The city of Bordeaux is in the grip of a brief, annual fever known as the futures campaign. It is when the new vintage is tasted, notes are published, prices are fixed and the wine is released onto the market, even though it won't be bottled and delivered until the end of the following summer.
The trend for the 2012 release is that a difficult vintage will attract relatively low prices, while fewer winemakers will participate in the market. The 2009 and 2010 vintages were received with global enthusiasm, propelled by the unprecedented interest of Chinese buyers in the very best wines. This fervour, among other things, translated into spectacular wine price increases, especially for the most prestigious crus, which were sometimes sold for up to three times more than the preceding 2008 vintage.
The 2011 vintage, released during a serious economic crisis in Europe, is on the other hand an average vintage: a tight and, in a way, very classic Bordeaux. Even though they were offered at reduced prices (from 10 to 40 per cent, depending on the cru), the wines did not sell out as futures.
And now comes 2012. The economic situation has not improved. Throw prudent Asian buyers into the mix and one can see why some chateaux are refusing to sell their wine as futures in a vintage produced in patchy weather conditions.
"The climatic conditions in 2012 certainly allowed us to make good and even very good wines but not everywhere and not without much effort and sacrifice," explains Denis Dubourdieu, a professor of oenology.
"Marked by a hopelessly wet spring, an exceptionally dry summer and a difficult autumn with a late but rapid harvest, 2012 is the antithesis of early 2011, when summer began in spring, ended in July-August and returned, radiantly, near the end of autumn. 2012 and 2011: two very opposite vintages and different also from the admirable 2008, 2009 and 2010 which enjoyed climatic conditions more typical of great vintages."
Paul Pontallier, managing director of Chateau Margaux, says: "The succession of a very wet spring and a very dry summer was quite hard on the vines. Only the best terroirs survive such conditions. In a year like 2012, the difference between the great terroirs and the others is terribly clear and our vineyards are no different."
We often talk of a winemaker's year to refer to difficult harvests and suppose that only the best and most meticulous find a way out. In fact, the term "terroir year" better describes 2012. And at this game, the great terroirs perform best: Pomerol, for example, with its clay-based sub-soil that allowed the vines to survive. Petrus, which did not seduce us completely in 2011, returns to a level comparable to the exceptional 2010. Among the other great Pomerols of 2012, we can certainly note Le Gay, La Violette and l'Evangile. On a more accessible level, but magnificent, too, are La Fleur de Boüard, a Lalande de Pomerol owned by Hubert de Boüard, the proprietor of Angélus and the Fronsac wines Haut-Carles and La Dauphine.
The results are less consistent in St Emilion where the two new A level first growths, Pavie and Angélus, show spectacular depth. Clos Fourtet, Larcis Ducasse, la Mondotte and Tertre Rotebœuf are other top Saint-Emilions of the vintage, as are new discoveries Clos Saint-Julien and Tour Saint-Christophe, owned by Taiwanese entrepreneur Peter Kwok. On the left bank, Mouton Rothschild seems to be the best of the first growths in 2012, followed by Margaux and Latour.
Finally, for the first time this year, several famous crus will not be sold as futures. Some, such as Chateau d'Yquem, will not make a "first" wine this year. CEO Pierre Lurton (also in charge of Cheval Blanc) decided that the quality of his sweet white Sauternes was not at the level of excellence of the most celebrated white wine in the world. Frédéric Engerer, CEO of Chateau Latour, the Pauillac first growth owned by the Pinault family (also owners of the Kering de luxe group, which includes, among others, Gucci and Yves Saint-Laurent), has chosen not to sell his wines as futures to the Bordeaux trade. Engerer only wants to sell wines that he believes are ready to drink.
"I want, in this way, to offer the 2012 [vintage] 10 years from now, which seems to me to be a minimum amount of time to appreciate a wine like this."
In the meantime, he has just released to the Bordeaux trade 400 cases of the delicious Fort de Latour 2005 at €130 (HK$1,320) a bottle and 1,250 cases of the deep and powerful Latour 1995 at €350.
What will be the pricing trend of this rather uneven vintage in terms of quality? Thierry Decré, CEO of LD Wines, one of the most active Bordeaux firms in the distribution of the Grands Crus, believes that "the lower prices of the 2011 offering will continue with this vintage. I think the owners of the best crus will not go wild with their pricing. The risk is too great: if 2012 doesn't sell, it would be suicidal for Bordeaux! On the other hand, the market is very favourable if prices are somewhat lower and accessible. No other wine is appreciated to this point around the world than Bordeaux."
Bordeaux sells in different ways according to the market, confirms his associate Frédéric de Luze: "France buys a lot of reasonably priced wine, the UK keeps its role as a very active key distributor, while the US is less present on the futures market, preferring to buy bottled wines. China, which was the most active buyer in 2009 and 2010, is playing wait and see. Hong Kong remains a very active, dynamic market for both the most celebrated brands and for less well-known crus."
Nevertheless, Bordeaux only has a few weeks to establish a pricing strategy that meets all these requirements. It is not a mission without risk.