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Bordeaux: trade down or trade away?

There’s a very telling thread over on the UK Wine Forum regarding Bordeaux, and how the changes in prices seen over the last decade have influenced spending within the region. If you’re an interested wine drinker, especially if you have a particular penchant for Bordeaux, then it’s well worth a read. If you’re a Bordeaux proprietor, reading should be mandatory; after all, you need to understand how concertedly a section of UK consumers, once avid Bordeaux addicts, are turning away from the region.

It’s no secret that Bordeaux prices are rising, and the reasons for this change have been discussed at length, here and elsewhere, so I don’t intend re-examining the root causes here. Suffice to say that over the last ten years prices of classed growth chateaux have skyrocketed. This means that for many UK consumers, the top wines are now financially out of reach. Let’s see this through the eyes of an imaginary buyer of Bordeaux called, for no particular reason, Peter. Peter is a fan of the wines and ten years ago this is what he would typically buy:

Latour, Ducru, Pontet Canet, Léoville-Barton, Cantemerle, Batailley

Even ten years ago Latour was a bit of a treat, but he could still stretch to half a case. Of course since then, that’s no longer true, and Ducru became unaffordable as well. But that’s OK, that still leaves him with some excellent, iconic wines, unparalleled in terms of style and quality; you can’t find a Léoville lookalike coming from the Languedoc, or Rioja, or Margaret River, and so on. So in more recent vintages, say up to 2008, he bought these wines:

Pontet Canet, Léoville-Barton, Cantemerle, Batailley, Angludet, Citran

The latter two additions keep Peter’s stock topped up, and the under-appreciated Angludet can do very well in the cellar (I’ve certainly tasted very convincing examples at over 20 years of age). But then come the price rises of 2009 and 2010, and more of Peter’s favourites go out of reach, the first two wines on his list now disappearing beyond Peter’s €1000 per case limit. So Peter weighs up what he can afford, and it looks like this:

Cantemerle, Batailley, Angludet, Citran, Fourcas Hosten, Thieuley

And Peter feels a little dejected, for several reasons:

(1) Peter is used to drinking exciting wines such as Latour and Ducru. He doesn’t deny that Fourcas-Hosten and Thieuley are well made, and are readily identifiable as Bordeaux, but he knows he won’t get anything like the epicurean experience he used to have when he could afford Ducru.

(2) Peter was happy to accept first growths and super-seconds disappearing out of reach; most regions have their iconic and unaffordable wines. And after all Peter’s friend Paul, a Burgundy drinker, accepts that tastes of grand cru wines from the likes of Leroy and DRC are treats rarely experienced. But now Peter can’t even afford Léoville-Barton or Pontet Canet, and Cantemerle is he best he can hope for. This is a little like expecting Peter’s friend Paul to give up not only the grands crus, but all the premiers crus as well. Would the Burgundy drinker be happy with only village level wines?

(3) Most importantly (and this was the point that was made so nicely in the above-linked thread), Peter looks at his list and sees the wines there as ‘value’ Bordeaux, wines for any occasion rather than a fine, weekend dinner. He was happy to add them to the cellar to open on occasion, for midweek drinking perhaps, but he isn’t so interested if these wines are all he can afford to add to his cellar. They say less about Bordeaux than Latour or Ducru, and more about well made red wine. And because of the Bordeaux association the prices aren’t exactly low, they don’t look like such great ‘value’ after all. Peter looks around and sees that, for less money, instead of drinking decent lower-end Bordeaux like those above he can drink amazing reds from the great schistous terroirs of the Languedoc, or he can discover new wines from Priorat and other regions in Spain previously unknown to Peter, or he can drink the very best wines of Chinon or Saumur-Champigny, or good wines from Australia or South Africa, all for much less money. And so Peter begins to do just that.

Peter decides not to trade down within Bordeaux, but to trade away.

It’s a warning shot across the bows of Bordeaux; be careful alienating old long-standing customers as you chase new, more wealthy customers more ready to part with grand sums of money for your wines. The whole wine world has pulled its socks up, and there are now great wines being produced everywhere, and most are now much more affordable than Bordeaux. You are driving old customers to these other regions, and although some will no doubt come back when your new customers stop buying, and the prices of classed growth wines fall to more reasonable levels, the tone of opinions expressed suggest to me that many will not.

All of this sets a very fascinating context for Bordeaux 2011; how will the Bordelais price their wines for these disparate markets? As once-faithful buyers reject even a successful vintage such as 2010, based on price, how will they respond to 2011? That’s a subject for another blog post, on another day, I think.

29 Responses to “Bordeaux: trade down or trade away?”

  1. I feel that this is right on point. I am a young (36) collector that operates on relatively small wine budget compared to the guys that have lucrative jobs. $50 – $100 is not out of reach but I really am careful of what I buy at that price.
    But after looking at recent prices of wine, bordeaux is slowly but surely going away from my wish lists. When recently looking at some websites, my list was being filled up with lopez de heredia, brunello rather than bottles of Pichon Baron. Example being the 2005 Pichon was at $150 a bottle. that was putting an awkward look on my face BUT the 2010 is about $220! that is just out of the question. My first son born in 2005 will be drinking a lot of bordeaux while my second who was born in 2010 will be drinking more barolo, brunello, CNP, loire whites (huet…) later in life.
    maybe i have enough bordeaux for the moment until prices come down.

  2. Great post, Chris.

    Being a “fan” of Bordeaux, I must admit that the prices for the top wines have gone crazy in recent years. But not all hope is lost for me.

    Besides good wines from other regions, I can still enjoy classic Bordeaux from older vintages. It may seem funny, but older vintages of Bdx are becoming more and more of a bargain, if you dig deep enough. Try the belgian merchants; they have very good prices for older Bdx. Belgium is known as a big consumer of Bdx and there are a lot of older wines out there, cellared in very good condition.

    The trick is to dig deep, find a trusted merchant and enjoy your mature Bdx :)

  3. Chris,

    Your blog reiterates my comments which I expounded upon in great length last week. Interestingly the only futures which I bought in 9/10 was a case of Angludet. At this other than what I have in my cellar Bdx is only bought at lower tiers for value consumption in good years such as 5/9/10 where the material and improvements in winemaking will ensure that there is a substantial amount of BdxSuperior, etc… On the market for everyday drinking in the $10-20 price point. In other years such as 6/7/8 I do not buy even one bottle of the stuff.

  4. Good thread Chris,

    My wife and I have just returned from a long weekend in France. We just happened to visit Carcassonne in the middle of the Langudoc and tasted some great wines down there. The result is we bought variety case of 12 top class wines, cost ?; 170 Euro’s including shipping back to the UK.The shop we bought the wine from has a great website which we’ll be ordering from online again.
    As has been pointed out, I and my wallet both have long memories from getting ripped off.

    Rick

  5. Thanks for all these comments Jason, Ciprian, Gary and Rick.

  6. Well, you know, one could simply buy less of everything, at least of the expensive stuff, just enough to have a taste. Since I rarely buy more than 2-3 bottles of anything, the notion comes readily to me. Maybe it’s a culture thing.

  7. 2GrandCru,

    I think there is too much good wine out there, especially if one, and I am not saying you, looks outside the box a bit to have to compromise.

  8. Chris, I think you’ve articulated this point REALLY well. The majority of pleasure that I get from wines lies in how interesting they are (which, I’ll grant, deviates from the traditional buyer of wine to go with dinner). No matter how well made bourgeois Bordeaux is, it’s just not interesting. Well-made red wine, as you say. I’ve certainly begun looking elsewhere and it’s really nice to not feel ripped off on a regular basis. The 100 USD premier or lower-end grand cru Burgundy is just qualitatively a better buy than its Bordeaux counterpart, which was certainly not the case 10 years ago. (My father had the opportunity to buy 1990 Latour in 1996 for 80 USD per bottle!!)

    Marc

  9. Thanks Marc. I think I have to agree with you on your argument that Burgundy today offers better value for money than Bordeaux in the past year or two, at the top end at least.

  10. 2GrandCru

    I think that was a pragmatic solution that I laid out in my post (or if not, possibly in my contributions to the thread I linked to). Wines I used to buy by the case or half-case as proper drinking (bottles to be opened over many years, which teaches you a lot about readiness of wine, the nonsense of drinking windows, how much longer you can cellar wine than all the published drinking curves suggest, and so on – in fact this is one of the little-publicised joys of wine in my opinion, seeing how one wine evolves over time) I now buy in ones or twos. I continue doing that as I want to be able to take a look at wines in maturity that I tasted en primeur, or when just bottled. But many people would perhaps not bother, turned off by the price.

    Even so, this doesn’t answer my question, which is – “where do I get my regular drinking from?”. And that is really the point of the post – not “how do I afford a taste of Latour or Ducru now and again?”. Do I go for cheaper serviceable Bordeaux, which I acknowledge ois in many cases much better than it used to be, or do I go for better wines, sometimes the very best, from regions where the prices are not so buoyant?

  11. interesting stuff, what a coincidence : just drunk a bottle Ducru 2004 this week, but I can no longer replace the empty bottle with a full one (€-wise > just too expensive)

    I also turned away from Bordeaux the last two years, from the 2009 primeurs I only bought a small case of La Tour-Carnet and from 2010 I didn’t bought anything

    the only positive thing is the fact that the en primeur sellings of the 2010 vintage were very difficult, but even with a 20/30% decrease in price it remains way too expensive

    and I think that the wine marked in the East (mainly China and Hong Kong) are just starting to boom, I really fear that Bordeaux will remain out of budget for me, if this trend continues even the 5eGCC will be out of reach within 10 years or so :((

    let’s hope that it turns out otherwise

    but Spain and Brunello di Montalcino are good alternatives, a good Brunello also has a very good aging potential

  12. Hi Chris, you should try collecting from NZ with freight costs and currency also against you! We have travelled to France 3 times since 2006 and noticed that not only are bordeaux wines getting ridiculously priced but Rhone wines are on the same bandwagon. I guess in NZ we dont necessarily have to bother with any foreign wines as we have a number of local producers that would hold up well with most but I am also interested in educating my palette as well and do not want to
    give up the pleasures offered by other regions

    regards
    Alan

  13. Hi Kris

    The response to the pricing of 2010 was telling – although not everybody dropped their prices. But many wines didn’t sell well I think, ,a judgement based on the fact that at the end of the campaign merchants had long lists of wines still available, which included (from Farr’s) Lafite.

    What sort of price reduction will be required to shift 2011, I wonder?

  14. Hi Alan

    You’re right to point out that wine prices are on the up everywhere – even in the Loire there are a couple of wines I now see as out of my price range, and that’s before I apply the heavy shipping and tax charges you’re facing.

  15. I agree with what you say to a point Chris but many many things which are at the top of the game have also become more expensive. I dont agree that super seconds are outpricing themselves. I buy them and am storing them for the future. The compromise….we dont eat out at ridiculously expensive restaurents like the Ledbury which seems to be the only place to eat if you are a poster on the wine page forum !!
    Its a choice…

  16. Chris, you are bang on the money here (as you often are with your tastings in my opinion).

    I was lucky enough to stock up heavily in the early 00s on back vintages and the 05s. Since then I have bought much more judiciously, esepcially from the bigger names. I did buy heavily in 2009 and 2010 becuase they seemed like a last Bordeaux splurge before I shut up shop on the area. I can’t see me buying a single case of 2011 Red Boardeaux and I used to buy a case of Anthony Barton Leoville or Langoa without fail.

    I will continue to buy Sauternes and Barsac though as these are still comparatively cheap (although they have crept up of late) and in my opinion still worth the cash.

  17. I thought the EP prices of 2005 were ridiculous (but still bought a few cases of the vintage of a millennium). But, that was the last vintage I ‘invested’ in..
    Personally I am glad the greedy Bordelais are being taught a lesson. I do, however feel sorry for the satellites. As a rising tide floats all boats, I guess a sinking tide takes down the hard working tugs.

  18. Hi Anonymous

    I think any opinion on whether a wine, or a meal at certain London restaurants popular with London-based UK wine forumites, or indeed anything else is seen to be ‘expensive’ or ‘outpriced’ is a very subjective one. To me, super-seconds priced at £1000 – £2000 per case, equating (very roughly, after duty & VAT) to £100 – £200 per bottle to be too expensive; but as I said, that’s just my subjective point of view. I guess it depends on disposable income.

    As for those popular London restaurants, I’ve only eaten at The Square once, making a 9-hour round trip to do so, but it was worth it to meet Eric LeVine of cellartracker.com, when we agreed to integrate Cellar Tracker and Winedoctor. It’s not something I would do again though! So I can’t really comment re price of the meals (I paid a set £50 for mine at The Square, which for a top quality meal I thought was decent value, especially as (a) it’s a popular restaurant (b) it’s London and (c) they had a Michelin star and were elevate to 2 stars the day we were dining there). Nevertheless, although to be clear I think the UK Wine Forum is a great place, I do know of a couple of people who left through exasperation as they perceived it to be an increasingly cliquey London-based dining club with more than a bit of label snobbery. Again, just their subjective point of view, of course.

  19. Hi James
    You’re quite right that Sauternes is still relatively undervalued, although prices are perhaps set to rise. Whether they do depends on whether new foreign markets take to the wines in the way they have taken to Lafite and co!

  20. Hi Alastair
    Carrying on from my response to ‘Anonymous’ above, a point you make continues the ‘subjectivity of expense’ theme, and that is that everybody has their own ‘too expensive’ vintage. For some it is 2009/2010, but for others like yourself it is 2005, whereas I bit the bullet in buying (in a limited manner as I was concerned that the wines might reflect the heat of the season – in some cases I was right to be concerned) in 2003, but then baulked when they didn’t fall back in 2004. I’m a bit unusual in having that as my ‘too expensive’ vintage though, usually it’s 05/09/10, although some find the continued high prices in lesser vintages like 06/07 to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

  21. Hi Chris,
    Long time listener, first time caller! Thru my position as a Sommelier at a Michelin starred restaurant in California I get the opportunity to taste a relatively shameful amount of good Bordeaux, so I feel like I’m at least somewhat qualified to comment here.
    After travelling to Bordeaux in April for the UGCB, and then seeing the subsequent pricing, I have to tell you that over on this side of the pond the Bordelais are alienating their base as well!15.5% ABV right bank monstrosities aside, plenty of the 2010′s were quite delicious, but I could never defend to the accountants buying any of these wines en primeur. Even for wines that carry quite a bit of prestige they’re just terrible values, especially considering the fact that they’ll have to live in the cellar for many years before they’re ready to go.
    Right now they’re asking the following for 2010′s…
    l’Eglise Clinet $455
    Figeac $260 (!!!!!)
    Canon $147
    Palmer $346 ( I can buy the amazingly wonderful ’82 for $354, the ’78 for $274 and the ’00 for $339)
    Cos $315 (the ’05 is going for $199)

    10 years from now, when the dust is settling from the Bordeaux market crash, I’ll be more than happy to pick up the ’09 & ’10s at pfennigs on the mark ;)

  22. Thanks for that message, focusisfragile. The price similarities between young Bordeaux that needs decades in the cellar, and mature wines ready to drink, is perverse, isn’t it?

    Early harvest reports suggest difficulties in Bordeaux (and the Loire). Will this give the Bordelais room to reduce prices I wonder? By how much? Or are they just too bullish?

    Do say ‘hi’ if you are at the primeurs again next year.

  23. When I bought my first Bordeaux at university (and in New Zealand, Alan), I bought Cos d’Estournel, Leoville Las Cases and Palmer. When I built my first cellar,I added wines like Margaux 81, and both La Conseillante and Canon 82. At that time, even at the distance of New Zealand, those wines were affordable for someone who was a student and then starting their first (non-academic) job.

    I returned to university in my 30s, and these days I’m a Senior Lecturer, so not someone with a ‘City’ income. For the 2010s I bought Senejac, Cambon La Pelouse, Picque Caillou, Capbern Gasqueton, Moulin Riche, Belgrave, Lynch Moussas and Ferriere; my 2009 list was very similar. Sure at one level I’m buying more, but then exactly as Chris pointed out, I didn’t buy 2007s or 2008s, and wines like Fieuzal are getting out of reach. I will certainly want to see a price drop for the 2011s.

    For ordinary drinking, I look hard at the £12-20 bracket, and there is a lot of interesting and exceptional wine that is not Bordeaux, like I Vigneri Vinupetra. Frankly, I find that friends are just as pleased with a really good wine they have never heard of as with a reasonable Bordeaux; and what is more, the response to the Bordeaux is far more likely to be formulaic, whereas the response to the unknown will be genuine.

  24. Wake up and smell the Carmenere! There are some beautiful red Bordeaux blends coming out of Chile.

    I traded down this EP (5 cases down from 10 last year) and will trade out next year that’s for sure. Thought the 2010 Gruaud Larose was reasonably priced though ..

  25. Chris,

    Great post.

    As an aspiring enthusiast, I find recent Bordeaux pricing frustrating as well. My collection is mostly Bordeaux, 2nd-5th growths. As a young-ish enthusiast at 36, I had hoped to continue collecting Bordeaux. To drink, mind you, not to sell. But given recent pricing, this just isn’t realistic. And for the record, I quite enjoy unclassed growths such as Bernadotte, Phelan Segur, Haut Gardere, La Vieille Cure, etc. which are still quite reasonably priced & well made.

    I did splurge on ’09 & ’10, purchasing 6 packs of Montrose, Pontet Canet, Leoville Poyferre, Leoville Barton, Malescot St. Exupery & Grand Puy Lacoste. But this is a fraction of prior vintages in terms of quantity and diversity.

    Instead, my gaze and palate have turned to Barolo & Barbaresco. Nebbiolo – what a grape.

    The Bordelais are in business to make money. Fortunately, it’s a free market & I can spend my hard earned money elsewhere. I don’t think Italy will mind and my palate will be equally happy.

    I enjoy reading your site very much.

    Thank you & best wishes,
    John, USA

  26. Thanks for these comments. It looks to me that….

    Mark – you’re happiest trading down, buying Capbern Gasqueton (RIP Denise Capbern Gasqueton, doyenne of Calon-Ségur, who died this past week), Moulin Riche and so on. You’re not tempted by the reds of Gimblett Gravels then?

    Dr Alex – you obviously trade away to Chile. You may also trade down a bit, with reduced Bordeaux buying, but you don’t say if these are the same wines you used to buy, or more ‘petit’ chateaux.

    John – you have traded away. Although you still buy some of the good stuff (if it is 2010 GPL you have then it was one of my favourites of the vintage and one of two wines that caused me most angst as I let it pass me by en primeur) you look elsewhere (to Italy) rather than picking up the ‘petit’ chateaux.

    Overall I think most people responding to this post tend towards trading away. This is just an observation note, there’s no right or wrong response, it’s just what suits our own personal palates, wallets and cellars.

  27. My own purchases encompass not only the economics of pricing but also the stylistic changes that have seen some of my favourites take the plunge into high alcohol and new oak lashings. The availability of old wines at the new wine prices has really put these changes on display for the consumer.
    I now focus on wines like Cantemerle and Chasse Spleen because they occupy a “Bordeaux flavour” section of my cellar. They may not possess the most exciting flavours at their price point but do offer value for what they are. And most importantly for me I can trust their development in the cellar over 2 decades.

  28. Chris, I’m a great fan of NZ reds, and not just Pinot; the best are not easy to get in the UK, and when I was back home last September I saw that the downturn had taken its toll as well. In Martinborough, Winslow had pulled its vines, and Benfield and Delamare was up for sale with no wine produced since 2006. I just hope whoever buys it does not pull up the twenty-five year old vines. On the other hand, I did buy some Martinborough Vineyards blue label Syrah. Down in Marlborough, Fromm is still producing its Malbec.

    I agree about Hawkes Bay, and Waiheke should not be forgotten. I suspect the next wave of NZ reds to be noticed will be the syrahs, and I certainly have some Te Awa and Te Mata tucked away. I also still have some 98s, including Coleraine, Awatea, and Benfield: I opened an Awatea in April: it was lovely, drinking perfectly, with a couple of years left at the plateau.

    As for the Bordeaux, let’s say that I’m not so much ‘happy’ as resigned to the current state of affairs. I probably tried 130-40 wines en primeur and got to try some 2-3 times. My choices were very price/quality sensitive. I’d be a lot happier if, say, d’Issan and Giscours were £300-350. Burgundy offers a lot of very good wine from £160-450 a case, often available in sixes. How does one begin to justify the price of Lynch Bages or Pontet Canet when a case of Mugnier Clos de Marechale is 420 and as grand a wine as Anne Gros’ Echezeaux is 750?

  29. Hi Mark

    Yes, perhaps “happiest” wasn’t the right word!

    New Zealand interests me as a wine country, but I realised a long time ago that I had to focus on one or two regions and develop some really detailed knowledge to be able to say something of interest (I hope) and so I haven’t been able to keep up to date with what is going on there.

    Good point on Burgundy; massive difference in volume produced as well, of course.