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This is a multi-part report on Bordeaux 2002, based on "en primeur" tastings held in Bordeaux in late March/early April 2003. Neal Martin was there to cover the event for wine-pages, and his report features his thoughts on the quality of the vintage, current problems with Bordeaux pricing and of course, detailed notes on the wines: over 120 wines are tasted and assessed.

go straight to detailed notes:

 
© Cephas

Bordeaux 2002

1997 seems a long time ago: cuddly Bill Clinton was the US president, guitar-wielding Tony Blair was our funky new Prime Minister, dot.coms powered the stockmarket, Dianna and Dodi graced the front pages of the tabloids, Oasis were the new Beatles, and the Bordeaux vintage was... lacklustre.

Early April 2003, and the world is at war: Tony has stopped playing guitar and wears a permanent frown, the dot.coms precipitated a world-wide economic slump (with the exception of porn sites, friendsreunited and wine-pages.com of course), Oasis were the new Freddie and the Dreamers, and those 1997 Bordeaux wines - well a lot of them - are still waiting to be sold.

Of course, we still descend on Bordeaux eagerly, spittoons and pens at the ready, keen to assess the new vintage of the world's greatest wine region. But at the end of the day, en primeur is about money: creating cash-flow for châteaux, merchants, consumers and investors. The wheels of logic fell off the en primeur band-wagon after 1997, when the fundamental correlation between quality and price was lost. Consumers shunned the notion of Bordeaux as a purely "prestige" product sold at high prices.

pricing

Along came that magic number 2000, the weather played along, and suddenly en primeur was vindicated once again as prices spiralled ever-upward. Consequently, Bordeaux is priced out of the budget of the regular wine consumer, and reserved for the very well-heeled and investors. But the absence of regular claret drinkers is now starting to take effect, especially when you consider that claret is not rare: even the elite First Growths make around 30,000 cases each. The 2002 vintage needs to attract the average, middle-class, wine-drinking man and woman who has reluctantly switched to other wine-making areas. The only way to do this is to slash the prices by 40-60% in order to make claret an attractive investment and decent value drink.

It was disheartening to hear the same old euphemisms and spin when I spoke to the châteaux proprietors, many of whom claimed that a 20% price reduction would be seen as "good value" by consumers.
 

Yet the fact remains that even this would be instantaneously wiped out by exchange rates against a strong Euro. The problem is, that many Bordelais turn a blind eye to the world economy. In face of customers turning elsewhere, the Bordelais must swallow their pride (something many do not seem prepared to do). Indeed, one or two suggested they would rather withhold their whole allocation of 2002 if prices did not match what they deemed appropriate. Their coffers are still full from 2000, so why not sit and wait for the market to change?

In my opinion, that would represent the final nail in en primeur's coffin. With Léoville-Las Cases withdrawing last year and Moueix declining to show his wines this year, the possibility of more and more châteaux abandoning en primeur looks increasingly likely. Even before this campaign the lack of interest was clearly visible; there seemed to be an air of window-shopping this year, rather than serious buying. Score sheets were filled in, but order sheets... well, we'll have to wait and see.

 pricing post-script, 21 April 2003

At time of writing 20-30 châteaux have released their wines, presenting an early opportunity to assess how customers have reacted to the opening prices. It is not all doom and gloom more like 75%. Clare McKenzie, head of the broking department at Justerini & Brooks, told me that they had been able to take advantage of the fluctuating exchange rate and the two First Growths, Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild and Latour, had been keenly priced at around £670/case. Indeed Farr Vintners rapidly sold out of their first tranche and expect a price-jump to around £720-£750 for the second wave. Sam Gleave at wine merchants Bordeaux Index commented that they had been "over-subscibed on the Firsts Growths" and that "early indications have shown that the 2002's have been sensibly priced".

But how about wines for the regular claret drinker who cannot afford Lafite to accompany his egg and soldiers every morning? Sam Gleave cites Brane-Cantenac (down from £245 in 2001 to £165 for 2002). Clare McKenzie reported that the traditional wines are selling well, but another merchant said that many wines were still not sufficiently low to attract those customers looking for a "bargain".

I call a friend who works in one of the major négociants in Bordeaux: the négociants are most acute to the potential problems of this campaign. Like the UK merchants, she reports that the Firsts are selling well, as is the aforementioned Brane-Cantenac and Gruaud-Larose. But worryingly, she tells me that the négotiants are being coerced by some châteaux to accept over-priced parcels of less attractive wines if they want to maintain their allocation of the premium wines next year. She sounds at the end of her tether, and I am left with the feeling that avarice may rear its ugly head again. This is crunch time, not only for the 2002s, but for the viability of the en primeur system, the survival of the French-based négotiants, and maybe for Bordeaux wine as a whole.

weather

The weather in 2002 can be compared to 1978, when a terrible start to the vintage was saved by a wonderful dry September. I remember visiting Château Palmer in July last year on a torrential Monday, our guide putting a brave face on the fact that coulure and millerandage had produced a poor fruit set and consequently lower yields. The quantity harvested in 2002 was lower, but to the wine-growers' credit, strict green harvesting and the increasingly wide-spread use of vibrating sorting tables to weed out rotten berries, led to very few incidences of rot.

Although the September weather saved the vintage from being a disaster, the rapid ripening of the grapes in a short period of time meant that the skins were thicker than usual and the wines more tannic and astringent. I found this a great problem with many of the barrel samples, my notes frequently containing the words "tannic", "aggressive" and "harsh". Many seemed to lack charm and personality: this was not a pleasant vintage to taste en primeur.


  It is definitely a Cabernet Sauvignon vintage; the poor early weather hampering the earlier budding and maturing Merlot. Therefore many of the wines on the Right Bank were unripe and hollow, with the exception of châteaux enjoying a higher percentage of Cabernet Franc (in particular Cheval Blanc). Pomerol was particularly disappointing, and St. Emilion not much better, although in each there are exceptions. Over on the Left Bank, at Château Margaux, the manager Paul Pontallier (right) was dismissive of the Merlot in 2002 and stated that they were gradually decreasing the percentage year by year: only 7% was used in the final wine, the lowest ever.

Even the stalwart St. Julien wines seemed less reliable this year, again with the exception of Léoville-Barton, perhaps the most reliable performer over the last decade. It was the Northern Médoc which performed the best: some fine Pauillacs (special mention to Lynch-Bages, Pichon-Baron, Pichon-Lalande - the usual suspects) and St. Estephes (the best Cos d'Estournel for a few years).

Of the First Growths, Mouton was the château that delivered this year: a marriage of great power and finesse that was bursting with ripe Cabernet fruit. The rigorous use of their vibrating sorting table, and meticulous attention during elevage with a gentle extraction at a stable 28 degrees, made a particularly great Mouton. Lafite and Latour both performed admirably, though I was not so impressed by Margaux (which was very pretty but not intellectually demanding as First Growths ought to be) and Haut-Brion (which was very tannic and a little hard).

In general, the vintage may indeed turn out like 1978: a similarly masculine, tannic and perhaps charmless year. Someone else described it as "the style of 1996 with the ripeness of 1994", which I would not disagree with. Reading back over this report, perhaps I have been too critical. But I still firmly believe that Bordeaux is the greatest wine region in the world and part of that greatness derives from the fact that some years just do not work out for the best. There are some very fine wines to be found on the Left Bank, but the consumer will need to pick and choose very carefully.

conclusion

I started this piece by comparing 1997 to 2003, a period which has seen remarkable change in the world. It is also a period when a previously successful system of selling wine abandoned its economic sensibility. Now, more than ever, it is time to address those socio-economic changes that have occurred. If you wonder whether it will change, may I direct you to page 59 of Michael Broadbent`s "Vintage Wine" tome? Read the Bordeaux weather conditions for the "one-star" year 1957. Remind you of anything?

Just before the detailed notes on 120 wines, here is a quick top-ten of my absolute favourite 2002s, in terms of quality and value for money:

  1. Cos d'Estournel
  2. Les Ormes de Pez
  3. Mouton-Rothschild
  4. Lynch-Bages
  5. Pichon-Lalande
  6. Reserve de la Comtesse
  7. de Larmarque
  8. Cheval Blanc
  9. L'Eglise Clinet
  10. Canon-la-Gafflière.

detailed notes

See also our report on the 2001 vintage

all text © Tom Cannavan's wine-pages 2003