July 3, 2010 12:13 am

Bordeaux 2009s: there’s a price to pay

Extraordinary prices for an exceptional vintage

Even Bordeaux’s château owners admit to surprise at the sky high prices of the 2009s, in a testy campaign designed to attract as many euros as possible to France’s fine wine capital. The campaign is finally drawing to a close, in time for France’s long holidays, with some UK merchants even suggesting 2009 prices are designed to prop up those of the 2005s.

Four years ago the prices for Bordeaux’s last exceptional vintage, 2005, seemed quite extraordinarily audacious and we thought we would never see their like again. But, in the event, embryonic, unbottled 2009s have been offered at prices between 50 per cent and 100 per cent up on 2005 opening prices, and some are even approaching 2005 current prices.

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Jancis Robinson

What is sure is that the 2009 prices make the 2008 vintage look like the bargain of the decade. The 2008 versions of the first growths, the most famous wines of all and a sort of price barometer for any vintage, were initially offered to Bordeaux negociants, or merchants, at around €100 a bottle. This may seem like robust pricing by any measure but the opening prices for the 2009 first growths varied between €450 for Lafite, Margaux and Mouton and €500 for Latour and Haut-Brion.

However, these prices for the first tranche of wine from each property tell only a small part of the story. The top châteaux have got into the habit of offering their young, unbottled wines in at least two tranches during the primeur campaign, with demand for the first tranche dictating the price of the second. This year the first growth tranches were smaller than ever, making it impossible for those merchants around the world who bought it to set a price until the second tranche had been announced, generally at €100, €200 for Cheval, above the first. The really scary thing is that demand for the top wines seems to have been as exceptional as the vintage itself even if it is not clear how many people are buying to drink and how many for investment.

To observers, the process of offering this particular vintage has seemed either infuriating or absurd, depending on their interest in actually buying the wines produced by the exceptionally propitious growing conditions of 2009. Never before have so many second wines been dripped on to the market in a coy attempt to gauge demand for their more serious stablemates.

The negociants say the bulk of sales have been to merchants and traders in the UK – even if many are banking on selling them on to Asia. As eighth generation Bordeaux merchant Pierre Lawton of Alias put it: “England has been massive. I’ve been surprised by how important the UK has been. Sales to the US have been much more modest than usual, although the weaker euro has helped.”

This is not the only thing that has surprised him about the 2009 primeur campaign. “I thought demand would be spread across the board in terms of quality but it’s been much more weighted towards the top end. In fact it has been quite difficult to sell wines below €40 a bottle ... There seems to have been a lot of speculative buying.”

Below the top rank, prices have been all over the place. Some châteaux sold out immediately – Pontet-Canet, offered initially to the negociants at €72 (exactly the same as Léoville-Poyferré, Lynch-Bages and Montrose), was a particular success this year with owner Alfred Tesseron able to place his entire and substantial offering in 30 minutes. Ducru-Beaucaillou and Figeac on the other hand struggled to find buyers at their respective prices of €180 and €160, nearly three times the 2008 opening price.

Pricing is clearly critical, although the means by which it is arrived at is still decidedly quaint, relying as it does on hundreds of oblique discussions between producers, Bordeaux’s 300 negociants, and the 93 courtiers, or brokers, who negotiate between them. It would be more than a broker’s career was worth to let slip a producer’s intended opening price before it was announced or, worse, exactly how many cases were on offer in total.

Partly to retain this mystery, château owners use several different brokers to sell one year’s wine. The most important quality in a broker, who receives a flat two per cent commission from the negociant, is tact. They have to mediate between owners who invariably want to ask too much for their wines and what the key negociants say they feel the wine is worth. As Tesseron says: “If I price my wine too low, everyone thinks my wine is bad. If I price my wine too high, everyone thinks I’m mad. The brokers’ job is to translate, in a very polite way, what I say.”

Prices are typically announced in the early morning in France. After a series of calls to each individual negociant, the broker reports back to the anxious château owner. The bull's-eye is for all negociants to place orders immediately for their entire allocation. “I’ll think it over,” is circumlocutory Bordeaux wine trade speak for a sniggering, “You cannot be serious”.

Prize for the most ambitious price rises this year goes to the Haut-Brion stable whose opening price of €540 for La Mission Haut-Brion is nearly three times more than the 2005 opening price, as shown on the revealing tables on www.liv-ex.com while, as usual, the LVMH effect has inflated the price of Cheval Blanc to a truly luxurious level.

Are 2009s overpriced? One prominent, Bordeaux wine negociant confessed to me last week that his wife, reacting like so many others to the combination of low interest rates and the general excitement over the 2009 vintage, had been urging him to use his specialist knowledge to invest in it. “I’m not buying any 2009s,” he told me firmly, adding, “Not now anyway. Maybe later.”

See tasting notes on more than 500 2009 bordeaux on the Purple pages of www.jancisrobinson.com

More columns at www.ft.com/robinson

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