2008 En Primeur: Surprise, Surprise

DSC_0094We’ve just had the week of trade tastings in Bordeaux, when the world of fine wine annually descends on the region to taste the wines from the previous vintage. A few surprises too: many 2008s are far better than most outsiders would have thought, after gloomy reports of a damp summer.

The real surprise though is that there seems to be a genuine desire to launch a quick ‘en primeur’ campaign, with the possibility of the First Growths – Latour, Lafite, Margaux (above), Mouton Rothschild and Haut-Brion – coming out with an opening offer in the next couple of weeks, before most of the lower ranks. And that would be big news here as it would turn the normal routine on its head.

What usually happens is that the trade and wine press come to the tastings, and there’s much chat about which estates did well and the disastrous state of the market, and then everyone goes home and waits for Robert Parker to release his scores at the end of April. (‘I may be disappointed if Jancis Robinson doesn’t like my wine, but I don’t eat if Robert Parker gives me a bad score’, the owner of one top château in Pauillac told me.)

P1000276Parker will have liked a lot of what he’s tasted, especially in Saint Emilion and Pomerol (eg L’Evangile, left), and at some of the top estates on the Left Bank, but will not want to be too enthusiastic for fear of the Châteaux getting above themselves.

Merchants and potential customers around the world then have to wait for the château owners to release their prices for the wines, which are still in barrel. It’s potentially quite exciting, and with great vintages like 2000 and 2005 everyone wants to splash out on super wines for much less than they’ll be worth in the future. But in the two most recent campaigns, for the 2006s and especially the 2007s, the wines haven’t been wildly exciting and the top châteaux have taken an age to set their prices – and when they have, the prices have been too high.

So the standard timechart has been for the reviews to be published online by wine critics in April, the trade then waits fruitlessly for some juicy offers in May, and eventually many leading châteaux ‘come out’ in June – after guessing what their neighbours are up to – until finally the First Growths astound everyone with their monster prices at the end of June. That’s three months – and way too long.

For the First Growths to turn the form-book upside down in order to kick-start the 2008 campaign, in a very difficult market, is a bold move. Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Château Margaux, told me that the Bordeaux négociants (the intermediaries between the chåteaux and importers worldwide) were pressing for a quick campaign, and lower prices of course, but that there was still time to reflect. My own view is that she’d have little to gain by waiting for Parker’s score.

Alain Vauthier, proprietor of Château Ausone and maker of Saint Emilion’s most expensive wine, said to me yesterday that he was ‘Sûr. Presque sûr’ that the First Growths would release their prices by the end of April at ‘un prix attractif’. ‘Le marché est mort’, he said. Not for your wine, Alain.

Will the First Growth owners have the courage to breath life into the upcoming campaign, when there is at least some momentum and enthusiasm for the wines?

We’ll see.