Thursday, April 1, 2010

Burgundy and Bordeaux, equivalent prices in the high-end market, yet totally opposite reputations in the consumers' eyes

Burgundy and Bordeaux, equivalent prices in the high-end market, yet totally opposite reputations in the consumers' eyes
(and the professional wine buyers too)

High end Burgundy and high end Bordeaux, two different markets with completely opposite philosophies and winemaking profiles, yet they both rule the wine world prices their own respective ways, facing a difficult market, financial world crisis and moody unhappy buyers.

However, despite offering expensive and exclusive brands in both regions, one seems to continue to attract faithful and loyal customers, while the other seems to sink with difficulties to keep its head above water. One tries to more or less adapt to the market with a consistent, solid reputation, while the other one experiences one of the worst market crisis that it has ever known, with a sinking reputation based on lack of marketing, continuously rising prices, old pompous aristocratic, bourgeois attitude and out-of-date classification, too much protocols and an erroneous, heavy three-tier selling systems...(and god knows I love my land of origin, no offense, I'm just stating the facts).

Let’s have a quick look at it to try to understand.

Today, like pretty much every year at the same period of time, we just received our tiny allocation of the über allocated “Domaine de La Romanée-Conti” wines: just a few bottles of each of the ever sought after Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, Richebourg, Romanée St. Vivant, Romanée-Conti, La Tache and Le Montrachet, of the 2007 Vintage.

The first thing that came to my mind when I saw the bottles was to realize how fortunate I’m to be able to sell one of the most extraordinary, established but also one of the most expensive wine names in the world. It is true, when you think of it, not everybody has access to “DRC” and even less people will ever be able to afford it or even be willing to spend this kind of money in a bottle of wine.

Lucky me, during my 18 years in the wine business and more especially when I used to be a Sommelier in prestigious restaurants in Paris and London, I’ve been extremely fortunate and privileged to taste DRC in many occasions, older and current vintages at the time (private tastings, special occasions, etc).

Since I moved to New York, 8 years ago, and left the restaurant scene behind me to discover new ways of selling wines in fine wine & spirits retail stores and boutiques, I had less chances to taste DRC. Yet, I participate to the lunch for the promotion of the 2005 vintage organized by Martin Scott and Wilson Daniels, and really appreciated it. I should probably write a post about this unique experience that only a few of us had the chance to be a part of,..well, some other day, may be.

I will just say that, I even had the chance to meet and chat with one of the co-owners, Aubert de Villaine, who is I must say a very sympathetic and really interesting man. As the grandson of a winemaker, I attach a lot of importance to know and talk with the man behind the label and ask as many questions as I can, in order to comprehend and better appreciate the different nuances and layers of the tasted wines.

However, drinking any of the DRC’s Crus is a delightful experience that I will highly recommend to anyone who has the mean, the will and the money; but one thing is sure, even if we can’t necessarily drink them, any retail and restaurant wine buyers will always be as excited to receive them and dream about them, as to sell them to their customers.

Due to the fact that only a few amateurs and connoisseurs can reach and barely touch DRC, due to extremely high demand and skyrocketing prices all around the world, any wine buyer will tell you, selling "DRC", as well as selling "Le Pin" or "Pétrus", is greatly exhilarating, because it almost feels like holding the juiciest steak ever above the cage of starving lions, which are mostly and usually fine collectors, wine traders and/or brand speculators.

Did you ever realized that some of these prestigious wines never really get drunk, not because customers await them patiently while they rest in their home cellars to drink them in perfect conditions, but because these bottles spent most of their young lives traveling around the planet (Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, Honk Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Moscow,etc...) in planes, trains or boats, going from an auction house to another, from a private cellar to another, from a warehouse to another, while auctioneers, collectors, wine traders and speculators make enjoyable profits. Some of these well traveled gems even end-up sometime, by going back to the Chateau to complete the owner's personal collection.

Don’t ask me why, but just the word “speculator”, suddenly makes me think about another market, which was once more prestigious and lucrative than it has lately become…yet, you never know, the 2009 vintage seems promising for the Bordelais and may well, to our surprise once again, reverse the desperate situation of the last few vintages. Bordeaux is eager to sell its 2009 vintage, and I’m afraid that prices will once again attain new ceilings.

If I’m suddenly writing about Bordeaux, it is because I realized this afternoon, while I was entering the price for DRC wines in the store POS system, that DRC probably considered the bad economy and the world financial crisis, and consequently slightly decreased its 2007 prices compared to the 2006 vintage and more especially compared to the 2005.

So far, from all the burgundy that I tasted, 2007 seems to be an excellent vintage, which is, in my opinion, better than 2006 and will last longer. Therefore, it would have been normal for DRC to raise their prices, yet 2007 is slightly less expensive than the 2006, which was in my opinion more harmonious than the riper 2003 and the rich 2005, for twice less the price (in some cases).

You see, (and it is my opinion), in Burgundy like in Bordeaux, warmer and riper vintages seem to excite the press and the critics, thus attract higher prices and demand, like the 2003 and 2005. Yet prices are not necessarily justified and do not always represent the quality of the wine in the bottle. Let me explain.

In both regions, (and in my opinion here again),

  • 2003 was a pick-and-choose vintage with weird features, like green tannins, strange or low acidity, and overripe fruits, in may cases due to unprepared vines and multiple mistakes made during the harvest period and the vinification process, due to the infamous 2003 summer heat wave (mistakes included: harvesting too early to keep acidity and freshness, then harvesting too late to emphasize the ripeness and counterbalance the first harvest, to harmonize the final blend, resulting in many inharmonious, overripe and unbalanced wines), but critics and the overall world press raved about the vintage and price skyrocketed to unprecedented heights. I’m personally very skeptical regarding the quality of the 2003 vintage in both regions, and more especially their aptitude for ageing properly. Time will tell, and don’t get me wrong, some wines were truly well made and not everything is bad, as I said it was a pick-and-choose vintage. And in any case, a good winemaker will always make good wine bad year, good year.
  • As for 2005, the same type of heat wave with the same high temperatures stroked again. The vines were more prepared this time (due to extended roots in deeper soil layers where they could find enough moisture) and the winemakers too, and overall the vintage was much better and more harmonious than 2003, yet here again, certain wines presented similar attitude and profile as for the 2003 vintage (with also green tannins, weird acidity and sign of over-tiredness for some). Although better in many ways, the 2005 vintage is also raising questions, and certain wineries or winemakers seem to have made the same mistakes both years. Yet here again, prices rose again to even higher skies than the 2003 vintage. In short, the cost for a bottle of 1st growth Bordeaux Futures for the 2000 vintage was about $125-$150 (it costs nowadays about 10 times more), then it climbed to $275-$300 for 2003, and then finally attained $525-$550 for 2005. Don’t get me wrong, but multiplying the price by 5 in 5 years is an unbearable joke for most buyers and consumers. But hey, there is a demand and people are still buying, why not feeding and increasing the size of the cash cow. 2005 was in my opinion, the apotheoses and more especially the beginning of the end for Bordeaux Futures and the way consumers judge Bordeaux and its wines.

However, my point is that 2007 vintage in Burgundy seems very good and wineries like DRC, slightly lower their price, (bad economy, financial crisis, who knows?) but at least they seem to be aware of the difficulties of the market.

It might not be the case for Bordeaux, because, as I write this post, critics, journalists, Sommelier, and other people from the trade are assessing the quality of the 2009 Bordeaux futures in the various tastings organized all over the 59 appellations of my dear region of origin, and within the next few weeks, Chateaux owners, courtiers, brokers and Négociants (or as it is referred more often as the “Place de Bordeaux”), depending on the enthusiasm of the press and the starting prices of the first few daring Chateaux, will release the prices for the 2009 Bordeaux Futures 1st tranche, 2nd tranche, etc… and that what is scary.

Will they pay attention to the difficult market, or will they once again shot a bullet in their own campaign and kill their own market like they did for the 2003, 2005 and 2006 vintages, by exercising such high pricing.

Moreover, with lots of unsold inventory in the Négociants warehouses and many other places full of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages, the market is not ready for another so called “vintage of the decade” with high prices. Yet, Bordeaux is waiting for a positive answer from the buyers and hopes to catch up with the good days of the 2000, 2003 and 2005 vintage.

In the US, despite a certain excitation for the 2009 vintage, many retailers and restaurants are not ready to buy any futures or to ever go again in the Bordeaux Futures market, if prices continue to soar the way they did in the last decade. Also despite fewer wealthy connoisseurs and amateurs, (let’s say people with money that are less and less willing to pay for this kind of price), the demand is not too high for the moment (the public interest for Bordeaux Futures is rather minimal, prices will show us the way) and buyers (professionals and customers) seem to wait for a comprehensive and intelligible price move, reflecting the mood of the market and not the need of the Chateaux owners, Courtiers, brokers and Négociants.

Let’s hope Bordeaux people will think twice about what happened in the last decade and take in consideration the difficult market, the financial world crisis and the public opinions, before reaching higher ceiling prices than ever before.

Think about it for a sec....

LeDom du Vin

PS: the above article only reflects my own and personal opinions about the matter, no offense to anybody, but truth is difficult to admit sometime

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