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Published:  23 July, 2008

Two months ago, Robert Parker and a group of Britain's leading merchants warned the Bordelais that unless en primeur prices came down, the market could collapse. So have prices fallen sufficiently, or are chteau owners now tinkering in the last chance saloon? Neil Beckett reports

In April, the UK's biggest buyers of Bordeaux en primeur issued an ultimatum: In our view it is "make or break" time for the sale of Bordeaux en primeur. A repeat of the 1997 disaster - where a less good vintage than its predecessor was sold at higher prices - will finish off en primeur for good.' Shortly afterwards, another of the biggest buyers of Bordeaux en primeur, Ren Gabriel of Mvenpick, also wrote an open letter to his friends' in Bordeaux, urging them to reflect carefully and not risk it'. He warned that if the market collapses, not only Bordeaux, but the world of wine as a whole, will be seized by lethargy on an unprecedented scale'. Most significant of all, American critic Robert Parker, whose reviews and (still more) scores in The Wine Advocate have affected the Bordeaux en primeur market so strongly, dismissed the first two of four possible reasons for buying this way this year. Under the heading Days of Future Passed', he asked: Are you buying wines from what will be considered an undeniably great vintage? The answer in 2001 is "no". Are you buying wines that will appreciate significantly in price? The answer in 2001 is "no".' Ngociants and merchants, moreover, agree with his view. So, now that most of the Bordeaux chteaux have announced their prices and offered their wines, have they done enough to avoid the disaster which many feared? And if so, are we again back to the curious, hocus-pocus, status quo ante? Have we returned to the same arcane, bizarre, but bizarrely effective system by which hundreds of thousands of cases of the world's most prestigious wines have been sold? In short, has anything changed? The general view among UK merchants at this stage is that the message has finally got through, and that most prices have come down enough from last year's highs. Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners, one of the UK's biggest buyers of Bordeaux en primeur, and a signatory to the April letter, insists that if prices had stayed the same, we wouldn't have had a campaign at all'. But at E85 (54) per bottle ex-chteau, E102-105 (65-67) per bottle ex-ngoce, the 2001 Mdoc First Growths are 50% less than the 2000s, and 10% more than the 1999s (which everybody agrees are a more meaningful point of reference). As such, they are,' says Browett, just about OK'. Most other cru class wines are also down 5-20% or more on 2000, and back to what they were in 1999. As always, however, it is difficult to say whether any particular price is right. There is a constant danger, especially this year, that everybody knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. So it's crucial not to lose sight of quality, which is generally good but mixed for reds, very good for dry whites, and great for sweet whites. The price set for the 2000 is certainly relevant, but it's necessary to remember that rises then ranged from 0-90%. The price set for the 1999 is at least as relevant, therefore, as are the prices at which the 1995-1998 vintages are still sold. The prices of other wines of comparable quality and style are also part of the picture. Where chteau administrators or owners have pitched the price too high (which a few have certainly done), they may have been greedy or stupid. More likely, they have had too much of an eye on their neighbours and on a hierarchy which has always been heavily influenced by price. Most likely of all, however, they have not been able to strike a balance between what they need or want, and what the market will sustain. They may well have made good wines in 2001 (they may even have made better wines than in 2000). They may have drastically reduced yields and been more rigorously selective in the assemblage of the grand vin. They may have invested heavily in new equipment. They may (and this is more and more the case) be under pressure from shareholders who require a high rate of return. But none of that matters beyond the chteau gates. The credit for driving home the market reality must be shared - among courtiers, ngociants, merchants and writers. The UK merchants who signed the letter were Alun Griffiths MW (Berry Bros & Rudd), Adam Brett-Smith (Corney & Barrow), David Round MW (Direct Wines), Stephen Browett (Farr Vintners), Hew Blair (Justerini & Brooks), David Roberts MW (Lay & Wheeler), Jasper Morris MW (Morris & Verdin), Roy Richards (Richards Walford) and Sebastian Payne MW (The Wine Society). According to Richards, who has advocated such concerted action for several years, the letter certainly had an effect'. Jean-Marie Chadronnier, President of CVGB-Dourthe-Kressmann, Bordeaux' largest ngociant for bottled wines, and one of the 21 to whom the letter was sent, agrees, but says it would have had a greater effect if it had been sent directly to the chteau owners'. Merchants and ngociants would always prefer not to tell stark truths to chteau owners, and accuse each other of hypocrisy on the subject. For the merchants, they buy from the ngociants, so wrote to them. They say that they were respecting the system, and that the ngociants would be the first to complain if they approached the chteaux direct on other matters. The ngociants say that it is the chteaux who fix the prices. While the letter from the UK may have helped, it will certainly have been Parker who played the largest role in driving down prices. Except for the chteaux owners,' he wrote, everyone believes prices must drop back down to 1999 levels for this vintage to move through the marketplace. In January and March 2002, there was little sentiment among the top Bordeaux chteaux for drastic price reductions. At the time of writing (early April), I am hoping the chteaux will break precedent with the immediate past, and price their wines before The Wine Advocate is released. Given my reviews, they would be smart to do so.' Among the many rumours in Bordeaux (which is rife with them at present) is that Parker had come under heavy pressure from ngociants to cool things down.

New players, new rules? Although most prices have come down to where they were before the 2000 vintage, there are signs that 2001 is not in other ways a return to the way things were. A key area of change is distribution, and the interaction of the different players in the system. Now it is not only chteaux which are attempting to flex their muscles and strengthen their positions. Millsima, a large ngociant which has also been selling direct to customers in France, the UK and elsewhere for the last few years, is trying to grab a bigger share of the retail market by settling for lower margins. According to Richards (whose company is the only UK ngociant operating on la place de Bordeaux), this has been the big fly in the ointment this year'. By selling some wines (such as the First Growths) direct to consumers at only 10% more than they are selling them to the trade, Millsima is making it difficult for merchants to take a margin of even 10%, which will shake things up big time,' says Richards. It's going to change things. It's not a level playing field.' Farr and a few other UK merchants which have always been competitive on margins, have been able to match many of the Millsima prices, but others may again be wondering whether the Bordeaux en primeur market is worth it, when margins are pared down as far as that. At Bibendum, Simon Farr, buying director, has been expressing this view for several years now, and more and more may start to share it. Although the First Growths do not impose a prix de revente - a resale price which is set by most chteaux and reflected in the ex-ngoce price - Millsima will antagonise the chteaux on one side and the merchants on the other if it disregards these as well. The chteaux hate to see their wines being discounted, though the defence they give for the prix de revente is that it protects the smaller ngociants from the larger, which could afford to undercut the rest. Millsima appears to have taken advantage of the relatively weak position of producers with the 2001 vintage, though it runs the risk of reduced allocations in future years, when the balance of power shifts the other way. It is not only ngociants who are attempting to get by on low margins in order to stay competitive and win share. In the UK, John Armit Wines has made life uncomfortable for other traditional merchants by settling for margins of 7% on Chteau Gruaud-Larose at the beginning of the campaign, and even less on other chteaux later. The ex-ngoce price for Cos d'Estournel is 26.25 per bottle: Armit is offering it for 27.50. Richard Berkley-Matthews, Armit's buying manager, is unrepentant and unsympathetic, however. He says that he is delighted' if his competitors feel squeezed and that the prices have been set with regard to the longer term, with a view to both keeping allocations from ngociants and winning customers in the UK. Berkley-Matthews says that he has excellent relationships with the ngociants with whom he works, and that they all respected as far as they could for the 2000s the allocations which they had given in the past. But many other merchants were disillusioned last year when other ngociants seemed to count past loyalty for nothing, selling to the highest bidders (normally in the US). The en primeur campaigns for the 1997, 1998 and 1999 vintages were all sustained at least in part by the perceived need to secure allocations of the 2000 vintage, but many discovered that it had not been worth it when the mad scramble came. Another change, therefore, is that merchants may no longer feel the same need to help ngociants when, as this year, their position is weaker. As Dylan Paris, MD of Bordeaux Index, says, The old adage, "if you don't take, you won't get", may no longer apply.' With ngociants and merchants both still smarting from the 1997 campaign, and still sitting on stocks of the wines which they are having to sell at a discount, there is also growing evidence that more and more are adopting a broker' mentality this vintage. No company wants to be left holding stock which it cannot sell, and is either trying not to buy until it knows it can sell, or selling as quickly as possible. Chadronnier estimates that he will buy only about two-thirds of the wine he bought last year. Browett says that while he bought some 200 wines last year - all the chteaux you've ever heard of, and a few you haven't' - he will be buying only about one tenth of that for stock this year. Simon Staples at Berry Bros & Rudd says his company will buy only about 25 to 30 wines for stock. At Armit, Berkley-Matthews says he will buy only about six. Sebastian Payne, Bordeaux and head buyer for The Wine Society, says that he will buy only 50 or so, and about half the total volume of last year.

Who's buying what? All of the UK merchants contacted say that Sauternes has been a huge success - the best vintage since 1990 - and that this has been reflected in strong sales (many of the top chteaux have already sold out). Among the reds, it is the traditional Left Bank chteaux which have been selling well. The First Growths have been brisk, but generally speaking it is the lower growths, at around 250 or less a case in bond, which are doing best (Calon-Sgur, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Langoa- and Loville-Barton, Lynch-Bages and Talbot are among the names that keep cropping up). And that there are very good wines, which represent spectacular value - not only by comparison with the 2000s, but with top wines from the New World as well - is a message which needs to be trumpeted. Parker wrote, This is not a vintage that will draw interest from speculators'. And like many of his prophecies, it has proved to be self-fulfilling. The millionaire in his penthouse with his Parker isn't interested in 2001,' says Browett. It's the traditional, reasonable, sensible customers who have always bought a case or two.' Charles Taylor MW of Montrachet Fine Wine Merchants agrees, and says that he is better able to satisfy these customers' needs this year than last, because of reduced uptake from the US.

A challenge to Parker While some established names on the Right Bank have also been selling well (Vieux-Chteau Certan, for example), the new garage wines have been much more sluggish. Taylor describes many of the overnight success stories in Pomerol and St-Emilion as dead in the water'. Last year, Farr sold 420 cases of Alain Raynaud's Quinault L'Enclos. By last week, it had sold five - despite a high Parker score. This raises the question: might 2001 be the vintage with which Parker's influence starts to wane? In an article in The Times (25 May), Adam Sage goes as far as to say, the campaign against him [Parker] has got to the point that his favourite wines are not selling quite as fast as usual', and his supremacy may be being undermined'. This almost certainly overstates the case: it is also relevant, surely, that prices for some of the Right Bank chteaux in question have continued to rise (Quinault L'Enclos, for example, up by 14%). Nevertheless, declining demand for Parker-style wines in general, and for Parker-rated wines in particular, suggests that his recommendation is no longer all that is required for a wine to sell well. According to the much respected Jacques Dupont, in an article in the French magazine Le Point (24 May 2002), five of Parker's top ten wines are from chteaux owned by one man (Grard Perse); five have the same marketing consultant (Alain Raynaud); and six have the same winemaker (Michel Rolland). Indeed, 27 of the top 40 also have the same winemaker. Parker's preferences (everybody has them) are thought to be well known. Parker is free to like whichever wines he likes, and he clearly likes these. Nobody, moreover, is suggesting that there is anything at all suspicious in this - Parker's integrity is respected even by his detractors. But it does highlight in a particularly stark way Parker's preferences for certain wines from certain producers, and it seems not unreasonable to wonder whether he is not subconsciously swayed when tasting (which he does not do blind). Many are suggesting that this is more than a question of personal preference for a particular style, and even those who agree with him most of the time disagree with him strongly on this. Farr highlights the great divide very well in its offer of Chteau Pavie, which Perse offered on 31 May at a price 15% higher than that of the five Mdoc First Growths: Reviews of this wine include: "Awfully alcoholic and dry at the end. Pastiche" (Jancis Robinson); "Pavie has as much finesse as Sylvester Stallone in a frock" (Robert Joseph); "The texture of syrup ... the sophistication of Bernard Manning" (Farr); "The wine of the vintage ... the terroir's nobility screams through all the extract in this amazing effort" (Robert Parker).' At the same time, other producers of (what Robinson calls) caricature' or pastiche' wines are beginning to change their style, going for less extraction, less manipulation and less new wood (Financial Times, 13/14 April). Whether this is cause or consequence of any change in Parker's perceived power remains to be seen. But there are also other grounds on which to question whether he will continue to exert the influence that he has. He could hardly exert more. And if he does exert less, it will, at least in part, be because he has painted himself out of the picture. After praising the 2000 vintage to the skies, saying that it was the greatest ever Bordeaux vintage, it was always going to be the case that he would appear to damn with faint praise its successor (which he summarises as good' but irregular'). If en primeur is less important as a result, he is less important too. Parker has also felt the need to deny the frequently made allegation that samples shown to him are not representative, and the more recent suggestion (by Jean-Jacques Chiquelin in Le Nouvel Observateur, 25 April-1 May) that his close collaborator in France, Hanna Agostini, may have benefited from consultancy fees from winemakers. The facts surrounding the latter story are still unclear, and it is highly unlikely that Parker himself is in any way to blame. But even if Agostini also proves to be blameless, Parker's reputation may still be tarnished, unfair though this would be. Parker is, of course, the tall poppy par excellence, and there will always be attempts to cut him down. His influence is, and is likely to remain for some time yet, unparalleled. But it may prove to be that the 2000 vintage was as high a point for him as he thinks it was for Bordeaux. Whether Parker's influence has peaked or not, another change in the 2001 en primeur scene has almost certainly been caused by him, even if indirectly. The way in which he has raised small, largely unknown properties to stardom has encouraged hundreds of others to offer themselves at this early stage for the first time this year. While it is easy to sympathise with many of them, who may be producing good wine, but who are squeezed by the crus classs above and the big brands below, it is hard to think that this is going to be the route to fame and fortune for many of them; especially in a year when the future of futures has been questioned so strongly. The en primeur system has, of course, survived. But if the price reductions prove to have been too small (and it is still too early to say), then this campaign may have made others less rather than more likely. As Stephen Brook writes in Bordeaux: People, Power and Politics, with each misjudged vintage, the willingness to forgive and forget dwindles'.