The fascination and frustration of Bordeaux

By Andrew Black

Back in the late 1970s, looking for my first job, I sent a letter to several prominent London wine merchants, saying that I had a passion for wine. Could they help? One of them, Laurence Hayward, responded with a short but encouraging message. “Anyone with a passion for wine”, he said, “deserves an interview”.  And so my career in wine began, but not quite in the way I imagined after receiving that letter. My interview was short and Mr Hayward was to the point. “If you want to understand wine young man”, he insisted, “go to Bordeaux. When you’ve understood Bordeaux, you can claim to know something about wine”. He didn’t offer me a job, but he got me some work as a cellar hand at one of his Bordeaux suppliers and most importantly he had pointed me in the right direction.

Arriving in Bordeaux, I realised that I was just one of numerous young hopefuls who had over the years made that journey to the largest fine wine region on earth in search of a career in wine. In those days, Bordeaux had few rivals. On a typical restaurant wine list in the UK, only the wines of Burgundy and Germany competed with Bordeaux. Perhaps today, the advice I received in London would be a little different. I might be sent to another wine region instead, such as Australia, New Zealand, California or Argentina. Yet, though these wine regions have much to offer, they don’t seem to provide such a complete experience as Bordeaux does. Witness the many Spanish winemakers who have lived and worked in Bordeaux and then returned to Spain transformed and with a clearer idea of what great wine is.   

So what is it about Bordeaux that makes it so special? Surely, there are great wines made today in numerous regions. Certainly, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, Italy, Spain and California have their own megastars that rival great Bordeaux. And it’s not just the top wines. How many times have I drunk a Spanish wine at 10, 15 or 20 euros and wondered where in Bordeaux would I find such good value? Is it the mystique that attracts so many fine wine buyers from the USA, the UK, Russia and China, and investors such as banks, luxury groups and insurance companies, as well as aspiring technicians from competing markets who go there to learn?

Some would say yes it is the mystique, and that history plays an important part in that mystique. Over the centuries, Bordeaux has certainly been lucky in that respect. It was conveniently close to the dynamic English market. The Médoc was ideally located for English ships to load barrels when Aquitaine was under English rule in the Middle Ages. Later in the 17th century, this same part of the Bordeaux vineyard provided the wines of Lafite and Margaux, together with Haut-Brion from the Graves, for the fashionable coffee houses of London. In the 18th and 19th centuries, investment poured into these areas of Bordeaux not just from Britain but from Holland, Scandinavia and Germany, and is still evident in names of Left Bank châteaux (Palmer, Cantenac Brown, Clarke, Smith Haut Lafitte, Dillon, Kirwan, Lynch Bages, Léoville Barton, Boyd Cantenac, Talbot and so on).

But it hasn’t always been rosy. Bordeaux has endured setbacks, survived them and somehow gone on to greater things. When I began working in Bordeaux, the wine trade there had been in severe crisis. Several négociants were in court for trafficking and illegal blending, and one of the most prestigious figures of the Bordeaux négoce, whose family business had been targeted by the government, threw himself off the Bordeaux suspension bridge. Prices of bulk wine crashed, and even the grands châteaux went through lean times, so much so that vineyards were neglected and foreign owners looked for an exit. Château Margaux was for sale and couldn’t find a buyer –at least a French one; and when an American firm looked like taking it over, the French government stepped in to stop the sale before a French buyer could eventually be found.

Château Margaux, Bordeaux

Château Margaux, Bordeaux

A few months after I arrived, I drove a van out to Pauillac to collect a few cases of Château Pichon Lalande for shipment. A woman in a headscarf and rubber boots greeted me in the rain and insisted on loading the van herself. She was, I later realised, May-Eliane de Lenquesaing, the elegant, charismatic ex-owner of that property, who clearly had to do plenty of the menial work herself in those troubled times. Curiously, this depressed state of affairs had been exacerbated by Bordeaux’s treasured primeurs market, a system in which Bordeaux’s top châteaux offer their new wines at theoretically knock-down prices to the Bordeaux négociant market when they have only just been vinified and have had just a few weeks of barrel ageing.

Before explaining why the primeurs made matters worse during that 1970s crisis, let’s look at what the primeurs market is more renowned for. Originally, this inspired system of selling, in a successful campaign, made money for everyone, from the château owners, who in return for offering a good opening price were paid at least one year in advance of the bottling, to the négociants, who together had exclusivity for the distribution of these sought-after wines, to the importers who made an easy profit on them, and to the final customer, who not only bought at an advantageous price but could also re-sell the wine at a profit, since great Bordeaux improved in bottle and increased in market value.  In good times, everybody wanted a piece of the action.

This exciting marketing phenomenon has certainly contributed to the aura of Bordeaux. It has drawn special attention over the years and has succeeded in attracting not only international buyers but also speculators, entrepreneurs, as well as, more recently, a breed of specialised wine consultants who know how to get the primeurs samples showing at their best at the primeurs tastings in March each year.  Without this unique tradition, Bordeaux would not be quite so special.

One of the idiosyncrasies of the system is that the château owners don’t sell (or rather, don’t distribute) their wine. That is the job of the négociant. Since in Bordeaux there are hundreds of négociants, allocations of one château wine are often given to several of them, theoretically to cover different markets. In reality, these négociants are in competition with each other and so are reluctant to divulge information about their clients, even to the châteaux. Imagine a top Spanish winery not knowing who buys its wine. It would be inconceivable: in Bordeaux, it’s normal.

Though top château owners are kept in the dark about where their wines are sold, they nevertheless have a strong hand to play in this game, because the négociants are obliged to take up their allocation of cases every year if they want to stay in the game for the following years. But how can the château owners, who have no contact with the outside market, have any idea of the right price to offer to the négociants in each vintage? In the past, négociants were accused of driving down opening prices in order to make fat profits. Nowadays, the owners are accused of coming out at ridiculously high prices, squeezing the négociants. The traditional answer to this tug of war is the “courtier”, a cross between a broker and a notary, who is a go-between for both parties, and who should find the correct opening price for a successful primeurs campaign. For his trouble, the courtier generally receives a 2% commission on the sales.  

Cata Bordeaux_Primeur_Andrew Black_Vila Viniteca

In great years, négociants understandably take up their allocations with glee, particularly if the opening prices offered by the château owners are attractive. But who can really be sure of the quality of a vintage at such an early stage of its life? Isn’t there a huge risk in committing big money to an uncertain commodity? This is where history comes into play in Bordeaux. When buyers make an investment in a wine that was only vinified some six months earlier, they need more than a favourable tasting of the new wine; they also need the reassurance of the château’s track record. The top growths are like blue-chip stocks. Back in 1855 many of Bordeaux’s wines were officially classified on the basis of their track record. This is still a useful guide, but how relevant is that ranking today? And how many of these châteaux, apart from the First Growths, have a good enough track record to incite buyers to risk their money in a lesser vintage?  

This element of risk has always existed, and that is why good “en primeur” tasters are essential for those châteaux that don’t have a track record. It’s also why since the 1980s, Robert Parker, renowned as a good taster of primeur wines, has been so important to Bordeaux.  Prior to the 1980s, most wine writers were also businessmen working for wine merchants. Nobody really said to wine consumers “don’t buy that vintage” or “that château performed badly this year”. The onus was on the buyers to taste carefully and select well for their markets.

With Robert Parker disappearing from the Bordeaux primeurs scene this year, the future of the system suddenly looks less certain. Cynics might claim that the primeurs tastings anyway are a sham, and that barrel samples today are not always representative of the wine that will be bottled. Others may complain that primeurs week is far too early to judge the quality of a wine. My personal view is that competent primeurs tasters (and these are very few according to many Bordeaux growers) see enough to form a considered opinion. In any case, the issue today is not so much quality, since today’s vintages are better than ever, but the opening prices, which are a source of resentment in traditional Bordeaux markets. And this takes me back to my experience of Bordeaux at the end of the 1970s.  

Back in those gloomy Bordeaux years, the primeurs system spun out of control. The 1960s had not been a good decade for Bordeaux vintages. About half of them were poor years, some of them disastrous. When a very good Bordeaux vintage came along in 1970, buyers rushed into the market. This was followed by another promising vintage in 1971, and money continued to pour in; and then the vine cycle of 1972 promised another fine year. Bordeaux was on a roll, and prices were skyrocketing from increasing demand. Apparently, money was even paid for crops of the 1972 that hadn’t yet been harvested. Speculation was rife. And then the inevitable happened: the 1972 vintage turned out to be a poor one. The bottom of the market fell out. Boom quickly turned to bust. Négociants were stuck with their allocations of the 1972 vintage and couldn’t offload them. Some houses disappeared; others soldiered on waiting for the next wave of good vintages to keep them afloat. I was perhaps one of the few to benefit from this sad state of affairs. At the end of the decade, the 1972 classified growths were still retailing at less than their opening prices. Even with my modest starting salary I could afford to buy these wines, many of which I had never tasted before.

Primeurs_Andrew Black_Vila Viniteca

I imagined that this chastening experience would serve as a lesson to Bordeaux. Indeed, nobody buys grapes today before they are picked -as far as I know it is now illegal. But the system carries on much as before, with prices yo-yoing from one year to the next. Bordeaux continues to be lucky; each time a market deserts it because prices have gone over the top, a new one arrives -the USA, Asia, Russia, the City of London, or China. And then the “vintage of the century” arrives, and everyone is back on board. But the last “vintage of the century”, the 2010, by many accounts is still largely in négociants’ cellars, unsold because of its high opening price.

For weeks now, talk here is about the pressure on the 2014 opening prices. Will Bordeaux drop to the levels of the 2008, as the market is demanding? Probably not, and this is making Bordeaux négociants particularly nervous. Some have said that this is Bordeaux’s make-or-break vintage, and that the primeurs system is in serious danger. Maybe it is, or maybe another boom is just around the corner. That is the glorious unpredictability of Bordeaux and why many of us are both fascinated and frustrated by it. Have I understood Bordeaux yet? Who cares? I never meant to go back anyway!        

Andrew Black
Born in the UK and a graduate of the University of Sheffield (Modern Languages), Andrew Black began his professional career at a Bordeaux négociant house becoming export manager for English-speaking markets. Since 1993, he has run a successful business training wine professionals in English. Offering courses both in Bordeaux and Spain he has clients at some of Bordeaux’s most prestigious châteaux (Pétrus, Cheval Blanc, Margaux, Ausone, Angélus…) and at numerous bodegas in Spain, as well as at Consejos Reguladores and Camaras de Comercio). Since 2006 he has run a specialised newsletter, Premiere Presse, which enables top producers in France and Spain to communicate directly in English with international wine critics and importers. He recently set up a wine tourism project in Bordeaux and Spain, and in his spare time he tends a small vineyard in his garden, from which he produces one barrel of wine a year.

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