The big guns of Bordeaux have fired. America's übercritic Robert Parker has pronounced, and the scorching 2003 Bordeaux vintage has lived up to the hype that fanned the summer en primeur sales campaign.
Farr Vintners, one of this country's leading fine-wine merchants, has already sold nearly 50,000 cases - that's £10m worth - of 2003 Bordeaux. The trophy wines from the most in-demand châteaux are already fetching double the price of last year's vintage. Despite this, the claret drinker needn't feel left out. The unusual nature of the 2003 vintage means that most clarets are reasonably priced and will stay that way. These include all but two (Montrose and Cos d'Estournel) of Farr's biggest-selling wines: Rieussec, Lagrange, Grand Puy Lacoste, Pontet Canet, Gruaud Larose, Léoville Poyferré, Lynch Bages, Talbot and Pavie.
Cos was priced high by the châteaux. Montrose was released at a reasonable price, but such was the demand that once all the middlemen had taken their cut, the price to consumers like me was twice last year's. So much for my hopes of buying at least a case of each for the Rose cellar. As acclaim for the élite châteaux turned to feeding frenzy, the two I had earmarked were offered en primeur by merchants such as Farr for between £800 and £1,000 a case. Far more than I'd bargained for.
The five First Growths (Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, Mouton and Margaux) rubbed in the salt by more than doubling their opening prices. Latour reached £2,100 a case, while over in St-Emilion, Château Ausone, in some eyes the wine of the vintage, came out at a scarcely credible £3,200 a case. Within days, the price was ratcheted up to £3,500, most no doubt paid for in American dollars. It's all very well for the wine trade to condemn these massive price hikes. Farr Vintners sold out of all First Growths and could have sold more. According to Stephen Browett of Farr, this vintner's view is: why shouldn't the First Growths take the profit?
Others in the wine trade see it differently. They believe Bordeaux is taking both trade and customers for an expensive ride. If it costs £10-£20 to produce a bottle of bells-and-whistles Bordeaux, the producer pocketing the difference between that and the £100-plus release price is doing very nicely.
But not all producers are as rapacious. The ever-reasonable Anthony Barton released his Léoville Barton at a moderate €28 (£18.50) per bottle, then only weeks later watched others profit as it traded at three times that price. Either way, because of demand, the wine ends up at the same high market price. The châteaux setting a high opening price gain at the expense of all the middlemen. Or the broker, négociant and UK wine merchant benefit from Bordeaux producers like Barton.
What then about the claret drinker rather than the investor? Despite the intense focus on a handful of trophy wines, there is plenty of affordable and available 2003 Bordeaux for anyone who fancies a flutter. As Browett says, "People go on about Bordeaux as so expensive, but in the case of wines like Talbot and Beychevelle, you're getting a good wine and a famous name at less than the price of some Australian or Italian cabernets." Let the super-rich pay over the odds for the trophies, so the rest of us can have the last laugh and enjoy good Bordeaux at a fair price. E