June 17, 2011 11:02 pm

‘Bordeaux bubble’ dulls appetite for fine wine

Investors and drinkers refuse to swallow ‘unpalatable’ high prices

It might have been described as “the vintage of the decade” by French châteaux producers, but the 2010 Bordeaux campaign has fallen flat as wine investors and drinkers are refusing to swallow the high prices demanded.

Wine merchants in London report that sales of the 2010 vintage – while still in the barrel, or en primeur – are running at half the volume of last year, blaming fears of a “Bordeaux bubble” as investors push up prices to unpalatable levels.

The popularity of the 2009 vintage led to price rises of about 50 per cent on en primeur Bordeaux sales last year. Investors have been attracted by the growing popularity of fine wines in Asia, hoping to cash in on Chinese interest. As the investment value of 2009 wines has hardly moved, investors have been reluctant to splash out about 20 per cent more for 2010 wines.

“We have sold about 40,000 cases of Bordeaux, which at this point is half the volume of last year,” says Simon Staples, sales and marketing director of wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd, one of the world’s biggest buyers of Bordeaux. Last year, it sold £110m worth of the 2009 vintage, but Mr Staples reckons “we will end up selling half of what we sold last year”.

With a few weeks left of the traditional selling campaign, Mr Staples says some Bordeaux wine wholesalers are already offering to discount prices to shift more cases. “They’re giving away profit margin because they’re nervous.”

Wine critics, including the Financial Times’s Jancis Robinson, agree that 2010 is an exceptional vintage, but add that several wines have failed to sell after being branded overpriced in reviews. This has spooked châteaux into delaying price releases. This week, a record 35 châteaux released on one single day – a headache for wine merchants deciding what to promote to their clients.

The two Bordeaux wines most highly prized by Chinese drinkers – Château Lafite and other first growths – have yet to release prices. A 2009 case of the latter currently sells for £15,000.

Mr Staples dismissed reports of Chinese drinkers diluting Lafite with Coca-Cola as “apocryphal”, but said that fashionable restaurants in Beijing place wine on the table with the label deliberately facing outwards “so the whole room can see what you’re drinking”.

“If people were only buying these wines to invest in, it would be a bubble, but these wines are being consumed in the Far East, and demand is insatiable,” said Mr Browett of Farr Vintners, which generates half of its annual turnover from Chinese sales. “Most of the demand from China is for wine that is physically available, they don’t want to wait two years.”

Investors will have to hold their nerve, but for less affluent wine drinkers there is still value to be had. Mr Staples says 2010 wines at the “quaffing end of the spectrum” priced at £120 to £300 a case are “miles more interesting than the 2009 vintage”, adding, “we’re selling bucketloads of those.”

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