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Château Babel

To buy or not to buy Bordeaux 2016 en primeur. If the question is as clear as Schott-Zwiesel, the answer is a little more convoluted. I love good Bordeaux and have bought en primeur off and on between the miraculous 1982 vintage and 2010. But paying now to live later is only worth it before the wine is bottled and released in vintages that fulfil the three all-important criteria.

1. It must be a really good vintage.

2. The price has to be sufficiently reasonable to make buying in advance worthwhile.

3. The wine is limited in quantity and so you might not get another look-in at that price.

I’ll get to that.

I failed to follow my own advice and bought 2010 which is languishing somewhere in bond at around the same price I paid. I haven’t bought en primeur since. In search of delicious wines from elsewhere, I haven’t been tempted back. But 2016 has given me pause for thought.

Early reports suggested that some wines might be worth a punt, among them Chasse-Spleen, Angludet, Grand Puy Lacoste, Pontet Canet, Calon-Ségur, Pichon Lalande, Figeac.  The fact that everything is 10% more expensive thanks to the Brexchange rate is the first disincentive. If last week’s hard Spring frosts result in a small 2017 crop and prices are higher than anticipated, the whammy will double.

Bordeaux en primeur week is frequently referred to as a circus, but more accurately it’s actually a party, a big party, and a very nice party, but a party nonetheless. For those who go, it’s about the hobnobbing. For the Bordelais, it’s a chance to show off their famed hospitality. Did I mention the wine?

The tastings are aimed at convincing us that a definitive judgment can be made on a young wine that’s still in barrel. It’s like walking into a maternity ward and predicting career prospects. In reality, it takes years of experience, and an acute palate, to assess a Bordeaux at this elemental stage of its development. But it isn’t even finished wine. It’s a barrel sample with work still to be done. A leap of faith is also sometimes required to believe that the sample is not the notorious cuvée du journaliste.

If I want to buy, how do I go about it? Do I turn to the Liv-ex chart of critics’ scores at http://www.insights.liv-ex.com/bordeaux-2016-critic-scores? Liv-ex show a pseudo-scientific range of scores for the First Growths. There’s something crass and deeply depressing about a basket of critics’ scores. Bordeaux authority, Stephen Brook, once famously came out with a credible set of scores without setting foot in a single château and no-one batted an eye.

Even responsible merchants like Farr Vintners can act the latter-day Marie-Antoinette.  ‘Both Neal and Antonio are extremely excited about the vintage. Neal has given eight wines 98-100 points and a further seven wines 97-99. Antonio has given seven wines 97-100 points and five wines 96-99. These are big scores from two reviewers not particularly known for getting carried away! This is the clearest indication yet that 2016 will be in high demand and therefore it is possible that many wines will have to be allocated’.

So quick, hurry before stocks disappear and chip in now for your case of Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Latour, Haut-Brion, Lafleur, Margaux, Le Pin and other must-have 98-100 pointers. Unless, that is, you think that such posh names belong not in your cellar but the portfolio of the luxury goods collections of self-respecting Chinese billionaires and investment funds. And the best crus bourgeois? They aren’t going to suddenly rocket in price over the next couple of years, if ever.

As the colourful divergence of opinion and scores show, the critics’ scores are hedged about with so many frailties and variables that consumers can be forgiven for being confused as to how to sort the genuine aperçus from the idées fixes and the idées reçus.  As much as respected critics wail, protest and gnash their wine-stained teeth, lending authority to the wine merchants to monetise their scores still allows them to have their foie gras and eat it.

Of course there’s an understandable curiosity about first impressions of the new vintage. The problem is that genuine consumer interest got lost somewhere in the Tower of Babel that primeur has become, while the châteaux, the négociants and the press are laughing all the way to their respective banks. Let me know when the bad smell abates and I’ll come up for air.