A Bit of British Perspective

Benjamin Jones, who runs the Grand Cru selection and European sales at the Negociant MT Vins gave Bordeaux Insider a bit of insight on the British Market, the 2011 En Primeur campaign, and what the Bordelais may be missing out on in UK pubs.

How is it working as a foreigner in France, is it easier or harder being British in your job?

Working as a foreigner in France is fine, many of our clients are from the UK and Hong Kong. There are different attitudes between the countries. Some people find that the French are aggressive or bit arrogant.  I don’t think the French are arrogant, but for people that don’t know them it can come off that way sometimes. It really is cultural misunderstanding; however sometime in French business I’m a bit taken aback by their frankness.                                                                                                                                   

What changes have you seen in the UK market for wine in general and for Bordeaux wine specifically?

I think the biggest change that I have seen in the last five years would be exchange rates to be honest. It was 1.5 euros to the pound when I started and the market at one point was as low as one euro to the pound. Times like that the British have virtually no purchasing power.

Many British consumers are out for bargains. Generally the wines I sell come in at ten pounds so they are not the ‘bargain wines’ however there does seem to be a bit more interest in Crus Bourgeois. As prices have gone up with Grand cru in the last few years they are becoming too expensive to drink. What Bordeaux can’t do so well is entry-level market wines just because of pricing. We can’t compete with Chilean wines, but there is always interest for Bordeaux. If you look at Decanter they are absolutely Bordeaux obsessed. I’ve heard they do that because that’s what their readers want.

Historically there is an important link between Bordeaux and the United Kingdom; do you think that relationship is still strong in the wine market?

In the sense that there are still allot of historical allocations with British merchants, but in the psyche of the average British person the historical links are not there. However in the psyche of the educated British wine drinker yes. If you’re working with Bordeaux that’s who you’ve got to aim for, you’re aiming at someone who is a bit of wine geek.

Is there a place for Bordeaux wines in pubs?

It depends on your clients; my clients are selling to gastro pubs. I speak with my mum and she says they ask for Pinot Grigio in pubs. I think that Bordeaux has missed something with Sauvignon Blanc a bit. Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc is very interesting and many people don’t realize that Sauvignon Blancs are being produced in Bordeaux, you return to the labeling issue.

What are your thoughts on this year’s futures campaign?

Catastrophe really. We don’t do much on en primeur, but speaking to my British counterparts they did about 25% compared to 2010. 

My clients said if 2011 is going to work you need to come out at 2008 prices, but the producers didn’t. A lot of 2009 hasn’t been sold outside of Bordeaux and there is still allot of 2010 in stock in Bordeaux. The fact that they haven’t sold allot this year will make it hard for next year.

one of our HK clients who took 23 cases of Pontet Canet 2010 took none of the 2011

What is important is the absence of the Chinese in this campaign. We have seen that with our clients. One of our Hong Kong clients who took 23 cases of Pontet Canet 2010 off us last year didn’t buy any of their 2011 vintage, and that is a wine that worked this year. He said “We are not happy because we did not taste the honey with the 2010 campaign,” meaning they thought they would make money and didn’t. When Hong Kong dropped their excise a few years back people were making money just clicking their fingers. Now it has flattened out and people have been burnt.

Who is the British Bordeaux drinker today, who do you think it will be in five years from now?

The Bordeaux wine drinker is someone quite educated who is interested in wine and perhaps has gone on holiday in France. In the future I wonder if people will want Bordeaux the way they want sparking wines, for special occasions and to celebrate. The problem is that Champagne is easy to find and easy to understand, with Bordeaux you have 50 appellations – its so complicated, but again that’s what makes in interesting.

Another Brit’s perspective on French Wine……

Prices are Falling in Bordeaux, Latour to leave the En Primeur System

The prestigious Grand Crus of Bordeaux are among the most speculative wines in the world.  One stellar vintage, or one bad review from a select number of critics can change the buying price by as much as 50% – this is the draw and the danger of the top Chateaux.

The last two vintages of Bordeaux have been hailed as the best of the decade.  Parker gave an unprecedented sixteen 100 point scores to wines around the Bordeaux region for the 2009 vintage.  Producers celebrated and prices were set to match.

However it seems that the millennium party is over…..

The 2011 vintage was mired by a difficult growing session, and although it is praised by many as being an ‘accessible wine’ –ready to be enjoyed earlier than many Bordeaux selections —it did not live up to preceding vintages.

The top Chateauxs have now started to release their prices for the 2011 En Primeur- or Futures Campaign. Chateau Lafite Rothschild opened the ‘bidding’ at €420 per bottle to the wine trade – a 30% reduction from last year’s price of €600.

The pricing bar was further lowered yesterday with the announcement of Cos d’Estornel’s 2011 vintage at €108 per bottle ex-negociant, half the price of last year but still around twice the price of other vintages. This is in stark contrast to past vintage price points such as 2009 when the Chateau tripled its asking price.

How can the Chateauxs get away with varying their prices so drastically from year to year you may ask – well not everyone can do it, and it is becoming risky even for the Top names.  The risk of course is that by lowering their price one year it is difficult to raise it again in future vintages.  One solution practiced by many Chateauxs is to simply reduce the number of bottles released from their first wines (while keeping the price fairly steady) and make up the difference with the second or even third wine.

Cos Estournel will release 12,000 more cases of its second wine compared with last year

In the 2011 vintage only 30% of the harvest went into the first wine at Cos Estornel, of which only 9,000 cases were made, compared with 21,000 last year, according to numbers given by Decanter. While 21,000 cases of the Chateau’s second wine, Les Pagodes de Cos were produced compared with last year’s 9,000. The reason being that the winery was more selective in choosing its grapes for its top wine.  However pricing certainly plays a role:  prices on Les Pagodes de Cos are down only 25% from last year.

Chateau Latour will no long pre-sell their wines to negociants

Other big news from the region is Chateau Latour’s ground breaking – and highly anticipated- announcement that its 2011 vintage will be the last sold using the en primeur system. Instead the first wine, Chateau Latour, and the second wine Les Forts de Latour, will be sold – through the traditional negociant structure – when the Chateau believes they are ready to be opened and enjoyed.  The reason given for this change is the Chateau’s desire to control the conditions in which the wines are kept and limit the growing amount of resale, a problem that has increased in recent years, particularly in the Asian market.

So does this mean that all of the Grand Crus will be exiting the En Primeur system – not likely.  For many Chateauxs the En Primeur campagne is a positive source of media attention. Also En Primeur – which allows Chateauxs to sell their wines two years in advance to Negociants-  is an important source of early revenue – central to investments and the daily functioning of many groups. Chateau Latour, owned by billionaire François Pinault, also the owner of Christie’s Auction House, has the luxury of holding onto their wines for as long as they deem necessary.

What are your opinions on fluctuating prices?  Is it good news that top wines in Bordeaux will come at a more accessible price point? Do you think Latour will lead a movement away from the traditional En Primeur system?  Let me know your thoughts.

Place Your Bets: Primeurs Week has Begun

Primeurs week has officially kicked off in Bordeaux.  The world of buyer, critics and journalists has descended upon Bordeaux to taste the 2011 vintage.

Although many regions held early events in late March En Primeurs week began last night with several tastings including an intimate tasting of Côtes de Bourg at Le Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux.

The event placed a spotlight on the entire region, “ Primeurs week is very important for Côtes de Bourg,” explains Didier Gontier, Director of the right bank wine region, “Our appellation has a very homogenous character among the different Chateaus.  Primeurs week allows us to show our particular terroir to wine professionals around the world.”  The tasting also shows that Primeurs week is not just about Grand Crus, buyers and journalists are able to taste wines like those from Côtes de Bourg who focus on value for money.

The 2011 Vintage

Jean Mallet of the Château Grand-Maison

“ In forty years of harvests I have never seen a vintage like this one,” explains Jean Mallet of the Château Grand-Maison.  The unusual combination of a hot spring, and humid summer with heat waves reaching 40° C (over 100° F) led to early flowering.  Harvests on the white grapes began the 1st of August in Côtes de Bourg while the reds began to come off the vine the 28th of August. The last reds were picked the 10th of October- leaving a six-week span during the harvest. As a result many wineries choose to pick at different times. “This vintage will be very different from one producer to another,”  points out Mallet “Many people waited too long to harvest in my opinion, hoping for added maturity.”

Overall the producers are happy with the 2011 vintage.  Although the vintage will not be an exceptional vintage with the aging potential of 2009 and 2010, it does offer something new from recent vintages.  “This is a wine that can be enjoyed young,” highlights David Arnaud from Château Tour des Graves, “it has good concentration, freshness and is more fruit forward.”

The white wines offered by the producers of Côtes de Bourg are excellent in the 2011 vintage, some feel it is more a vintage for whites wines than the red.  I personally enjoyed the white blends using grapes such as Semillion and Sauvignon Gris that add additional volume and texture, balancing well with the aromas of Sauvignon Blanc.

En Primeurs tastings will be held in and around the Bordeux area for professionals and press until the 6th of April

Last night was only a beginning. To see a full list of events that will be taking place in Bordeaux this week visit the website of Communication Group Agence Fleurie.