‘The trickle of international wines sold through La Place has become a flood’
A few weeks ago I was in Le Pressoir d’Argent restaurant in downtown Bordeaux, headed up by english Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay, tasting through iconic Chilean wines (seña, Vinedo Chadwick) that were about to be sold by french wine merchants through the local La Place de Bordeaux trading system.
september has become one of the most interesting months of the year around here, as the trickle of international wines being sold through La Place has become a flood.
There is quite clearly no turning back now. Gone are the days when Bordeaux châteaux owners (one in particular, but I’m not one to gossip) threw their toys out of the pram and threatened to remove their wines from any merchant who dared to be distracted from the business of selling Bordeaux.
The new normal is a september that kicks off with the old stalwarts Opus One, Masseto, Almaviva, Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin and seña, now joined by a host of other names, which at last count would include Inglenook’s Rubicon and Blancaneaux, Jackson family wines’ Cardinale and Vérité, Harlan’s Promontory, Clos Apalta, Viñedo Chadwick, solaia, Catena Zapata, Caiarossa and Balasto.
Mathieu Chadronnier, managing director of CVBG merchants, kept things understated when he told me it had been an ‘intense’ start to the annual return to work, known as la rentrée, after the extended summer holiday in france. His company has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new wave of names, and I believe he was instrumental in convincing a number of Californian estates to benefit from the contacts books and globetrotting habits of Bordeaux merchants (it’s mainly CVBG, along with Duclot and Maison Joanne taking the lead with the Napa names).
what to make of it all? It’s been clear for a number of years that Bordeaux estates have been pulling back from en primeur, releasing less stock each year, meaning that négociants find themselves having to fill the gaps in their cash flow.
I wonder if the châteaux really understood the power that they were giving up by doing so? Most négociants I speak to now make more margin in september than they do by selling their entire yearly allocation of first growths. And that’s without having to tie their buyers into other less-desired wines. There are also Bordeaux wines on La Place in september – notably Yquem in bottle and Château Latour’s older vintages. But the stocks that châteaux have held back at the estate are going to have to be released at some point – and it’s getting to be a pretty crowded calendar.
It’s not all bad for Bordeaux, of course. As Chadronnier points out: ‘The september releases get us speaking with wine buyers throughout the year, and so extend the conversation way beyond the en primeur season, which is good for local wines also.’
A word of warning to both négociants and the newcomers, who right now are all quite rightly celebrating their successful strategy. Any non-Bordeaux names on La Place seem to be following the rule that this method of distribution gives carte blanche to raise prices year on year. seña 2016 was released 7.7% up on last year, Masseto up 16.9%, Hommage à Jacques Perrin up 14.9%, Almaviva up 11.5%, Opus One up 9.4%. spot the trend, anyone?
I guess it’s no surprise that Bordeaux is seen as a wonderful place to raise your price irresponsibly. But however much we may berate the Bordelais for introducing the concept, they do at least lower prices in years where quality is seen to be less good. If the iconic names now using the system don’t follow suit, they will end up in exactly the same place as their Bordeaux counterparts – asking for prices that the market simply doesn’t want to bear.
The risk of that becomes ever higher as the choice of international wines continues to multiply. And if it does, the négociants may find that they are asked to carry the can – at which point they will have moved out of the frying pan, and into the fire.