Bordeaux 2009 Part I: quality and price

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Distinctions amongst the wines from this vintage can be made at a number of levels. We look at a Quality Price Index (QPI) for the crop of offerings and assesses their future potential.

A number of factors contribute to the success of a wine and thus its commercial prospects. These can broadly be divided into three categories. Firstly, factors which are under the control of the winemaker such as the amount of work they invest in the vineyard, the quality of their winemaking, the choice of their blend, their vision for the wine they wish to create, chosen harvest dates, their overall management of the estate and, importantly, and generally rather underestimated, their management of the élevage or raising of the wines.

However, the luckless vigneron must also contend with a whole slew of influences about which they can do almost nothing except to deal with the consequences: the weather, their geographic and regional situation, their geology and soils, external pricing factors such as the global economic situation, prices of alternative wines and vintages and so forth. A third set of factors, which may also be an unwitting corollary of the effects of any of the above are numerous but might include: the vineyard’s reputation, shippers’ recommendations, the perceived organoleptic qualities of the wines they produce and last, but not least, the impression the wines may make on wine critics around the world. It is also worth adding an extra quality that the wines may possess, that of investment quality, limited to a small range of the world’s greatest wines. The latter has a considerable impact on the prices of the wines sold at primeurs as speculators look for possible future returns.

A selection of wines preferred
by Critics

Jancis Robinson MW – Angelus, St Emilion; Calon-Ségur, St Estèphe; L’Evangile,
Pomerol
www.jancisrobinson.com
Wine Spectator – Figeac, St Emilion; Léoville Las Cases, St Julien; Malescot St-Exupéry, Margaux
www.winespectator.com
Tim Atkin MW - Pontet-Canet, Pauillac; Le Pin, Pomerol; Palmer, Margaux
www.timatkin.com
La Revue du Vin de France - Ducru Beaucaillou, St Julien; Troplong-Mondot, St Emilion;
La Mondotte, St Emilion
www.larvf.com
Jean-Marc Quarin - L’Eglise Clinet, Pomerol; La Mission Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan; Palmer, Margaux
www.quarin.com
Robert Parker – Hosanna, Pomerol; Clinet, Pomerol; Clos l’Eglise, Pomerol
www.erobertparker.com

Aside from the demand curve for any particular wine, individual purchasing decisions may be quite diverse. A Quality Price Index (QPI) Note 1All release prices based on Bibendum and Corney & Barrow offers during April-June 2010, unless otherwise stated. Critics’ scores used include: Jancis Robinson MW, La Revue du Vin de France, Tim Atkin MW, Wine Spectator – James Sucklings’ Spring barrel samplings, Jean-Marc Quarin, Robert Parker. Where two scores are offered, eg 92-94, we have used the mid-score point. Scores out of 20 are translated into 100-point scores according to our own conversion table. All prices quoted in bond. Tables are built around red wines only., simply a critics’ average score divided by the wine’s release price, is a simple method which helps to identify wine-buying opportunities (DOWNLOAD Top Wines Bordeaux 2009). A QPI quickly leads one to consider Château La Tour de Mons for slightly over £11 – scored at over 93 points by the Wine Spectator. It is clearly a domain remaking its reputation, once high, and highlights the utility of this system.

Shippers and Bordeaux 2009

Most of the UK’s shippers make use of third-party critics’ scores and comments to sell their wines so it makes sense to see how these scores relate to the pricing. Some shippers do not – for example, Corney & Barrow, but they are in the minority. The QPI may also be used to highlight wines which are not good value. Buyers (professional or consumer) are offered various means of assessing the vintage in hand: attendance at the Bordeaux en primeurs tastings (trade), subsequent organised tastings (e.g. the excellent tasting organised each year a month after primeurs week by Bibendum in London – predominantly consumer), published scores and comments by professionals and last, but not least, overall reports by the wine trade and local Bordelais, not to mention the harvest report produced each year by the Bordeaux Institute of Vineyard and Wine Sciences, University of Bordeaux.

Table 1: 2009 release prices compared to 2005 and 2000

Beauregard 29% > 2005 11% < 2000
Grand-Mayne 5% > 2005 14% < 2000
La Gomerie 90% < 2005 280% < 2000
Note 2 Perhaps a victim of fashion?
La Grave à Pomerol 11% < 2005 6% < 2000
Labégorce 11% < 2005 22% < 2000
Rouget 27% > 2005 13% < 2000
Tertre-Rôteboeuf 23% > 2005 20% < 2000
Yon-Figeac 31% < 2000
But generally the prices are significantly higher especially for the Medoc:
2008 2005
Duhart-Milon +87% +59%
Cantemerle +82% +34%
Giscours +76% +8%
Clerc-Milon +73% +45%
Haut-Bages-Libéral +68% +23%
Gruaud-Larose +67% +15%
Gazin +65% +45%
Lafon-Rochet +60% +29%
Les Ormes de Pez +58% +14%
Beauregard +55% +29%
Poujeaux +55% +13%
Gloria +54% +26%
Rouget +48% +28%
Durfort-Vivens +48% +9%
Batailley +46% +10%
Ferrière +44% +12%
Camensac +40% +30%
La Tour Carnet +40% +13%
Monbrison +40% +38%
Source: Vinorum Codex

Shippers’ overall vintage assessments are also of interest. Corney & Barrow’s Adam Brett-Smith “Bordeaux has in 2009 presented a debt to the market whose name is irregularity... A pity then that the irregularity that exists in this extraordinary year should have more to do with the interpretation of its ingredients than in any inherent weakness of them.” He goes on: “There were wines we tasted that quite simply numbed the palate with the power and precision of a local anaesthetic from a surgeon’s needle and whose suspect future was not likely to be revealed in our lifetime.” A final conclusion worth noting: “...we would urge buyers to look in their rear-view mirror at the beautiful and undervalued 2001s, the surprisingly if fitfully attractive 2002s and the satisfying if simply classical 2004s. Particular attention should also be paid to top 2008s which will offer startling quality and value once 2009 deploys its massive resources into this febrile market.”

Despite the superlatives hurled at this vintage, not all is perfect. Berry Bros & Rudd, on the Right Bank: “Some growers panicked and rushed to pick, fearful of seeing potential alcohol levels go through the roof. They then sought to compensate with longer-than-usual maceration to extract more fruit, only to find their wines over-burdened with dry, austere tannins... [the wines are] out of harmony with the rest of 2009 to be considered uniformly great on this side of the river.” Bibendum concurs: “St Emilion in particular has made some over-extracted, overly alcoholic wines.” Farr Vintners is not far behind: “... we disliked the wines that were picked, in our view, too late – ie into October. The best wines of Saint Emilion and Pomerol are those that were picked in September and they include Eglise Clinet, La Conseillante, VCC, Le Tertre Rôteboeuf and the Moueix wines (the Pétrus family).” Bibendum provided some clarity: “The sweet spot on the Right Bank is Pomerol and the gravelly plateau in St Emilion which adjoins it.” Again, not all of the Left Bank was heaped with praise; Corney & Barrow found the Margaux appellation to be “some of the least successful”. Bibendum paraphrase: “The vintage’s sweet spot is the Médoc: St Estèphe, St Julien, Pauillac, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Margaux.” Farr Vintner’s concludes: “The really great wines of the vintage are, in our opinion, to be found on the Left Bank and at those châteaux that made a blend that contained an important percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon.” It is interesting therefore to note that among the wines we have included in our tables which scored in excess of 90 points as an average from our critics the league looks as follows: St Emilion, 119; Pomerol, 51; Pessac- Léognan, 33; Margaux, 30; Pauillac, 27; St Estèphe, 21; Haut Médoc, 20; Saint Julien, 17; Médoc, 14. Some disparity then, some accounted for by the scores of Robert Parker. All regard Sauternes as having had an extraordinary vintage, which the release prices substantiate.

Price comparisons

As the prices were announced it became clear that 2009 would not be comparable to the price reductions of 2008. Indeed, many were talking about higher prices than 2005 despite the fragile economy, although for the UK, at least, there has been some help from the weaker euro which has seen a decline of almost 10% since March. For example, Les Pagodes de Cos, second wine of Cos d’Estournel, which was £20 in 2008, is £33 in 2009. For many crus their prices have remained it seems likely that given the apparent demand for 2009 the better return may come from this vintage albeit release prices start at a higher price. Studies show In 2009 a study concluded the following: “Results suggest that hosts offering wine to guests can safely reveal the price: much is gained if the wine is expensive, and little is lost if it is cheap. Disclosing the high price before tasting the wine produces considerably higher ratings, although only from women. Disclosing the low price, by contrast, does not result in lower ratings. Our finding indicates that price not only serves to clear markets, it also serves as a marketing tool; it influences expectations that in turn shape a consumer’s experience. In addition, our results suggest that men and women respond differently to attribute information.” Note 3When does the price affect the taste? Results from a wine experiment. Johan Almenberg and Anna Dreber. AAWE Working Paper, No. 35. April, 2009. This study built on an earlier one carried out in 2008 which showed: “Individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In a sample of more than 6,000 blind tastings, the researchers concluded, “we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.

...individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less

For individuals with wine training, however, we find indications of a positive relationship between price and enjoyment. Our results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.” Note 4Do more expensive wines taste better? Robin Goldstein, Johan Almenberg, Anna Dreber, John W. Emerson, Alexis Herschkowitsch, Jacob Katz. AAWE. These findings thus suggest that a QPI will not be of much use to a general wine buyer who may appreciate a wine more because they know it is expensive rather than any inherent qualities that the wine possesses and, assuming there is some correlation between a wine’s price and its scores from critics, won’t appreciate a more expensive (better?) wine if they don’t. Thus, it makes sense to offer people a wine which has a high QPI (a relatively inexpensive wine) and tell them it is expensive. Alternatively, if you must offer an expensive (and perhaps rather good) wine it may make sense not to tell the imbiber about its price tag – they simply won’t appreciate it for what it is, only for what it may cost.

A complex conclusion

Wines which are of high quality do tend to receive better scores, but can one determine if it is the quality of the wine which will fuel the demand or the quality of the reviews? The issue is complicated by the lack of informed judgement on the part of buyers about the definition among the different scoring systems. Using only scores – many consumers never even bother with the commentary – also fails to take into account the intrinsic qualities and characteristics of the wines. However, a QPI such as I have used here does provide a shorthand indication of where value may or may not lie. A corollary of the system is that it encourages one to investigate the releases in some depth, which provides some interesting strategies in a complex marketplace.

by Fabian Cobb
The article was first published in the Drinks Business in June 2010.

In Part II (The Year of the Weather): the premium associated with appellations; Top Scoring Wines; acreage and price; Carruades de Lafite.

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References   [ + ]

1. All release prices based on Bibendum and Corney & Barrow offers during April-June 2010, unless otherwise stated. Critics’ scores used include: Jancis Robinson MW, La Revue du Vin de France, Tim Atkin MW, Wine Spectator – James Sucklings’ Spring barrel samplings, Jean-Marc Quarin, Robert Parker. Where two scores are offered, eg 92-94, we have used the mid-score point. Scores out of 20 are translated into 100-point scores according to our own conversion table. All prices quoted in bond. Tables are built around red wines only.
2. Perhaps a victim of fashion?
3. When does the price affect the taste? Results from a wine experiment. Johan Almenberg and Anna Dreber. AAWE Working Paper, No. 35. April, 2009
4. Do more expensive wines taste better? Robin Goldstein, Johan Almenberg, Anna Dreber, John W. Emerson, Alexis Herschkowitsch, Jacob Katz. AAWE

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