A drink in the last-chance saloon?


Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

As our team board the plane for a week in Bordeaux, our Chairman Simon Berry reflects on the current state of en primeur, the quality of the 2014 vintage and what the future holds for the world of Claret post-Robert Parker.

The 2014 Bordeaux vintage, if you believe what you read in the newspapers, marks a watershed. A Claret-shed, possibly. If the Bordelais ‘get it right’, all will be well. If they ‘get it wrong’, the Cassandras will tell you, then civilisation as we know it will crumble to dust. At a wine trade event a week or so ago several distinguished members of the trade were discussing the latest pronouncement to emerge from the Médoc: ‘a miracle vintage’, someone had proclaimed. ‘Absolutely correct,’ said one wag. ‘It’ll be a miracle if they sell a bottle’.

But before we write Bordeaux off as a hopeless cause, it might be worth thinking what’s going on here. One thing’s for sure: good wines will have been made in Bordeaux last year. I was in the vineyards when the harvest was being brought in last October, and it was clear that the vintage was already a success. Perhaps not the ‘vintage of the century’ which, astonishingly, hasn’t come along for at least four years, but certainly more successful than anything since 2010: healthy grapes, ripened by a final few weeks of beneficent weather, and as a result smiling faces.

The Clarets of 2014 will be classic, more typical Claret if you prefer; ‘better’, in many people’s view. Very few will ‘get it wrong’ as far as the standard of the wine is concerned. Where they do, it’s our job to inform you of the fact – or, at the very least, decline to list the wine.

‘Getting it right’, in effect, means getting the pricing right; and here there is less cause for optimism. From the outside, it seems very simple. The UK trade sent an open letter to Bordeaux a few weeks ago pointing out that it’s not rocket science. All Ch. Plume de Ma Tante has to do is surf to Wine Searcher, and look up the current market price for earlier vintages of its wines – 2010, for example, or 2008, or if they’re feeling very confident (and there are any bottles still out there), 2005; then make sure that the 2014 Ch. Plume de Ma Tante sells for a lower price than the earlier vintages. Quite, as my old maths master used to say, easily done.

However the Bordelais châteaux throw up their hands in exasperation at such a suggestion. Don’t we realise that the euro has weakened in the last year, they say? Don’t we realise that such an action would mean that the 2014s would be released at a lower price than the 2013s, 2012s and 2011s and that would mean (they don’t say) the négociants of Bordeaux sitting on warehouses of stock that would be impossible to sell?

Up until a few weeks ago Bordeaux was putting its faith in America. China may not have proved to be the goldmine of their dreams; the traditional European markets may be proving too demanding and unappreciative – but the United States had hardly bought en primeur since 2008, and with the dollar strengthening and the euro weakening surely the transatlantic market would open up? Then came a bombshell: Robert Parker, the man who single-handedly created the boom in Bordeaux prices in the early 1980s, announced that he will no longer be visiting Bordeaux for the en primeur tastings, and instead would be passing the baton to – Choc! Horreur! – a Brit. Not only a Brit, but Neal Martin, a Brit with much more traditional tastes than His Bobness.

As I write, Bordeaux is in a state of apoplexy at this news. What will this mean for the market – and will the Americans (all 320 million of them) buy if their oracle fails to pronounce from the mountaintop? Will they have to take the irritating British wine merchants a little more seriously, and find prices that the market will support, rather than finding markets prepared to pay their prices?

To sum up, nobody knows how the next few weeks will pan out. No one knows if the Bordelais will let reason prevail, and thereby save the en primeur market. No one knows if they will set prices to support the négociants, and the en primeur market will continue to stagger on, defying rumours of its demise, as it has for many years now.

I would venture to suggest, however, that it doesn’t really matter. It certainly doesn’t matter to you, the buyer of wine. The en primeur system, so far from being ‘time honoured’ as one Bordelais described it last year, has only really been around in its current form for 35 years. If it didn’t exist, no one would invent it from scratch. If the Bordelais do ‘get it wrong’ as far as prices are concerned for this vintage, they will certainly make some very good wines; and there will be plenty of other vintages on the market, and plenty of other wines from other parts of France, Europe or the rest of the world which will prove excellent investments, if only in future pleasure.

Follow our team in Bordeaux as they walk the vineyards, taste the 2014 wines and talk to the people who made them: they will be posting updates on the blog, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.