Can a bad year turn out be a good year? Can an unexpectedly good year turn out to be a very bad thing? We speak not of the recession (or only in part). We speak of the 2008 vintage of Bordeaux wine, which had been widely dismissed in advance as poor-to-horrible.
It was a ghastly summer in south west France last year, with little sun and lots of rain, most of it falling at the "wrong time" to produce good grapes and good wine. The conventional wisdom said that the 2008 Bordeaux would be a vintage to forget. Some of Britain's biggest wine traders did not even bother to go to Bordeaux this spring to taste the "primeur" or young wine at the best chateaux and place advance orders.
Enter Robert Parker, the sage of Maryland. The hugely influential, and often criticised, American lawyer-turned-wine critic released his ratings of the the leading Bordeaux "primeurs" earlier this month. In his Wine Advocate newsletter, Mr Parker declared the 2008 vintage to be "excellent" and "dramatically better than I had expected". Far from a wash-out, he said, the 2008 Bordeaux – especially the reds or clarets – could be one of the best vintages of the last decade, second only to 2005, which has already become the stuff of legend and of intense financial speculation.
How can a bad vintage suddenly become a good one? Was this a latter-day "miracle of Cana"? We shall return to that question in a moment. In the meantime, Mr Parker's comments have delighted some people in the Bordeaux wine trade and alarmed and infuriated others.
The entire global wine market has been depressed by the recession. There is much unsold top-level Bordeaux floating around from 2006 and 2007. The prices of the best chateaux have been inflated to stratospheric levels since the 1990s by the kind of "futures" speculation which has caused the wider mess in the world economy. It was high time, many wine traders believed, for a healthy downward correction.
The poor expectations of the 2008 vintage had led to a 30 to 40 per cent average drop in the "primeur" prices demanded by the leading Bordeaux labels. (In other words, advance orders on wine which will not be bottled until 2011 and will not reach its drinkable maturity for another decade or more.) Hence the distress at Mr Parker's high 2008 scores for the leading chateaux. Such is the American critic's influence, that his glowing judgements threaten, according to some Bordeaux and British wine traders, to detonate another speculative price frenzy this summer. "All the chateaux that haven't released [their primeurs] will put their prices up," said Simon Staples, the sales director at Berry Bros & Rudd.
James Wormall, director of private sales at Jeroboams, told the wine website Decanter.com: "[Parker's] scores are a double-edged sword. They will help [sales of] wines that are already out ... but I am worried about wines that are not yet released, and the second tranches of the top wines."
In recessionary times, even wealthy wine lovers – as opposed to the speculators – are no longer prepared to pay inflated prices for wines that they will not be able to enjoy for years. "If the prices are incorrect, the [2008 sales] campaign will grind to a halt," Mr Wormall said.
The temptation for chateau owners is great. Even if they keep their own prices down, they might see the price of their precious wine rocket on the speculative market and all the profit go to traders. So why not cash in themselves?
Mr Parker gave the 2008 Chateau Lafite Rothschild an almost perfect score of 98-100 and declared it to be "one of the most profound young wines I have ever tasted". The secondary market price of "Lafite" 2008 shot up in the next few days from £2,000 a case of 12 bottles to £3,200, before settling back a little. A Bordeaux negociant or wine trader, who preferred not to be named, said the Parker 2008 scores "have re-ignited the debate about Parker himself. There are many who believe that his influence is unhealthy and that his relationship with some chateaux is too close."
That brings us back to the "Cana" question: how did Robert Parker's renowned taste-buds turn allegedly poor wine into "excellent" wine? Other critics have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the 2008 vintage. Only Parker has been so ecstatic. Being out of line does not necessarily mean that he is wrong. He has often been proved right in the past. Nor do his high scores necessarily tempt chateaux to push up their prices.
One of the great beneficiaries of Parker's high scores this year has been the Chateau Pontet-Canet at Pauillac in the Haut-Médoc. Although a "cinquième cru" or "fifth growth" chateau, supposedly just below the rank of the great names, Pontet-Canet's reputation, and tasting scores, have been climbing steadily in recent years. In his 2008 tastings, Parker gives Pontet-Canet a score of 96-98 out of 100, the highest score that Parker has ever given to Pontet-Canet, and almost on a level with its aristocratic near neighbours, Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Lafite Rothschild.
So will the chateau push up its 2008 "primeur" prices to cash in on the Parker effect? "Not at all," Alfred Tesseron, the president of Pontet-Canet, tells The Independent. "We are wine producers, not speculators. Speculation is not our business. I cannot speak for others but the Parker scores will not affect our prices." (Wholesale, leaving the chateau, the 2008 Pontet-Canet is a very reasonable €43 a bottle or €516 a case.)
But how did Tesseron produce such a good wine in a "bad" year? "There are good and bad years, but more importantly there are people who do good and bad work," he said. "Our knowledge of how to produce good wine, and first of all good grapes, how to express the quality of the 'terroir' [soil and microclimate], has increased enormously. Many of the old rules about good and bad summers no longer need to apply. All years are different and all have a different character but I am very proud of our 2008. It is a very serious wine, a wine full of real character."
The secret, he said, was to make sure that in wet, grey weather the different bunches of grapes were kept apart and rot-free. By keeping rot at bay, the chateau was able to delay its "vendange" or grape harvest and cash in on the beautifully dry and sunny weather in September and October. All the chateaux in Bordeaux got the belated good weather; not all of them kept their grapes healthy for long enough to take advantage. "It was not a classically good year, where everything in the weather went right, as in 2005," Tesseron said. "But it was, if you were careful and skilful, a very good year to make wine."
We are talking, it must be remembered, of the top five per cent of the Bordeaux wine market. The price of other Bordeaux wines used to be attracted upwards by the price of the best. A good growing year is a good growing year for all clarets and white Bordeaux. That is not necessarily true of a challenging year like 2008.
There is such a glut of all mid-market wines in the world that a speculative frenzy among top-end labels is unlikely to boost the prices of more ordinary 2008 Bordeaux (although it will increase tensions and jealousies in the local industry). In 2005, the perfect weather meant that almost all Bordeaux wines were wonderful, within their own category. The quality of middle and low price 2008 claret may be much more hit and miss.
Premier crew: Top Bordeaux
Chateau Liversan, Cru
£9.90, Waitrose Direct
Ripe plums, with discreet spice. Dry style, sinewy with length and depth. Firm, classy finish. Drink from 2011. 15.5/20
70 per cent Sauvignon Blanc and 30 per cent Semillon. Crispness dominating now, but florality will come. 15.5/20
Chateau Calon-Segur, 3rd Growth, Saint-Estephe 2008 £25, Magnum Fine Wines
Deep purple, pure, rich and aromatic blackcurrant fruit with a touch of wild roses. Drink 2015-30. 18.5/20
Chateau de Fieuzal Blanc, Pessac-Leognan 2008 £26.66, Bibendum
Big, quite fleshy Burgundian- style Graves, lots of fleshy white fruits, but will mature well. Drink 2012-16. 17/20
If money's no object
Chateau Lafite Rothschild, First Growth, Pauillac 2008
£230, The Wine Society
Purple-black-red, purity of blackcurrant fruit on the nose, firm on the palate. Will develop slowly and brilliantly. Drink 2018-40. 19/20
Chosen by 'Decanter' www.decanter.com