Calm before the storm – touring the 2014 vintage

I had the privilege of tasting some of the finest 2014 Bordeaux wines last week in the peace and calm after the main trade campaign at the beginning of April. The more serene atmosphere belied the fact that this is the time when the chateaux really get down to business with key buyers attending back-to-back private tastings and some chateaux owners travelling around the world to host 2014 events organised for their most important clients in the Far East and North America.

We travelled first to Saint Emilion where the highlights of this trip were Angelus, Pavie and rising star, Troplong Mondot. Chateau Angelus, headed by Hubert de Bouard, is a fabulous showcase for its wines. Having been elevated to Premier Grand Cru Classe A status in 2012, there are increasing expectations for the wines of Angelus and certainly the re-classification has had a significant impact on price. With a previous average Parker score of 95 over the last ten vintages, Angelus is the most expensive of its peer group and the high En Primeur release price for 2013 proved challenging. The management are delighted with 2014 but, as with Bordeaux generally, pricing will be critical. With the bells of Angelus playing ‘God Save the Queen’ we headed off to the picturesque Chateau Troplong Mondot.

On one of the higher elevations in the region, neighbouring Chateau Pavie, and in walking distance through the vineyard to the medieval town of Saint Emilion, Chateau Troplong is a beautiful base to explore Right Bank Bordeaux. Now owned by Xavier Pariente, the family has developed the estate to include the award-winning restaurant, Les Belles Perdrix, where you can enjoy the great wines of the region complemented by superb cuisine and for the lucky few some wonderful accommodation in the vineyard.

But more importantly right now – the wines. Liv-ex reported in its Bordeaux 2014 report that even though Troplong Mondot has one of the highest average scores (95.1) and is noted for its improving quality, it was 43% cheaper than its peer group average last year. The quality trend is continuing, 2014 is very good, and this has not gone un-noticed by the critics with the news being received that Jancis Robinson MW had highlighted Troplong Mondot in her review of the vintage whilst we were there.

Chateau Pavie, owned by Gerard Perse, has had significant investment recently and its rebuilt chateau is now geared to showcase its vineyard and wines on an impressive scale. Pavie was also elevated to Premier Grand Cru Classe (A) in 2012. It has the highest average Parker score of its peer group (95.9) but its price performance last year was in line with its peers. The Liv-ex Bordeaux Report states that Pavie commands a good share of trade on the secondary market. Pavie’s En Primeur release prices in 2012 and 2013 reflected the reclassification, but these values were not subsequently sustained. It will be interesting to see what strategy they adopt for 2014.

We then headed to the Left Bank and were welcomed to the wonderful estates of Grand Puy Lacoste, Pontet-Canet and Cos d’Estournel. We started with a tasting hosted by Emeline Borie, co-owner of Grand Puy Lacoste, who explained that the UK market represented their largest customers. The first wine of the estate has performed in line with its peer group over the last 12 months and it has an average ten year Parker score of 91.6 compared to its peers’ average of 92.3. Activity has increased in the last year of trading but historically prices have struggled to hold value post release. With just over 1,000 cases per vintage and a tightly held initial supply chain, scarcity may make for a bolder pricing strategy.

From there to the remarkable Pontet-Canet, whose leading bio-dynamic approach, introduced in 2008, is reaping dividends for the estate under the brilliant partnership of the owning Tesseron family and inspirational wine-maker Jean-Michel Comme. Following a tour of the vineyard where we admired the fully-employed donkeys and horses we met Jean-Michel in the tasting room to sample 2014. I could listen to the great man for hours, his approach is without doubt unique, in harmony with nature and creating top quality wines.

A great favourite of Parker, Pontet-Canet has produced a series of vintages which, in the foremost critic’s opinion, are bettered only by the First Growths in quality terms. Pontet-Canet has an average Parker score of 94.6 and received consecutive perfect 100 point scores in 2009 and 2010 and the wines are regularly among the most actively traded on the market. Pontet-Canet has traditionally been amongst the best buys En Primeur but they did make an error with their price release in 2013 and high levels of young stock may pose a challenge for the 2014 vintage, but it is a highly promising wine.

You can never fail to be impressed by the extraordinary architecture of Cos d’Estournel and 2014 was certainly a memorable tasting for the team. Cos has consistently outperformed its peer group in quality terms with an average Parker score of 93.5 in the last ten years and the superlative 2009 achieved the perfect 100. Historically the estate has adopted an En Primeur strategy of high release prices which has led to the challenge of as many as eight of the last ten vintages trading below merchant release price and a lack-lustre performance on physical stocks – it is certainly an issue for 2014.

We finished our trip in Pessac-Leognan in the exquisite tasting room at First Growth, Chateau Haut-Brion. The wines of this superlative estate have consistently outscored the other First Growths in recent times and notably achieved consecutive perfect 100 point scores in 2009 and 2010. Despite having the highest average score of its peers (95.4), Haut-Brion commands the lowest price. This was capitalised on particularly by the market last year with increased activity but opening prices have been high in recent years and not sustained, this too should be borne in mind in pricing 2014. But the vintage itself is good, how is this challenge to be overcome?

There is no doubt that the marketing resource of the top Bordeaux chateaux is world class and as some of them are owned by the creators of a number of the best known brands in the world you would expect no less. You cannot fail to be impressed by the heritage, investment and sheer beauty of the most privileged wines estates in the world.  But ultimately, they are farms, they grow grapes and they make and sell wine. And that wine has to stand up to the interrogation of academics, critics and buyers – the market. The complete proposition has to include price – and we wait. In fact given the good quality and the pricing challenge, it will be interesting to see if any of the estates choose to follow Latour’s lead and withdraw from selling En Primeur this year.