2023 Bordeaux

I used to love Bordeaux EP.  Genuinely love it.  The excitement, the sales, the commercial birth of a new vintage from the most important wine region in the world.

There’s more.  It’s the Spring.  It’s a marker for the end of winter depression, the beginning of a new year proper.  The sun comes out.  And Bordeaux is invariably sunny in April, and the buds are beginning to break on the vines.

And I love the wine.  I love tasting barrel samples.  I can still remember my first one – 2000 Calon Ségur, not a bad start – and the way it jumped from the glass.  And Clarethound and I sold so much 2000 Bordeaux in 2001 that we were evicted from our swanky St James’s Street office to relocate to the playground of the beautiful that is Basingstoke to merge with the broking department.  This was the birth of what is now the Fine Wine Team at BB&R.

We sold even more wine when the 2005 vintage came along, then even more still in 2009 and 2010 (though I’ll give you that these two were less fun).

And then it sort of went pop.  Partly on account of the market correction in 2011 though more, I think, on account of the money that had been made by the châteaux and, on 2009s and 2010s, lost by the punters.  The balance sheets of the top châteaux of Bordeaux were transformed; en primeur wasn’t about cashflow and working capital anymore – it was no longer an issue for the guys at the top.

Since then 2016 worked on account of the quality of the vintage; 2019 worked on account of the prices (I think it took a couple of years for the quality of 2019 to be confirmed; for what it’s worth this is my vintage of the century so far, but that’s thread drift).  2020 sort of worked (I still don’t like these for the most part, but that’s drifting again), 2021 was miserable (erm… you claim to have had three great vintages on the spin, a triumvirate, no less, then you release the weak vintage that follows at the same prices or higher?).

And then comes 2022: brilliant in parts (as long as you get what will be a delicate and tricky elevage right) and – in many cases – just insanely priced. The one wine I really wanted to work, the wine that captured the essence of the vintage, the appellation and the property itself released at £715 per dozen.  At the time you could buy the 2019 at £600 and the 2016 at £680.  The brilliant 2010 was £800, with someone else having paid £100+ of storage charges.  This pattern could be seen across nearly all of the wines – rocket science isn’t needed here, just a big warehouse for unsold wine.

And now we have 2023.  A very good vintage for some properties, an acceptably good one for others.  And right now – today – 2023 Angélus has been released at a price that comes in at more than the 2020, 2019, 2018, 2016 and 2015 vintages, all of which have some very punchy reviews and, moreover, are the finished product.  You can buy a case of wine rather than title to nine litres of wine sitting in a barrel in St Emilion.

Quite simply: there is zero point in buying it.  Even if your name is Mr Angélus and your first born is a 2023: in this instance you can just stick £3,120 in the bank for a couple of years, get 5%, and buy the same wine, in bottle and in the UK, for the same or less money.  Again: this is not rocket science or cutting edge economic analysis.  It’s just obvious.

Some of the Bordelais seem to get this.  Mouton-Rothschild and Lafite-Rothschild are/were priced to offer an incentive to buy.  Both offered the reward of being cheaper than any other available vintage: this is what you get for putting your money up front. But at this stage more releases than not just don’t make sense.  Why buy?

My counter-argument to this used to be simple: people like to buy stuff.  None of us really need the latest iphone but plenty of us still get some sort of kick out of getting one.  I don’t need a new car but I’m browsing auto-trader.  But wine is different.  Firstly: old wine is supposed to be better than new wine.  It is the old wine that should carry the premium.  And an iphone 15 is better than a 14: that’s the point.  The current model of an Audi TT is better than a 10-year-old mark 2.  And – this isn’t contentious – 2019 Bordeaux is better than 2023 Bordeaux.  So shouldn’t the 2023 be at a discount regardless?

The fact is, or at least my theory is, that these wines are being priced, as they have been for a few years now, to get them off the books of the properties and on to the books of the negociants.  Job done.  Beyond that they just don’t care how far the wine gets down the chain as they’ve made their money and anchored a price.  But what happens when the negociants, who are heaving with stock of unsold wine, start to go pop under the pressure of the interest they’re paying on the debt that finances the stock?

With some luck, hopefully, the negociants will finally have the lucidity to walk away from their allocations.  And/or, some proprietors will see the wider picture and understand that there is more at stake here than price-anchoring – wine needs to sell all the way through the system.  If not then good luck and, maybe, good night. Bordeaux might just have eaten itself.