Food and Drink: Bordeaux is suffering a vintage headache: Prices for the 1992 vintage are in free fall, reports Anthony Rose

AFTER a decade of riding high, life has suddenly started to get tough for the region that thought it alone had the Midas touch. Unsold stocks, recession, an overvalued currency and a feeling that Bordeaux is losing the value-for-money battle have left a distinctly bitter taste in the Bordelais' mouths. The launch of the 1992 vintage, far from

heralding the usual euphoria, is distinctly low key.

With the exception of 1991, when the frosts of 21 April decimated the vineyards, recent vintages have produced a series of bumper crops. In line with this pattern, 1992 was a record, delivering the equivalent of 934 million bottles of red and white wine. But while 1988, 1989 and 1990 were all fine vintages, the weather in 1992 was of the fire and brimstone variety. Last year was the wettest for 50 years and pretty sunless as well.

'Thirty years ago, 1992 would have been a disaster,' says Peter Sichel, a prominent Bordeaux chateau owner and negociant, looking momentarily on the bright side. 'As it is, there is a mass of light, dilute wine made from overproduced wet grapes more or less damaged by rot, that will gradually have to be absorbed into cheap blends.'

The optimistic view compares it to 1981 and 1983, both good vintages. Others are more inclined towards 1987, a light vintage that had its moments, or even 1974, a mean vintage memorable only for its bulk. All is not lost. But in the nature of God's law, it is the better-off chateaux with the wherewithal to pick and choose - and the power to set the price - that are likely to have made the most successful blends.

Until 1990, Bordeaux's worst headache was devising methods of keeping the hands of the state out of its bulging treasure chest. Wealth had been generated in part by successful pre-release cash sales of the new vintage (ie, en primeur) but also from the increased value of vineyard land, thanks to big investments by French insurance companies and outside investors. Now, after two unsatisfactory vintages in a row, the first not big enough, the second not good enough, Bordeaux is left with a different kind of headache: how to offload its surplus wine without bankrupting itself.

As far as Mme de Lencquesaing, of Chateau Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, is concerned that is precisely what her St Julien neighbour, Anthony Barton, is doing by offering his 1992 Chateau Leoville Barton at Fr48 (about pounds 6, trade price) a bottle. 'He's crazy; he'll be ruined,' she says. 'Making wine is incredibly labour intensive. How can we pay our staff if we sell at that kind of price? And it signals that the wine is not good.'

Up the road, in St Estephe, Bruno Prats at Chateau Cos d'Estournel has earnt a reputation for reasonable pricing. 'The market reflects the real price of wine,' says Mr Prats. 'So when releasing the new vintage, it is sensible to look at the market price of older vintages.'

Like Pichon Lalande, Cos (pronounced Cos, as in the lettuce), is a so-called 'super-second', a risen star in the Bordeaux firmament nudging the 'first growth' elite at the very top - Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut- Brion. But while the 'first growths' released their 1992s at about Fr130 ( pounds 16), the same price as their 1987s, Mr Prats set the deflationary pace for the rest of Bordeaux by asking Fr58 (just over pounds 7) for Cos in a deliberate attempt to sell.

Both Cos and Pichon Lalande in 1992 are back to the prices of 10 years ago, marginally lower than their 1987 prices. Bruno Prats' Cos 1992 is ending up on French hypermarket shelves at Fr99 ( pounds 12.30), a price he thinks will appeal to a French market that has suddenly woken up to top claret.

Bordeaux is over a barrel of its own making. Prices have gone into free fall in response to nearly a decade of overpricing. French hypermarkets have cashed in on the claret glut. The sale of Chateau Talbot last year provided an object lesson when 1.2 million bottles were sold at knockdown prices.

Revealingly, Mr Sichel comments that 'the prices were, of course, low when compared to those with which the Bordeaux market has been living in recent years, but they were sold at prices that must have left a healthy profit margin for the proprietors . . . on condition that these are calculated on the cost of production, and not of the market value of the wine.'

There is the rub: claret has traditionally been priced on the apparent market value rather than on the cost of production. The more enlightened elements in Bordeaux are at last owning up to the fact that their customers have been asked to pay over the odds all these years.

Michel Delon, of Chateau Leoville Lascases, no model of price restraint, acknowledges that '1985 was too high and in the last three to four years we have sold en primeur too dear. Sales have stopped.'

Mr Sichel says: 'It is clear that the new world challenge is costing Bordeaux business.'

What Bordeaux is less keen to acknowledge is the threat of quality vin de pays from the South of France.

Bordeaux has a long tradition of resilience. But Mr Sichel fears the market could find itself back in the Thirties. He is keen to remind Bordeaux of some golden rules: 'The health of the market depends on the wines being consumed, and for them to be consumed, they have to be at affordable prices.'

Will Bordeaux heed the advice of the proponents of value- for-money such as Bruno Prats, Peter Sichel and Anthony Barton? It certainly should.

GOOD BUYS

Claret Duboscq, pounds 4.39, Majestic Wine Warehouses: soft, drinkable

Chateau Biston Brillette 1989, pounds 7.99, select Safeway's: lush, spicy

Chateau Rolland-Maillet 1990, St Emilion Grand Cru, pounds 8.99,

Oddbins: classic, fruity, serious

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