A glass half full – or half empty?
The châteaux of Bordeaux believe their 2009 vintages could be the best in living memory. But can that save the ailing wine industry? John Lichfield tastes the evidence
Saturday 27 March 2010
With the air of a magician performing a trick that is likely to amaze, Alfred Tesseron pours out a glass of Château Pontet-Canet 2009. Only six months ago, this precious liquid was still inside luscious bunches of cabernet and merlot grapes hanging on the vines outside the château window.
Only a handful of people have ever tasted the infant vintage before this moment. Hundreds of people, from celebrity wine critics to powerful traders from all over the globe, will taste it in the next few days. Bordeaux is about to plunge into its annual spring festival of testing, and selling, "primeurs", or young wines, from the top 100 or so châteaux. I am no expert but the liquid poured into in my glass seems extraordinarily dark, almost black, for a wine so young. I take a hesitant gulp. The wine is explosive, but also gentle, already a powerful claret and already drinkable with enormous pleasure. All the same, following etiquette, I politely, and reluctantly, spit it out into the bowl provided.
For months, there have been ecstatic rumours and forecasts about the 2009 Bordeaux vintage. After a near-perfect spring and summer, the wines were predicted to be as good as – maybe even better than – the already legendary 2005. Unlike the 2005 Bordeaux, however, the new vintage will be born into a time of deep crisis: a crisis affecting not just lower-market French wines but the whole of the world's wine industry and even the speculatively inflated resale prices of some of the top Bordeaux châteaux. Could a great 2009 claret help to banish these blues?
Mr Tesseron, 62, the proprietor of Pontet-Canet, has been making great wines for more than two decades. He believes that the 2009 Bordeaux could be one of the finest vintages ever.
"When I tasted the 2005 primeur, I said I was grateful to have grown one such special vintage in my lifetime. Now another one has come along which is probably even greater, perhaps the greatest for 60 years," he said. "I adore all my wines. They are all my children. I would give them all a score of 100 out of 100. But I knew that this year's wine would be special as soon as I inspected the grapes at harvest time. Now that I have tasted it, I am sure that this will be a great wine, perhaps the best since 1949 or 1947, maybe on a level with mythical vintages like 1929."
On the other side of the small town of Pauillac, in the Haut-Médoc – containing perhaps the densest concentration of iconic red wine names in the world – is the home of another great claret, Château Lynch-Bages. Jean-Charles Cazes, 35, the son of the proprietor, who runs the wine-making side of the estate, said: "Everyone will always speak well of his or her own wine. But quite sincerely, the reaction of the first traders and critics to taste the primeur 2009 Lynch Bages has been exceptional, even euphoric. I believe that some of the 2009 Bordeaux wine will be even better than 2005. But the quality of this vintage may not be so evenly spread over the region. The weather last year was especially favourable for the cabernet-dominated wines produced on this bank of the river [the Gironde]. It was less perfect maybe for the wines on the other side (Pomerol, St Emilion) which are 85 per cent or more merlot."
If you mistrust the opinion of wine growers on their own wines, listen to the opinion of a leading British wine trader, Simon Staples, sales director of Berry Brothers and Rudd. He made an advance trip to Bordeaux this week before his company's main tasting expeditions begin on Monday.
"What is clear is that we are on to something spectacular again," he wrote in his blog yesterday. "What we have tried so far are all superb, rich, powerful, sexy beasts with great structure, depth and almost magical promise."
The 2009 vintage will not be ready to drink for three or four years – and not for 10 years or more in the case of leading châteaux, such as Pontet-Canet and Lynch-Bages. The vintage's reputation will be made, provisionally, by the scores given by the leading wine critics, and especially the great American wine guru, Robert Parker, in the next couple of weeks. At the same time, the Bordeaux wine négociants, or traders, and their clients abroad – including many Chinese this year – will be making their own judgements. Up to 90 per cent of the produce of some of the top châteaux is sold en primeur – still in barrels and years away from drinkable age – between April and June in the year after it is grown.
The verdict of critics and traders alike is anxiously awaited each spring but never more so than this year: a potentially great Bordeaux vintage is about to collide head on with a great wine crisis.
The lower and middle slopes of the wine industry in France, and elsewhere, have been struggling for a decade or more. Last year, as the global economic crisis took hold, sales of Bordeaux fell off a cliff. Wine exports from the region plunged 14 per cent by volume and 23 per cent by value.
"Such a brutal and rapid collapse has never been recorded since statistics on the world trade in wine began," said Roland Feredj, director general of the main Bordeaux wine industry association, the Comité interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB).
The catastrophe is explained partly by the recession-driven reduction in wine sales worldwide – a 23 per cent fall in the global wine trade. It is explained partly by the fact that much of the 2007 Bordeaux vintage was comparatively poor. Unsold stocks of 2007 primeur wine blocked sales of the 2008. Lower quality Bordeaux producers have been suffering for years from competition from Australia, Chile, South Africa and elsewhere. Last year some of the big Bordeaux châteaux names also found their bottles dropping off the shelf for the first time in decades.
Just before Christmas, the world's biggest buyer of top-price Bordeaux châteaux – DC&E, the US subsidiary of the British drinks firm, Diageo – liquidated its entire stock at 30 to 60 per cent discounts. Other US traders also pulled out of the high-price Bordeaux market.
Some of the leading Bordeaux châteaux scrambled to buy back their own wine from America to prop up the market. The falls, admittedly, were relative. The 2005 vintage of the elite Château Lafite-Rothschild (just next door to Mr Tesseron's Pontet-Canet) fell to "only" $825 (£555) a bottle at one stage, compared with $1,200 (£810) at its height.
The 2005 Pontet-Canet, almost as extraordinary a wine according to Robert Parker, can be bought for a reasonable €90 (£80) a bottle. It is greatly prized by connoisseurs, as opposed to speculators, and has therefore been much less affected by the latest wine crisis.
Two contradictory forces will contend during the next few weeks of the Bordeaux primeur season: the excellence of the 2009 vintage and the caution of traders faced with a difficult world market. Which will win? Mr Tesseron said: "You only have to see the length of the lists of traders and wine experts who have signed up for the primeur tastings. There is an excitement, an agitation, surrounding the 2009 vintage which, just as it did with the 2005, should increase interest in all types and vintages of Bordeaux. That has to be good news. What effect it will have on prices is impossible to say."
Jean-Charles Cazes of Lynch-Bages said: "In 2006, the Americans bought all the 2005 that they could. They would have bought two or three times as much. There will not be the same exuberance this year. There are still large stocks unsold in the US of previous vintages of some of the big-name châteaux.
"But the Americans are certainly here and they are very interested. And they have competition," he added. "The number of Chinese buyers has been growing year by year and this time there are more than I have ever seen before."
Much will depend on just how good the 2009 vintage is judged to be. Is it merely good? Or great? Is it a once-in-a-century peak of excellence?
"Each year I invite my principal clients amongst the Bordeaux traders to come here for a pre-tasting," said Mr Tesseron. "They were here last night. It's not difficult to know what they really think. If there is a problem, or they are unsure, there is a subdued atmosphere after they taste the wine. Just polite conversation. If they like it, they smile and chat."
And last night? Mr Tesseron grinned. "It was party time."
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