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April is the month of the year which ushers in the new Bordeaux vintage and for every year this occasion is precipitated by a number of subplots. The infamous 2008 vintage was released whilst a dark economic cloud hang over the world and saw Chateaux release at incredibly low prices in order to support the market and offer value to buyers. The following vintage, 2009, which was then heralded and now confirmed as ‘one of the greatest’ was released painfully slow at precedent setting prices. Last year, 2010, challenged the supremacy of 2009s and subsequently the overconfident Chateau owners released their wines at an even higher premium to the 2009s. This context is important in trying to understand this year’s campaign, as with all previous vintages it is typically the fallout from the previous year which affects the next.

The 2010 campaign has been much maligned and criticized for its length, pricing and tiny tranche releases which help to disguise the true release prices. It seems from speaking with negociants, Chateau owners and winemakers these criticisms have been heard and there is a concerted effort this year to restore the reputation of en primeur and Bordeaux. In an interview with the Drinks Business, Christopher Salin of Lafite Rothschild said that “2011 will be the vintage that restores Bordeaux’s image, as last year we were very expensive and people lost faith,’. Similarly, Decanter have reported that “at least one of the top five chateaux would release ‘low and not too late’ and at between €300 and €350”.

We expect that the 2011 vintage will honour these promises and the campaign will be much shorter in length compared to the two previous years but unlikely to be as drastic as the 2008 campaign. Another interesting subplot to this vintage is whether or not prices will be released before Parker releases his official scores at the end of April. Before tasting Parker lamented that 2011 was a vintage he had no interest in, which would have provided ample encouragement to owners to release their wines before his report. However, following his exhaustive tastings he commented that:

" the vintage is better than I expected...." ( - on Mark Squires' blog, March 2012)

Those who were scared of low scores, may well have been encouraged by these comments and will potentially wait until May to release their wine once their Parker score is known. A repeat of 2008, where chateaux such as Lafite and Mouton release weeks before the scores and at rock bottom prices of 110 euros and 100 euros respectively, isn’t likely.

The Quality Of The Vintage

The Reds:

The 2011 vintage has been labelled as inconsistent, a year for winemakers and a wine for drinking not tasting. This a vintage that is very much the product of a difficult and unpredictable growing season. As we have come to expect from modern Bordeaux wine making there are some success stories. Cabernet Franc, as a grape variety, has really shone in 2011 and as a result we have seen some of the highest proportions of Cabernet Franc make it into the final blends of a lot of the top wines. It is of no surprise then to see some of our favourite wines of the vintage such as Ausone and Cheval Blanc consisting of the highest levels of CF, 55% and 52% respectively. Vintage comparisons to 2001 and 2008 were being rolled out regularly at each Chateau visit and this comparison has been alluded to by critics also. What does this all mean? Well we think that following the two expensive years of 2009 and 2010, people’s preference for buying into 2011 will be solely dependent on price. It doesn’t make great sense to buy into this vintage unless it’s cheaper than available 01’s and 08’s, where there is less risk in buying a physical wine with many ready for drinking.

The Whites:

As we reported here before en primeur week, the sweet and dry whites of Bordeaux have had a stellar year in 2011. The growing conditions were just right for producing wonderfully aromatic, fresh and floral sauvignon blanc. The sweet whites benefitted hugely from the ‘indian summer’ experienced during harvesting and the quick onset of botrytis has helped produce some delightful examples of Sauternes. Characterised by stone fruits, floral notes and exquisite freshness, the 2011 sweet whites will be remembered for a long while to come. The whites have already received praise from critics with former Wine Spectator editor James Suckling giving his only potential 100 pt score to La Mission Haut Brion Blanc.

Investment Merit:

For drinkers, collectors and speculators alike to buy into this vintage it will be necessary for the prices to be attractive. But in simple terms, the wines will have to be cheaper than the current available physical counterparts. Using the 2001 and 2008 vintage as a yardstick, I would suggest that the 2011 needs to be available to the market at 10-20% under these prices. Looking specifically at the five first growths for a quick analysis:

For these prices to be achieved, a reduction of between 10 – 60% will be required from each of the individual first growth Chateaux. It is not out of the realms of possibility for this to happen, given reports that one first growth will release at around 300 euros. The final price the consumer pays is typically 10-15% higher than the ex-negociant price, so with this in mind Haut Brion would have to offer their 2011 vintage at around 250 euros per btl.

There always seems to be some twists and turns with en primeur, so with the first releases expected in the coming weeks answers to all these questions will arrive soon enough. Could Parker throw a spanner in the works with better than expected scores, a la 2008, well even if he does we hope the Bordelais stick to their guns and offer the wines at prices that will restore some of the lost faith.

Read more about our trip:

Day 1: Angelus, Cheval Blanc, Figeac and more.
Day 2: Yquem, Climens, Haut-Brion and more.
Day 3: Latour, Lafite, Margaux, Palmer and more.
Day 4: Mouton, Pontet Canet, Cos d’Estournel, Ausone and more.

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