The relevance of Bordeaux's system of selling its top wines as futures, or en primeur, in the spring after the vintage, has been called into question by the latest shenanigans over the 2008 vintage.
Every spring, the top Bordeaux châteaux release their prices while the wines are still in barrel to give consumers a chance to buy early from wine merchants at a relatively affordable price. They price their new releases on how they see the quality of their wine that year, of the vintage as a whole and what the market will wear.
If the vintage is good and the prices reasonable, everyone wins: wine lovers get their claret at a bargain price (when the wines are bottled), and the châteaux and trade get their cash up front. This year, there is a twist – a sting, even – in the tale.
After a season of indifferent weather, albeit rescued by an Indian summer, no one was expecting great shakes from 2008. Some of the UK's leading wine merchants didn't bother going to Bordeaux to taste the new vintage (nor did I), while all called for reasonable prices in the light of the compound problems of recession, a strong euro, an overpriced vintage in 2007 and a stockpile of earlier vintages.
With one or two exceptions, like Château Léoville Barton, the Bordelais are not known for heeding the call of common sense, so the early announcement by a handful of châteaux that they were actually cutting prices by 30-40 per cent was greeted with considerable surprise. The second revelation was that most of the press and trade who did taste pronounced the clarets uneven but much better than expected.
Most UK merchants have seized the opportunity to cosy up to their frogs-turned-princes, putting out offers to the public telling us "Bordeaux has listened". One or two, like Edward Parker, counsel caution: "We thought ... the Bordelais were being sensible and had listened, but one step down from the top wines we are not seeing the flexibility and realism we had hoped for."
Then came the bombshell. Robert Parker, the powerful American critic, pronounced 2008 "a notch below 2005, but better than any other vintage of the last decade except 2000". No one was expecting that, not least the stunned Bordelais. All of a sudden prices of wines rated highly by Parker went through the roof, first growth châteaux such as Lafite Rothschild trading at £3,200 per case after releasing at £1,900 and Latour, released at £1,590, up to £2,500.
Robert Parker has over-hyped other vintages before and may have got it wrong. "No one else believes this vintage is outstanding," says Simon Staples from Berry Bros. "Parker went crazy about 2003, on his own, and he missed 2005 when everyone loved it."
The second problem is that blue-chip investments like Lafite bear no relation to drinking reality. Real wine lovers will be priced out of the market if the reaction is to yield to the temptation not to drop prices. What to do? For wine lovers in urgent need of a case of fine red Bordeaux in the cellars each year, here's a few names the best critics agree fulfil the essential pre-requisite of good quality and reasonable pricing: La Lagune, Calon-Ségur, Léoville Barton, Langoa-Barton, Pichon Lalande, Grand-Puy-Lacoste and Le Petit Cheval. For the rest of us, time is on our side.
For a full list of wine merchants offering Bordeaux 2008, see anthonyrosewine.com