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The 2011 Bottom Line Report: A Response to Anthony Rose

In his article Time for a Change, Doctor? Anthony Rose puts forward his argument against several aspects of the way Bordeaux is sold, and why he has been arguing against “the system”. It is a multifaceted argument that stems from objections to the hype generated by the primeurs tastings we have had this week, the way the press assist pawn-like the Bordelais in generating that hype, and how prices are as a consequence elevated. It’s a complex, long-ingrained “system”, and a big piece of Bordeaux to bite off. I admire Anthony for taking a stand against it; sticking to your beliefs, especially when swimming against the tide, is a fine quality.

Anthony picks up on some things that are wrong with the primeurs. The quote in his article Bordeaux 2011 – The Rite of Spring from one journalist who responded to Anthony’s question on Bordeaux 2011 with “As a journalist I’ve been going for 16 years but I never write about Bordeaux en primeur. I’m going for the parties” was hopefully tongue-in-cheek, but part of me does wonder whether this perhaps telling comment reflects a serious misalignment in the system. After all, there are an awful lot of journalists circling round Bordeaux in early April. Having said that, I’ve never met one who writes absolutely nothing; if it’s not a report on the vintage (the path I follow) then it’s a news article or two, either related to the vintage, or perhaps some other parallel Bordeaux story; with so many château-owners on hand and accessible it’s a good time to button-hole them for a story on, say, the forthcoming St Emilion reclassification, the stylistic differences within St Emilion, biodynamics in Bordeaux (not just Pontet-Canet, you know…) and so on. I’ve heard all discussed in the past five days, and many more aspects of Bordeaux. Bordeaux is, after all, a very interesting and significant wine region. It is worth writing about!

Despite Anthony’s assertion that “no-one actually claimed they were going because they thought their readers or customers might be interested in buying Bordeaux 2011 en primeur” many people are interested in knowing whether the wines are worth buying. Anthony just hasn’t asked the right people, as the number of journalists who actually write notes and scores for the wines that guide people to purchase is perhaps a fairly limited field. Nevertheless they are there; Neal Martin, Robert Parker, James Suckling (these latter two tend to avoid the primeurs anyway, coming early, for very different reasons I think), Jancis Robinson (unable to attend this year but Julia Harding will do the same exemplary job I am sure). And these are just a handful of top-drawer English-language writers, there were many other Europeans too, including Michel Bettane – spotted at Pichon-Barondespite his promise to stay away this year. And there are probably dozens more. Did Anthony ask them?

Homing in on the issue of hype that is generated by the primeurs, this is I feel a very valid point. But this is an issue that stems not so much from the existence of primeurs, or of any early tasting of Bordeaux, but from journalistic detachment and style. I would agree with anyone who says it is essential for journalists to maintain a balance between treating the châteaux fairly, because they have wine to sell, and the consumers who will be reading the reports and who look for buying guidance. To cut either off by not reporting achieves nothing, and harms both.

On the latter of these two issues, talking to consumers, I see it as my role to taste the wines, give notes based on the samples I taste, report on my experiences, and give an informed, dispassionate view. If the wines are good, I will say so, and if the wines are poor, again I will say so. Both are true of this “good in parts” vintage. This helps any consumer who wants to pay attention to my notes (and I am aware that I have a tiny following in this respect, but the blog comments tell me there are a few out there who read) to resist being caught up in the frenzy of enthusiasm, either the sales talk from Bordeaux, or those who look to report early, “scoop” everybody and big up the vintage in an act that sells themselves as much as the wine. What I do might empower some consumers, and shows the validity of reporting on weaker vintages, contrary to Anthony’s opinion that “I do think that even with its imperfections Bordeaux en primeur is valid in a really good or great year when prices are such that they give some benefit to consumers. I doubted that that would be the case with 2011 and still do.” I find this a very unusual stance as it implies tasters (including Anthony) should know how the wines will taste and what they will cost in advance of (a) tasting the wines and (b) the prices being released.

I take the exact opposite view to Anthony; in a vintage like 2011, a ‘lesser’ rather than great vintage, which is set for an early release at lower prices, it is more essential than ever that we have early comments on the barrel samples. There may be buying opportunities here (as there were in 2008), and people need guidance. How did I receive this news about an early release? By being in Bordeaux, reporting on the vintage, hearing comments from the horse’s mouth, from Christophe Salin (commercial director, Lafite) and a number of others. Staying away means journalists don’t get this information. The news surprised me (as an aside, I have already written that I thought after being burnt by good scores after low release prices in the 2008 vintage the Bordelais would wait for Parker’s scores) but I learnt in Bordeaux that they seem more aware of Parker’s negative comments on Twitter (open, accessible, known by many in Bordeaux I spoke to), and much less aware of his more recent positive comments on his bulletin board (hidden, behind a paywall, not widely known). In a quick campaign with price reductions where would the consumer be without comments from primeur tastings, enabling them to pick the good from the rough (both exist in 2011 – regardless of generalisations on the vintage)? Would Anthony prefer the consumers to buy blind? In this vintage that would lead to potential disaster – this is a vintage where second and third growths have outperformed firsts, where châteaux I would normally ignore have made good wines, where usually reliable names disappoint with lesser wines, sometimes green, sometimes over-extracted, sometimes just not worth the inevitable first-growth price. Would Anthony prefer primeur sales to not happen at all? Unfortunately the primeur sales do not depend on journalistic reporting, it is the way the business wheels of Bordeaux turn. Revenue must be generated, no matter how rich a small section of Bordeaux has become on the back of the last two vintages.

To boycott the primeurs as a response to recent hype and wealth-generation would, in my opinion, be inappropriate for me. I agree that I would like to see lower prices, perhaps as a result of less breathless reporting, less rampant tweeting of how the barrel samples (not wines….barrel samples….we must keep reminding ourselves of this) taste from one château to the next, and less writers and critics putting themselves on a pedestal (not a comment written with Anthony in mind, as it happens, although he took it as such) and judging the palates of their peers through Twitter. As an aside, it all smells a little of writers talking to (or snipping at) other writers, and not to the public, nevertheless the public pick up the vibes. The problem is that to try and kill the hype-inducing side of the primeurs by killing the primeurs altogether is akin to liberally spraying vineyards with glycophosphate; you might knock off a few unsightly weeds, but you would lose so much more in the process. And although this might (although I’m not convinced it would) bring down prices for the big names (I think confidence may be riding too high for this) what other effects would it also have? Look beyond Ducru, Pontet-Canet, Cos d’Estournel and the like. What about all the little châteaux who need scores to sell their wine; Poujeaux, Gloria, Beaumont, Brown, Rivière, Fourcas-Hosten, Sénéjac, and so on. Do these châteaux deserve a boycott? I think not.

Ultimately, to boycott the primeurs serves nobody. Yes, there are changes that if made would benefit the consumer. Yes, the reporting could be more measured. But in my opinion the best way to influence the system, and induce such change, would be to work within the system. The only way to score a goal is to be on the team. Otherwise you’re just shouting from the sidelines.

My Bordeaux reports, deficient of breathlessness, begin on Tuesday next week.

10 Responses to “The 2011 Bottom Line Report: A Response to Anthony Rose”

  1. I do read your reports Chris, and I do so for several reasons.
    1) First your free to access; I’m a poor Yorkshireman who loves wine, so its nice not having to pay to read your site.
    2) Your not selling wine so there’s no benefit for you to over hype.
    3) I feel your reports are fair and unbiased, I like that.
    4) I do not follow your reports sheeplike, but I’ve been a reader of your site for 3 odd years now and I feel like your opinion is worthwhile.

  2. For a consumer, it is not the ‘great’ vintages which are hard to find the good wines – it is the lesser vintages. Hence, unbiased, honest assessment of wines actually tasted is an extremely valuable tool – the next important thing is to understand the palate of the taster and assess whether it aligns with yours – these two things together, help me pick a wine which suits me and suits my pocket. The more of this type of reporting from actually tasting the barrel samples is the most valuable to me as a consumer – keep up the good work!

  3. Richard, Matt, thanks for the feedback on this post. Much appreciated. Chris.

  4. Chris,

    I had a few years there where I was looking forward to the primeurs, in terms of the wine reviews and purchasing. Unfortunately as prices have climbed I don’t really need primeurs excpet where the differentiation comes between a terrific vintge and everything else. If it’s terrific prices will be ridiculous and I buy alot of lesser chateau after release where you can find terrific stuff for under $25. Both in 2005 and 2009 I have bought wine from chateaux that I never heard of before and these wines were excellent, most recently several 2009 under $12.

    If it’s a lesser vintage then I need to taste after release to see the finished wines to determine any reason to purchase. Even in these vintages prices are too high to consider EP purchasing.

    On the other hand I really enjoy you writing, honesty, and sense of humor when writing not just about Bdx, but I do look forward to your commentary and “second look” each year. In fact I find the 10 years on section very worthwhile, which I never see from other writers and your wines typically come from your cellar, whereas, many of the big names could have easier access to EP wines and provide this “service”, if you will. How difficult could it be for Martin/Parker/Tanzer/Suckling to arrange a tasting of say 20-30 wines just to get an overall sense of how the wines are developing at 10 or 20 years. if the pooled and did this together this would actually spark terrific interest from th drinking community. This is where I typically turn to the community sites such as Cellar Tracker to get some type of consensus before popping the cork on my vin de garde.

    Got off topic, but if we are talking about wine writing…

  5. Thanks Gary, interesting to read your thoughts on this. The only point that might not fit with your thoughts is the situation that occurred in 2008 (and which we might see again in 2011) where the wines were released early without Parker scores, he then came out with unexpectedly positive comments, and the prices climbed. Those that got in early bought wines at a good price (relatively speaking – Bordeaux is pricy whether its ‘cheap’ or expensive these days).

    Thanks also for your comments on what I do on Winedoctor, they are much appreciated.

  6. I still thought wines were over-priced in 2008 and needed to come down to about 2002 levels capture my interest.

    Fortunately for me I stick to my guns on this and unless something drastic occurs with prices this will be my strategy going forward.

  7. Chris,

    Two interesting blogs from FV and ratings from upper crust LB/RB in terms of where their wines rate since 2002. I wonder how others would rate their wines. Interesting to see after the hype where 2003 sits for these chateau.

    http://farrvintners.com/blog.php
    http://farrvintners.com/blog.php?blog=123

    Summary of vintage is very similar to your for reds. Overall comment was to avoid EP unless huge price drops in the range of prices for the worst four vintages. Still gives leeway for too high a price IMO.

  8. Thanks Gary, yes it is interesting to see 2003 rated so low isn’t it? It’s easy to see that looking at some of the wines now, and how they have (or rather, haven’t) held up in the years since the vintage. Some, from well-drained terroirs, are really showing their age. Even though 2011 was a very different growing season, I think that’s something potential buyers might want to consider.

    The Farr Vintners blogs are good aren’t they. Interesting to see their overall comments on the vintage. Having said that, although I see some agreement, I already know I am going to fly in the face of prevailing opinion for some of the red wines in this vintage – I can see some points from FV that I will be disagreeing with over the next few days as I publish more detail.

  9. Chris,
    I agree that it is a wine writer’s role to guide consumers, and in an inconsistent vintage this becomes all the more important. However, I think Antony Rose’s point is even more valid, that in a weaker vintage, should consumers not be guided to simply skip en primeur altogether? The point of en primeur is that the consumer takes a risk. By putting up money that there is a risk of never seeing again on the basis of unreliable sample tasting they hope to see a benefit. That can either be getting allocations of rare wines that will not come back onto the market (valid for Burgundy or Cote Rotie, but not really for Bordeaux), or on the assumption that prices will rise afterwards. Historically the latter was true for Bordeaux, but I don’t think anyone has really gained much by buying prim for the last two years (and in many cases, lost). For a year like 2011, prices are unlikely to rise much after release, so is it not much wiser to sit tight and see what they are like in bottle and what the prices are like when the dust settles before buying? Therefore does it really matter what the barrel samples taste like, there is only a downside to buying prim, and the more writers that make this clear, the better.
    I see this morning that Angludet has come out at less that 10% lower than 2010. It is fair to say these smaller properties have less room for reductions than Lafite, but if that is a guide to the pricing for the vintage, no-one should be buying at all.
    On the other had, I really enjoy reading your articles on the primeurs, but this year they are purely for interest, absolutely not a buying guide. As Gary pointed out, your ‘second and third looks’, combined with those from Decanter are probably much more valuable for 2011 consumers than anything Robert Parker publishes in the next couple of weeks.

  10. Thanks Will

    I think step one is not to pre-judge the wines and the vintage; you have to taste the wines in order to be able to give advice, whether that is to buy or to steer clear.

    I think we should also avoid generalisations; when you buy, you buy a wine, not the vintage’s reputation. You can find good wines in lesser vintages. 2011 is a perfect example, a very heterogeneous vintage. Good whites, a mix of reds from some stunning right bankers to green and watery left bankers, and superlative Sauternes. You can only judge along these lines once you have tasted.

    If in my opinion the risk isn’t worth taking I will say so – see the comments at the end of page 1 of my 3-page report on Pessac-Léognan published today. And the points you make about prices and rarity are also addressed in my 2011 report, on the last page of my 6-page introduction, where this year I have included information on en primeur buying.

    Prices will depend on what Parker says, that is the reality, and as we all saw in 2008 early inexpensive releases can aid buying decisions before the “consumer advocate” pushes the price up. It is this, rather than the vintage generalisations, that will determine how prices move. Expect some surprisingly positive comments from him, especially for the right bank wines.

    Sadly my Margaux tastings didn’t extend round to Margaux, but the appellation has not done well this year, with only one exciting wine, and lots of green and vegetal, under-fruited disappointments. Extrapolating I wouldn’t express any interest in any but a couple of wines from this appellation even if prices were rock bottom.

    Thanks for your other comments on the site, much appreciated.