Wine Critics Say Cheers to Bordeaux's New Vintage
Wine professionals declared themselves "pleasantly surprised" with the 2012 Bordeaux vintage but demand from China was expected to be weak due to losses on 2010 wines.
China is currently Bordeaux's biggest market in terms of volume and second in value, but Chinese buyers were expected to stay away this time.
"They won't touch it," said Gary Boom, managing director of Bordeaux Index, with offices in London, Hong Kong and Los Angeles.
Chinese clients are still smarting over their losses on the 2010 vintages, bought when Bordeaux prices soared, only to fall quickly after the wines were sold.
"They've learned that the price can go down as well as up."
Alain Raynaud, vintner and president of the Cercle Rive Droite, a winemakers association, said he had been "very pleased " by the quality of the 2012 wine despite the difficult growing conditions last year.
"In the end the vintage was much better for everyone than expected," he said.
The wine samples are drawn directly from the barrels in the cellars, more than a year before bottling, to give professionals a chance to assess the quality before they are sold as a futures commodity in the coming weeks.
The primary organizers of the tastings, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) told Agence France Presse attendance was up seven percent from last year with over 5,700 professionals from around the globe taking part. Another popular winemakers group, the Alliance of the Crus Bourgeois, hosted 1,200 visitors. And the Cercle Rive Droite logged 1,300 visitors for their 140 wines presented.
The strong attendance, despite competition for travel budgets from Vinexpo in June and this week's events at Vinitaly in Verona, reaffirms interest in Bordeaux.
The stakes are high. The region sold 740 million bottles in 2012, worth EUR4.3 billion ($5.6 billion). Each vintage's commercial success is strongly influenced by the ratings the wines receive from critics, journalists and buyers during this round of barrel tastings.
Bordeaux's sweet wine growers suffered a particularly difficult season when some vineyards waited in vain for botrytis -- or noble rot -- to properly develop, robbing the wines of their famous concentration of sugar and aromas.
"The summer was very dry, the water stress very strong, and until the end of September the noble rot was zero," said Denis Dubourdieu, consultant, professor and vintner.
The spread of noble rot was especially slow on the soil of Sauternes, leading three prominent estates, Chateau d'Yquem, Chateau Suduiraut and Chateau Rieussec, to decide against releasing early samples of the 2012 vintage.
Nevertheless, the sweet wines from several estates around Barsac received rave reviews, including Chateau Coutet, Chateau Doisy-Daene and Chateau Doisy-Vedrines.
"We were very happy with the wine we made, especially in Barsac. It was easier than in Sauternes," said Dubourdieu, owner of Chateau Doisy Daene.
Dry white wines, picked prior to the downpours in October, were well-received, and red wine producers in the Right Bank appellations of Saint Emilion and Pomerol where the early-ripening Merlot dominates were also able to pick before the rain.
"Without a doubt, the maturity of the Merlot on the Right Bank made it more accessible and easier to taste en primeur," said Raynaud. "But the Left Bank also has some lovely wines, but perhaps less homogeneous."
The late-ripening Cabernet variety, which dominates the Left Bank appellations in the Medoc, created some hits and misses.
Positive response from potential buyers left many vintners with a spring in their step despite the gloomy world economic outlook.
"I hear people were quite pleasantly surprised by the vintage. It's fresh, appealing, some wines have more fruit than others," said Sophie Schyler, co-owner of grand cru classe Chateau Kirwan in the Margaux appellation.
"I think we'll have a good demand from America."
Hot on the heels of the swirling, sipping and spitting at the tastings comes the haggling over prices and anticipation of demand.
"It doesn't matter how nice the wines are. The harsh reality is that people have a choice. You need to give them a compelling reason to buy, and the only compelling reason to buy this vintage is price," said Boom.
Several chateau owners, meanwhile, called for reasonable pricing and a brisk sales campaign to show that Bordeaux still knows how to offer good value to its traditional markets.
"We hope all Bordeaux will release soon, fast, with good pricing, in an efficient way so the message can be communicated positively," added Schyler.