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Guy Woodward: Why the UK trade needs to turn its back on overpriced Bordeaux

Published:  06 February, 2015

I saw a headline the other day that grabbed my attention. "Hopes rise for Bordeaux prices in 2015". Ah, I thought, that's good - they're coming down at last.

I saw a headline the other day that grabbed my attention. "Hopes rise for Bordeaux prices in 2015". Ah, I thought, that's good - they're coming down at last. Astonishingly, though, the story - which appeared on a consumer, rather than a trade, website - went on to report that the "reason to be cheerful" lay in analysts' predictions that the fine wine market may have bottomed out and that prices at auction will soon be on the rise again.

In what way this can be good news for any genuine wine lover is beyond me. Already overpriced wines moving further out of reach and into the realm of status symbols is a prospect that is as depressing as it sounds. Yet the perception persists in some quarters that high prices at auction are reflective of a strong industry. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This century's unseemly rush at the upper reaches of the wine world to target the global super rich has done irreparable damage to the image of fine wine. And not just in terms of the message it sends out about who fine wine is for. Consider just some of the consequences of Bordeaux's boom and bust, merely from within the rarefied environs of the fine wine market.

We have a market dogged by fakes, leaving buyers' confidence in the authenticity of fine wines shattered. We hear almost weekly stories of disreputable wine merchants being exposed for failing to deliver wines purchased by consumers.

The whole concept of en primeur is rendered flawed, as the basic premise of buying for the best possible price and selling for a profit is no longer guaranteed. Wine investment firms are collapsing on a regular basis, with investors left out of pocket. Merchants are held to ransom on an annual basis by châteaux that pay no heed to pleas to consider their core market. And the market is behoven to the whim of one palate - a palate out of kilter with prevailing tastes - as wines at the top end are bought on points rather than provenance.

No wonder the top UK wine merchants have had enough. The open letter sent by the likes of Berry Bros and Farr Vintners to the Bordeaux trade, urging restraint in this year's en primeur pricing, is long overdue. It will, of course, be ignored by those at the top of the tree. The first growths aren't in the habit of being told what to do, and are perfectly entitled to sell for the highest prices at which they can drum up custom.

It is further down the chain that the damage is being done, though. The most telling passage of the merchants' letter was not the lament over the "astonishingly high prices" of the 2009 and 2010s, or even the subsequent slump in interest in en primeur sales. Rather it was the real prospect of "damage to the goodwill of consumers to Bordeaux as a whole" as witnessed by merchants at the sharp end. "Many private customers in the UK... are now looking to other regions of the world instead," they warned.

And it is this scenario that ought to worry any right-thinking wine lover. I certainly won't lose any sleep over the high-rollers affected by the fallout outlined here. Anyone foolish enough to buy wines en primeur in 2009 and 2010 in the hope of making a profit deserves little sympathy; likewise those looking for a quick buck from a fly-by-night en primeur specialist; or those buying rare vintages of questionable provenance for astronomical prices at auction. This is all collateral damage that I can live with. But what of the wider damage, the reputational damage, the damage to the image of Bordeaux, and wine as a whole?  

Reputation at risk

It used to be the case that the first growths were seen as the locomotive of the region, pulling along the also-rans, who could trade off the region's stately reputation. That reputation is now in danger of doing more harm than good. Say "Bordeaux" to most young wine lovers, and they turn up their nose at what they see as overpriced wines and an arrogant attitude. It's a situation that isn't helped by the trade and press' continued obsession with the big names.

I've been at tastings with the merchants behind that letter, where, tasted blind, the first growths are invariably scored among the also-rans. But as soon as the wines' identities are revealed, which wines do the tasters want to enjoy over lunch? The unheralded fifth growth that came out top, offering fantastic value for customers? Or the overpriced first growth that was considered out of balance and overoaked?

By continuing to be so in thrall to a clutch of wines that are no longer relevant to 99% of wine lovers in this country, the trade and the press are doing a disservice to their audience. How refreshing it would be, at this year's en primeur, if they instead chose to focus on the legion of good, honest producers turning out good, honest - and affordable - wines at 4th, 5th growth and cru bourgeois level, instead of hanging on every predictable word and score of the inflated first growths.

Like the merchants waiting for an answer to that letter, though, I won't be holding my breath.