As Bordeaux prepares for the En Primeur season, it’s a good time to take stock of where this pre-eminent region sits in relation to the wine industry and the future. Our contributor Tom Hyland interviewed some of the region’s top producers, while Wine-Searcher staff spoke to merchants around the world to get a feel for how both sides see Bordeaux‘s prospects.
At a tasting in Chicago, representatives from more than 90 different Bordeaux estates poured their wines – white, red and sweet – from the 2015 vintage. The tasting featured producers of the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux, an association of approximately 100 estates from the region, ranging from Haut-Médoc to some of the most famous classified growths from such appellations as Pauillac, Saint Julien, Margaux, Pomerol and Saint-Émilion.
The 2015 vintage
Most producers were delighted, even thrilled with their 2015s, thanks in large part to ideal weather that spring and summer.
“The growing season was very lovely and very easy,” remarked Fabien Teigen of Château Smith Haut Lafitte in the Pessac-Léognan district. “We enjoyed classic timing throughout the year and had no problems with the weather. There was no rain in our area in September, which was important as we could choose the date of picking without worrying about rot.”
Ronan Laborde, proprietor of Château Clinet in Pomerol, noted the sunny, dry conditions in June and July, followed by a bit of rain in August, which “reactivated the leaves and the life into our wines”. At Clinet, there was an early harvest in mid-September with tiny berries with “lots of juice in the skins”, according to Laborde. “Very easy to extract during the vinification … nice fruit, nice complexity and most important, there is the freshness, thanks to the terroir of Pomerol.”
Most producers compared the 2015 vintage to 2009. “2015 is like 2009, with a bit less alcohol,” said Jean-René Matignon, technical director at Pichon Baron in Pauillac, who is quite pleased with the style of his 2015. “While it has a lot of charm and is approachable, there is the potential that the wine could age for 20-30 years without problem.”
Olivier Bernard, president of the association, commented that “2015 is the best vintage we have had since 2009 and 2010”. He believes the whites will be at their best over the next five to 10 years, given their lower acidity than the 2014s.
Bernard also praised the 2015 reds, saying: “For the reds, this is a great vintage, but quite warm, like 2005 for me more than 2009. I like to open the 2005 reds now, after 10 years, as these wines are charming.” What does he think about the future of the 2015s? “I think that in 10 years, these will be lovely wines. I’m not sure they will be better after 20 years, but they will be lovely after 10 years.”
Bernard is the proprietor of Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan, so his estimate in many ways reflects the reds from this area; there were numerous reds from elsewhere in Bordeaux that promise at least two decades of aging potential. Foremost among them include Pichon-Baron and Pichon Comtesse de Lalande from Pauillac – the former more approachable, with the latter built more for the long haul – Clerc-Milon from Pauillac, Leoville Poyferré, Lagrange and Beychevelle from Saint-Julien, and Clinet from Pomerol (note that the First Growths were not included in this tasting).
The finest 2015 reds that should offer peak drinking in the mid-term range (10-15 years) include Cos Labory from Saint-Estèphe, Château Clarke from Listrac, Lascombes from Margaux, Pape Clément from Graves, and Château Olivier, Domaine de Chevalier, and de Fieuzal from Pessac-Léognan. As for the finest values, seek out Cos Labory and Château de Pez from Saint-Estèphe, Prieuré-Lichine from Margaux and Château Cantemerle, a delicious, very approachable Haut-Médoc from Macau, south of Margaux.
From a merchant’s perspective, it’s not just 2015 that’s been a success. Jeff Zacharia from Zachys explains: “Bordeaux has undoubtedly experienced an unprecedented successful trio of vintage releases from 2014, 2015, and 2016 that has propelled young Bordeaux back in the spotlight. And it begins with the more classic and charming 2014s – all of which are now in stock in the US. The key note for 2014 is certainly value – the wines were released en primeur at a time where Bordeaux’s popularity had slipped, the Euro was down and the dollar was stronger. Since that time, with the widely acclaimed 2015 and 2016 vintage release campaigns, Bordeaux has regained popularity with en primeur from years past – although not at the levels that were seen with the 2009s and 2010s.”
Zacharia added that 2014 was the place to look for bargains. “2014 easily remains one of the smartest value buys from all of Bordeaux and that begins with estates like Calon-Ségur, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Montrose, Lynch-Bages, Pavie-Macquin and the Pomerol collectibles of Trotanoy and Vieux Chateau Certan.”
Tom Jenkins from Justerini & Brooks agrees. “2014 is the obvious candidate. The wines have a lovely clarity and class and still offer good value for money. We also believe that the best Pauillacs and Saint-Juliens from 2015 have been overlooked. There are some superb wines and the prices are not astronomical: Léoville Las Cases, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Pichon Lalande, Grand-Puy-Lacoste.”
Wine-Searcher’s price data bears this out. After an initial average en primeur release price of $540, the average price fell sharply, hitting a low of $272 in 2016 before rallying to $292 today. It has consistently been at around half the price of the overall Bordeaux average price, which is a shade above the $600 mark.
Interest in the 2014 vintage has followed previous vintages, all of which have been overshadowed by the much-trumpeted 2015 vintage. The 2015s have seen search figures leap from around 80,000 in September last year to more than 140,000 in February, while the previous four vintages have elicited much more muted interest.
When talking about key vintages, Nicolas Staempfli of Vinorama in Switzerland neatly sums it up thus: “Quality: 2010, 2009, 2015, 2016. Value: 2012, 2009, 2014.”
Value for money
The 2015s are more expensive than the 2014s, for the simple reason of quality. “2015 is a five-star vintage,” says Bernard.
Bordeaux of all types have increased for the past several years since the release of the 2013s, which Alexandre de Bethmann of Château Olivier says represents “the most recent bottom for prices”.
Looking at Wine-Searcher data, it’s clear that the Right Bank appellations of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol have both gained substantially in price over the past five years, and done so at a faster rate than their Left Bank counterparts.
Estates in Saint-Julien, Saint-Estèphe and Margaux have all climbed in price since 2012, albeit not as strongly as those on the Right Bank. Oddly, however, Pauillac has fallen considerably from an average high of around $370 to $350.
Most producers expected modest pricing escalation for the 2016 vintage, while Laurent Fresse of Clerc-Milon said their pricing “depends on the market”.
Felix Hirsch from China’s Muyi Fine Wines confirms that “compared to Burgundy, the pricing now seems to be comparatively affordable and there is plenty of mature wine to go around”.
That being said, being comparatively less expensive than Burgundy doesn’t necessarily make Bordeaux attainable. As Zacharia warns: “The biggest threats to Bordeaux are themselves, the influence of the internet and younger opinion leaders – not to mention the loss of Robert Parker covering the region. If pricing gets too greedy, as was the case with the 2010s, Bordeaux will again lose market share and drive consumers away.”
Staempfli agrees. “They have to be price-savvy! They have to control stocks well, and not be arrogant. Pricing such as Latour does is too high, people are not ready to pay this premium. We had lots of releases that did not work out. The region has to keep on doing promos, tastings and they have to support the local merchants in order to keep a qualitative distribution.”
When asked if pricing was out of balance, Staempfli replied: “Yes, it is blown up now and has been rightly priced back. Pricing will be going up with the small volumes of 2017, stocks are moving really fast: 2014 will be going up, 2013 will be going down, 2012 Right Bank up, Left Bank down, 2015 up, 2016 up.”
Jenkins also replied: “Yes and no. Some châteaux are getting it right, some clearly are not. Clients are very aware about quality and pricing, that is why, even in good primeur campaigns like 2015 and 2016, most merchants are only selling 40-50 brands well. There are excellent wines outside these 40-50, but if they don’t get the price right, consumers won’t buy. Unfortunately, too many negociants are still following incorrectly priced wines, although the tide does seem to be turning.”
Who’s getting it right?
According to Zacharia, “In tasting thousands of glasses of Bordeaux over the past decade, the question that comes to mind when tasting the awe-inspiring wines of not just the vaunted Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, but the more value-driven releases from Haut-Bailly, Malarctic-Lagraviere, Domaine du Chevalier, Smith Haut Lafitte, Pape Clement and now, Les Carmes Haut-Brion, is there a better value in Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux than the terroir-driven gems of Pessac-Léognan? Sure, these wines vary in their finesse and winemaking styles, but this is arguably one of the hottest regions delivering tremendous value and certainly the rising star of Les Carmes Haut-Brion demands attention.”
However, big players are still important, as Jenkins reports. “Terroir and history are clearly important, but recently we have seen new appointments transforming the fortunes of estates. Nicolas Glumineau at Pichon Lalande and Nicolas Audebert at Canon and Rauzan-Ségla have really raised the bars at these already top-flight châteaux. Other wines that are winning in terms of winemaking and desirability: Château Lafleur, Le Pin, L’If, Ausone, Petrus, Vieux Château Certan.”
Staempfli agrees. “Canon, Rauzan-Ségla, the Mouton stable, Lafite is back on demand, Pontet-Canet, and freaky wines like the white of Cheval Blanc, which is attractive due to very limited volumes. Cos d’Estournel, thanks to friendly pricing; Montrose gains as well. Châteaux they really need to understand that merchants need a motivation to sell and distribute these wines.”
To sum up, Staempfli says: “Moving forward still are the grands crus. The satellites such as Blaye, Côtes de Bourg, Lalande-de-Pomerol still have lack of promotion and would need a kick or a locomotive in order to bring those regions forward. We observe the opening of a fork: either really expensive, or very cheap, the middle-class wines are rather hard to sell or they must be really well priced.”
America, along with European countries such as Belgium and Germany, remain important export markets, while at the same time, producers are seeking out new avenues. At Larrivet Haut-Brion, 60 percent of production is exported, with the US receiving 15 percent of that total; marketing and public relations director Émilie Gervoson related that she recently traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam to open those markets.
Laborde notes decreases for Hong Kong, Belgium and France. Why France? “I think the market in France is highly competitive, as Bordeaux is a well-known wine of choice. Also we are getting away from the supermarkets, and going more toward restaurants worldwide.”
Bernard labels the United States “a strong market. Today’s market is reorganized as we have seen some different distributors in this market becoming stronger. But we could be much better in this market. Some Americans think some Bordeaux are too expensive, but it’s a very small part of Bordeaux. I would say that of the 94 estates in this tasting, 85 percent have never been expensive. There are 10, 20, perhaps 30 estates that have always been expensive. But there are 6000 châteaux in Bordeaux.”
Demand is falling in Hong Kong, according to Hirsch. “Definitely, as far as China is concerned, it is the second- and third-tier cities [that are growing markets]. There is spending power, a growing interest in wine, and as pretty much anywhere else, most people start by drinking Bordeaux.”
Staempfli sayd there is another emerging market. “We might think about Southeast Asia, but we also have a growing interest of the Millennials: they are curious about what their parents have been drinking, the jam-confit wines of the New World will be losing as their style does not represent the way of living of nowadays; elegance and finesse more important than jammy semi-sweet wines.”
If there is a problem with the 2015 vintage in Bordeaux, it is the heat that led to some overripe fruit, with slightly lower acidity. While this is not a widespread problem, it is noticeable in numerous wines from Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, which are deeply colored and quite forward, but often lack proper harmony and finesse. A few examples of Sauternes also displayed similar characteristics.
This brings the question of climate change to mind, and as there have been perceptible shifts in temperature, with 2014 and 2016 being cool years, and 2015 and 2017 being warm to hot, producers have taken notice. Bernard points out that until 1975, Bordeaux was more white wine than red; today it is 88 percent red, 12 percent white. “Global warming means that we have more vintages that are riper today than in the past,” he remarks. “The alcohol has increased a bit.”
Picking up on the situation on the Right Bank, Bernard comments: “In Saint-Émilion, where they plant Merlot, you have to think today when you plant vines for the next 40 years; if I were in Saint-Émilion, I would plant more Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Also in parts of the Médoc and Graves, they may have to make some experimentation [regarding planting].” Laborde notes that with “scientific progress, we have made more successful and more elegant wines in Pomerol in recent years compared to the 2005s”, thus mitigating climate shifts.
Jenkins also weighed in. “Long term, global warming may be a problem. There is currently more of a problem with over-ripeness than under-ripeness, and Bordeaux’s ability to make wines with less than 14 percent alcohol may become an issue.”
Looking to the future
According to Hirsch, commercialization poses a threat to the Bordeaux brand. “Apart from a handful of producers, mainly located in the Right Bank, I believe that Bordeaux will have to work very hard to get its image back. Recent projects such as a special cuvée of 100-year-old vines from Cos d’Estournel, seem to be a little out-dated in terms of the idea and image. It seems to go against everything that great, classical Bordeaux is all about. Things such as these won’t really help improve Bordeaux’s image and only make it seem very commercial, which is its problem in the eyes of most informed wine drinkers I know.”
Zacharia touches on another potential problem facing Bordeaux. “There are too many options for influencers – from consumers to sommeliers to wine buyers. They can more readily look on the web for alternative options, whereas a few years ago this was not the case. Consumers want to know what is drinking now – and trust the first-hand opinion of a merchant or sommelier as much as a critic’s review.”
As Jenkins sums up: “In terms of quality and volume, there isn’t a threat from any other region. The biggest threat is from themselves. If they get their pricing strategy wrong, they risk their brand and reputation.”