Has the boom turned to bust for Bordeaux? Excitement for the 2009 Vintage says otherwise, writes James Suckling.
On February 10, a small group of wine collectors paid more than US$8.5 million for about 600 rare bottles of Burgundy from late winemaker Henri Jayer during a Christie's auction in Hong Kong. The wines were largely sold to two Hong Kong-based buyers, but bids also came in from across Asia including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Some observers of the Asian wine world believe the auction has marked the burst of the Bordeaux bubble and the boom of Burgundy. Headlines have been filling newspapers, magazines and blogs over the past several months of plummeting prices for fine Bordeaux.
With the arrival of the amazing 2009 Bordeaux in bottle, however, many wine merchants expect a strengthening in demand for the reds from France's premier wine region. "Bordeaux has been around forever," says Simon Tam, Christie's head of wine for China. "Sales are really healthy. In recent auctions, we've sold 100 per cent, and it was all Bordeaux." Patricio de la Fuente Saez, managing director of Hong Kong-based wine distributor Links Concept, agrees. "Bordeaux loves Hong Kong, and Hong Kong loves Bordeaux. The Bordelais are always here selling wine. You can go to the Mandarin Oriental any week, and a wine producer or merchant from Bordeaux will be staying there. Bordeaux will always be important."
Recent tales of decline in Bordeaux demand have been, in large part, a result of weak demand for the famed first-growth Lafite Rothschild. Just a year ago, it was easy to sell a case of 1982 Lafite for about US$77,000, but today there are few buyers - even at a 30 per cent discount. A significant amount of this wine was purchased for gift giving in Mainland China. Whether those buyers have moved on to something else, or have just decided that Lafite is overvalued, is anyone's guess.
"The bubble burst on just one wine, and it was mostly Lafite 2008," says Jeremy Stockman, senior fine wine manager for Watson's Wine, one of the largest wine retailers in Hong Kong. "But there's no let-up at all; Bordeaux is still 40 per cent of our sales. We have huge demand. We get at least 20 emails a day for top-end classified growths as well. The market is very strong."
Wine merchants are now gearing up for the delivery of their top 2009 Bordeaux: legendary wines from a legendary vintage. In January's blind tastings in Bordeaux, I tasted about 300 reds from this venerable vintage, and I was blown away by the sheer quality. I couldn't come up with a vintage of young red Bordeaux I've tasted in the last 30 years that was so wonderfully fruity, so fabulously structured and so vibrantly fresh. It is this remarkable combination of ripe fruit, powerful tannins and relatively high acidity that makes the 2009 Bordeaux so exceptional. Usually when wines are so concentrated and so ripe, they lose their freshness. The sun literally burns the acidity away, making them heavy or even jammy. However, thanks to the unique grape-growing season in Bordeaux in 2009, when the nights were fresh and cool following sunny and hot days, the acidity remains relatively high in the wines, making them agile and lively to taste even though they're so intense.
I talked to the region's winemakers to get their takes on the 2009. "It's the best vintage I have made in my 40 years of winemaking," says Alain Vautier, the owner and winemaker of the tiny and revered Château Ausone in Saint-Émilion. Pierre Lurton, the head of Cheval Blanc and d'Yquem, agrees. "We have never had something like 2009.
We have never had more tannin in a wine than the 2009 Cheval Blanc, yet it is reserved and refined." Alexandre Thienpont, the winemaker of Vieux Château Certan, explains that 2009 is a vintage of extremes, yet the high intensity of fruit, tannins, alcohol, and acidity all balance each other like a perfect circle. All in all, I rated nine reds a perfect 100 points during my weeklong tasting trip in France's premier wine region. These wines have optimal harmony and balance, where everything seems in perfect proportion. Top wines are extremely age-worthy, and most shouldn't be opened until at least 2019 or 2020. But these wines are already very drinkable due to their harmony and freshness.
"The problem for my customers will be to have the best '09s in their cellar and not be able to drink them for many years," says Paulo Pong of Altaya Wines. The young vintage may have also seen the biggest year ever for speculators. In the summer of 2010 alone, wine merchants in Hong Kong reported selling tens of millions of dollars in 2009 futures in Asia, when the wines were just barely ageing in barrels. But what will happen now, when those same wines arrive in the marketplace, and some are the same price or less than what investors paid? Will investors be willing to wait until prices appreciate?
"Some were sold the vintage by looking at the returns that people had got on the '08 vintage," says Jo Purcell, head of Farr Vintners in Hong Kong. "Attitudes to investment in Asia are very different to those of the West. If something doesn't perform as expected, investors here won't wait; they'll cut their losses and switch the funds into something that will perform. So, the question is, how many people bought '09s in Asia only for investment, with little or no interest in the wine itself?"
The 2009 Bordeaux are just at the beginning of their lives in the bottles, and are some of the best wines ever made in the region. They'll certainly be enjoyed, whether now or later.
Visit James Suckling at: www.jamessuckling.com