Anthony Rose: 'Fine wines have now become status symbols in Asia'
Saturday 09 July 2011
After the calm comes the storm in a wine glass. Between the tasting of the new 2010 Bordeaux vintage before Easter and a second showing of the wines at Vinexpo a couple of weeks back, three things happened. The majority of critics came out with their scores and tasting notes. Bordeaux responded by setting prices for the wines. And the wine trade is now offering those wines for sale en primeur (ie, before bottling and delivery in 2013) to consumers.
How we laughed when the mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, said that the wines "are actually great value". Bordeaux has shown its hand and what a grasping hand it is. Fifth growth châteaux Pontet Canet and Lynch Bages came out at 39 per cent up on last year's prices, second growth Pichon Baron 47 per cent up. Why? The narrow view is that one fourth-ranked château, Beychevelle, was at a historic low last year, so when it came out early with a substantial price hike this year, and sold out immediately, it was game on for the top estates. Put in Bordeaux-speak, as one château owner said at Vinexpo with that classic Gallic shrug, "Il faut que tout le monde gagne sa vie" (loose translation: "we're all hustlers now").
The broader picture has Asia as the villain of the piece. The opening up of Hong Kong as a tax-free zone and rampant Chinese capitalism have created a class of nouveaux riches keen to pile into the best of the West. Along with watches, cars and fragrances, fine wines have become status symbols. Is Bordeaux playing a dangerous game of Asian Roulette?
According to Lilian Barton Sartorius, whose Château Léoville Barton went up by 15 per cent this year, "the Bordelais have gone pretty crazy this year. I believe we should have stayed at the same price as last year. The trouble is that with the crisis of the last two years, Bordeaux has been rather happy to find new customers in the Chinese".
The critics have hardly covered themselves in glory, either. Manipulated by Bordeaux into rushing out their scores after the pre-Easter week of schmoozing, the press has gifted Bordeaux the opportunity to use its scores to raise the bar on prices. As the embarrassment of this year's extortionate price hikes shows, the claim by the press that they're rushing out their scores in the interests of consumers is not only disingenuous but wrong. If anything it's been a disservice. All the more so since scores and tasting notes on unfinished barrel samples are a mere snapshot in time. We can only hope that powerful critics such as Robert Parker will heed the call to see sense next time round and be more patient.
Let's recall amid all the hype that Bordeaux is a fast, medium and slow-track highway. The 30 or so châteaux tearing along the fast lane are chasing the luxury goods and investment market. The middle and slow lanes are where the value lies because most Bordeaux châteaux can't afford to put their prices up that much. Maybe Juppé's right. In the majority of cases, prices are generally reasonable. So there's no cause for panic buying. This looks like a vintage in which prices are unlikely to change much before the wines are released in bottle and sold through the traditional wine trade in two years' time. For my top 100 Bordeaux 2010 wines en primeur, including the best value wines, check out anthonyrosewine.com.
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