As far as en-primeur “campaigns” go, the first growths generally make the noise towards the end of the sales season – late June; sometimes early July. It’s a class thing. This time round things are a little different. Ch. Lafite-Rothschild have made a very shrewd move in releasing their wine very early and at a price that works: even if you’re paying £5,500 for a case of 2011 Lafite it’s still the cheapest vintage of Lafite you can buy, which is just as well given that it’s nine litres of juice sloshing round in a barrel. The wine has sold. What they’ve also done is (a) show their neighbours how it works and (b) shafted their peers.
Latour excepted, and maybe more on Latour later, the other first growths simply will not sell at this price, and even Latour might be a push. They need to match the price in a relative sense, which is to say that 2011 Ch. Haut-Brion, for example, needs to be cheaper than any other available vintage of Haut-Brion, preferably by about ten or fifteen percent. You can buy 2007 Haut-Brion for £2,750 a case in bond. A bit more gets you a case of the delicious 2004. £3,600 gets you the delicious, patrician, almost mature 1995. Where is 2011 going to be priced? At £2,500 I reckon it would sell, and sell very well. Anything the other side of £3,000 and, quite simply: what is the point?
The point for the chateau proprietors is simple: they need to pay the bills. After a bumper decade they can probably manage that for a few years without releasing a drop (see Latour) but, whether it is the accountants’ abacus or the owners’ pride, I can’t see anyone following Latour’s lead and withdrawing from the whole shebang.
Classed growth Bordeaux is a commodity. This is not news. But it’s a much more grown up commodity than it used to be: the obvious example is Liv-ex. And, much as the chateaux proprietors might have felt Sheikh-like in the past decade, sitting on the reserves of a product that was increasingly in demand at ever-increasing prices (selling Lafite used to be like shooting fish in a barrel; buying it was the challenge), wine is not oil. You don’t need it, and there is no shortage of it. The market for top-end Bordeaux is by no means dead, but the owners of the golden goose might just put it under for a while. As suppliers of a commodity, one which isn’t much use for a few years, the owners must price their wine as a commodity, as a future. There has to be some meat on the bone. No matter what a purist might say young Bordeaux IS an investment. It is up to the Bordelais to ensure that it remains a good one.
So: we wait for some hopefully sensible and attractive prices from Bordeaux. For an intelligent and well-written view from the inside, read Christian Seely’s view on the en-primeur system here. There are some very clever people in Bordeaux. There will be some 2011 worth buying over the next month or so.