above….) are released, the comparable price for the better vintage will seem generous (amazing how short our memories can be). And in time, as the prices continue to rise, the 2011s will eventually look good value. There’s a lot to be gained. Why hurt long-term growth, and the brand image, with a price reduction just to sell a few bottles now?

I know which I think is more likely. Stand ready for some releases, at comparable prices or – at best – some token price reductions. What do you think? If you were one of the Bordelais, what would you do?

Postscript, Wednesday afternoon: I just got off the phone with a UK merchant who confirmed that he is seeing increased sales of Bordeaux 2010 during the 2011 campaign. The Bordelais can take that as a positive effect of the campaign, and fits with plan (b) above.

10 Responses to “Bordeaux 2011: The Fat Lady has Sung”

  1. You are right Chris that ‘neighbours’ are a far bigger influence than the wider market. It is human nature to stick together when times are tough and I don’t see a mid-campaign change of direction, especially one instigated from external opinion, as likely.

    The same goes for Sauternes, of course, and the remaining chateaux will release soon at prices probably a little down of 2010. Here though, there is value! With exchange rates helping too it means that 2011 will be the cheapest of the 3 great vintages (2009, 2010 and 2011) – I just hope the wider market malaise doesn’t affect their sales too much.

  2. Thanks Steve. The Bordelais are very happy when RP scores high I’m sure, but I think they will have to be content with going it alone this year. As you say, I don’t think we will see very low prices because of the scores. High prices and low sales figures await us.

  3. Chris, I’ve read the rest of your notes with interest and I have to say that I think they are among the most objective and sensible available, and I appreciate that you have criticised some quite famous chateau (Giscours and Fieuzal spring immediately to mind). I’ve also noted a couple that you have highlighted, such as Rol Valentin and G Acte III.

    Overall, however, your notes have not changed my view of what might be sensible and appropriate. It seems to me that this is a vintage to buy one or two reds, that will not be found on the High St, to drink for pleasure; a couple of dry whites and some sauternes. That effectively means a budget limit for reds of say £250. It seems to me that any such wine should be of high quality relative to its peers, at a significant discount to 09/10, and relatively scarce: Cambon La Pelouse marked down from 125 to 105 is one such possibility, Rol Valentin marked down from 300 to 230 another. Beyond that level, one may as well wait and see how 2012 pans out: we’ve had early bud break, and a wet and cool spring (rather like 2000) that has slowed things down a little, so the vines are probably a week ahead at the moment rather than two. A warm dry summer and your wry comments about 2012 might turn out to be true, at which point why spend £500-1500 a case? And if it rains all year, well there are plenty of merchants who keep their en primeur lists open long after the campaign.

    As for sauternes (sorry Steve), I don’t see a stampede except for perhaps the two Doisy, Raymond Lafon, and perhaps one or two others. The rest, like the reds, can be bought slowly before release. However, in this case I do think a slightly higher limit is reasonable (most sauternes are £360 a case or under), as would be an eventual purchase of a wider range of top wines.

    None of this, of course, will be of any cheer to the chateaux with release prices in the high hundreds or thousands.

  4. what’s been odd this year is the difference between reviewers and points. Some are only docking 1-2 (out of 20), some more and so there is likely to be a positive score to justify a timid reduction for each producer to weigh against a more negative reduction that might imply a larger price drop. It’ll be interesting to see where the communes go as a whole in the end and I’m sure early prices will set a trend as ever.

    I’m also seeing some of the press talk up a “classic” vintage. Whether that means average or good will depend on your spin.

    Ultimate prices might be more driven by gloabl financial conditions than yearly quality. If lots of people want ot buy something, no matter how duff it is, the price will rise. Should we perhaps be better spending our time praying for a wonderful 2012 and Chinese financial collapse?

  5. Hi Mark (the first Mark!)

    Thanks for those comments, they are appreciated. The issue of criticising famous châteaux is an interesting one; it is something I have spent *lot* of time thinking about recently, but about which I have said very little. I wrote in my St Emilion 2011 report (under the ‘Figeac and the Fonz’) that other writers could pen what they want, and I would write what I want to write, and I wouldn’t make any direct criticisms. I would critique the wines, not other writers. In other words, “take the high road”. But I fail to understand what others see in wines like Bellevue-Mondotte, Clos Les Lunelles, Fieuzal, du Tertre in the 2011 vintage; they aren’t wines where descriptors such as “silky” and “well integrated new oak” both of which I have read with regard to these wines in the last five minutes could be applied. I do wonder if there isn’t a fear to criticise on the part of many. Fear to bite the hand that feeds……? Maybe if you’re a full time critic, and your livelihood depended on it?

    Your points on buying are I think spot on. I have bought some Sauternes; there are plenty of arguments against doing it (not least the wide availability of mature Sauternes at good prices) but I have a track record of buying en primeur, I have assurred provenance and the bottle size I want; I bought in 2001, 2003, 2007, 2009 and again in 2011. As for reds, I’m happy sitting it out. The wines I would be interested in having, and writing about in their maturity, are too pricy to buy by the case, especially if I want a selection of 10-15 wines. If I were buying just to drink I think I would pick up some inexpensive wines like Grand Village or G Acte III, and pick up others when they are on the shelves, with in-bottle reviews to hand.

  6. I guess, following up on the above comment, is that I’m surprised that with so many tannic, chewy, pruney, raisined, green, dilute, oily and vegetal wines in this vintage I find it hard – with most of the critical opinions now published – to think of anyone who has *really* criticised some of the wines from 2011.

    Do let me know if there are critics out there who have waded in; it may be that I am just unaware of the critical reports that exist.

  7. Hi mark (the second mark!)

    Thanks for that contribution. I think that the mild point reductions is part of the problem. Thinking of the 20-point scale, it seems like wines in good vintages tend to get 16-17 points, in poor vintages 15-16. Points are inherently flawed of course, and have to be taken with a pinch of salt (unless you are an investor in which case what RP gives the wine is gospel) but in this sort of situation scores are totally useless.

  8. Hi Chris, the most ‘interesting’ page I’ve noticed is the Vintage Punks, who wrote on Sauternes, particularly Filhot. The frankness of the language is perhaps, erm, unusual for the wine trade but they are certainly prepared to be critical of poor wine-making. The page is here:

    http://www.thevintagepunks.com/en/theblog

    By and large, however, most criticism where it exists does seem to be very muted and the mark does not fully reflect the reservations. It’s all a bit like marking student essays and being told that you have to be encouraging, or their darling egos will be traumatised. So it’s not bad wine, just ‘a bit of an experience’ (and that comes from someone whom I think of as one of the better critics).

  9. Interesting take from EP at Farr Vintners. They are at least being fair by not recommending buying 2011, if there are wines from the same chateau available for 9/10 at equal or slightly higher prices.

    however,

    somehow their take on the vintage is that if prices are on a par with 2008, then buy the wine. This is disinguenous since 2008 while “affordable” was still over-priced and way more expensive than where I felt 2008 should have been priced– on a par with 2002. Even so 2008 much more expensive than 2001 which is what I have seen rankings equate these three vintages by the chateau themselves (11/8/1). Furthermore from the 2001 I have had they are much better than 2008.

  10. Mark, thanks for that link, certainly no shortage of opinions there. Lots of pre-judging of the wines as well (as in, paraphrasing, “I don’t taste Pape-Clément because it is over-oaked crap”).

    Gary, agree that even cutting back to 2008 prices still leaves us with over-priced wines.