When Jancis Robinson asked me on Tuesday to write a piece setting the scene for the annual en primeur tastings next week, I don’t think anyone was expecting the first release of the campaign so soon.
Alfred Tesseron of Chateau Pontet Canet surprised more than a few people by releasing the price of his 2013 to the Bordeaux trade on Wednesday. It’s the first time a leading Chateau has put its wine on sale before the world’s wine merchants – and most critics – have had a chance to taste it.
Given that Pontet Canet (above right) has been on a hot streak of late, all the Bordeaux negociants I spoke to will be taking up the offer rather than risk losing future allocations. Most importers – who buy in turn from the negociants – are (quite rightly) saying that they’ll wait to try the wine first before committing themselves.
’It caught everyone by surprise’ said Charlie Sichel of Maison Sichel, who part-own Chateau Palmer (left). ’In view of the strength of the brand, and assuming the quality of the wine is approved by our customers when they come to taste next week, it might be quite clever. It’s a move that the entire Bordeaux trade will focus on; but there are very, very few Chateaux with such strong brand equity as Pontet Canet and any message to proprietors to release a small amount of wine at the same price is dangerous.’
Pontet Canet’s 2013 yields were ’lilliputien’ according to winemaker Jean-Michel Comme, about half the norm at 15hl/ha and a fraction of the 40hl/ha or so of the outstanding 2010 vintage. Allocations of the 2013 to negociants are therefore 50% down on last year.
Will low yields and small allocations prevent the significant price drops that are needed to kick start the campaign? Christian Seely, who runs Axa’s wine estates, told me how much wine they’ve made at Ch Pichon Longueville-Baron to illustrate the point. In the 1990s, Pichon Baron was regularly producing 30,000 cases of Grand Vin. The average for 2000-2011 was 15,000 cases, in pursuit of quality and international recognition. In 2012, Pichon was down to 12,500 cases because of a small crop, with a further 20% reduction in 2013 to 10,000 cases.
’I think tasters will be agreeably surprised by the best wines’ Christian said (right). ’It’s really a year to pick and choose and there are some very good wines from the great vineyards who could afford to make extreme sacrifices. The reaction so far, and I’m not just saying this, has been remarkably positive.’
What about prices, I asked. ’I’ll spend two and half weeks listening to what people say when they come and taste the wines. It’s too soon to say – the price will be a reflection of the intrinsic quality of the wine and the strength of the demand.’
Aymeric de Gironde (pointing), Director of Ch Cos d’Estournel agreed. ’Low yields are not really the basis on which to price the wine. It’s one component – our yields are 25% down on 2012 at 26hl/ha, against a norm of 37-41hl – but the argument doesn’t work the other way in excellent and more generous vintages.’
Charlie Sichel agreed. ’Setting a low price according to a low yield is not a valid argument. After all, we don’t see prices being lowered in a big, excellent vintage.
’In every campaign you need a wow factor’ he says. ’The only wow factor for this vintage will be price. We’d like to be selling the First Growths at a price which is a no-brainer. That’s what’s needed to put goodwill in the market, get phones ringing, and create a vacuum or platform for the 2014 vintage.’
As for Parker not coming to taste the vintage until later on, Aymeric de Gironde thought that ’some people might be a bit lost without that reference point. The good thing is that it’s a year for journalists and wine merchants to go back to their role of making their own recommendations to consumers.’
’We have the same number of visitors coming to Cos although they are more spread out, over three weeks.’
Lilian Barton, of Chateaux Leoville and Langoa Barton, and a negociant, is hopeful of a swift campaign. ’I’ve heard rumours that the First Growths will come out in the second week of April, the week after the primeur tastings. Those are just rumours but most of Bordeaux wants a quick campaign.’
Sichel agreed there needs to be a quick campaign. ’May is riddled with Bank Holidays. The only thing I can see that might cause a delay is concerns about a late frost.’
’There is room for the Firsts and the Super Seconds to come down in price’ says Lilian Barton. ’It’s not the same for the smaller chateaux who have had three years of smaller harvests now. It’s tough for them.’
But isn’t Léoville Barton a Super Second, I asked. ’That’s very flattering but I don’t think our prices are up there with the others.’
This is Bordeaux, after all.