Monday, February 28, 2011

The future of top Bordeaux wines – continued

On 22 February fellow blogger Oliver Styles published a thought-provoking posting titled The future of top Bordeaux wines, focusing on the likely price development of the top wines from Bordeaux.

The different players in the field were passed in review, with the conclusion being that we shouldn’t expect the high prices of today to drop. It is not in the interest of the three money-making players, the producer, the négociant and the importer, and more strikingly, not in the interest of the rich consumer either. The reasoning is that people buy to impress, and with cheap wines you can’t really do that – at least not in China.

The fourth player that Oliver Styles mentions is the wine critic, which he merely sees as oil for the wine marketing machine: the many enthusiastic reviews are happily reprinted with the aim to convince people to buy.

Everybody in the Bordeaux business thinks about prices. So does Oliver Styles, and so do I. Here I would like to reflect on player #3, the consumer.

If impressing people is the main driving force for ultra-rich people to buy top Bordeaux, this seems very tenuous to me. What if fashion changes, if in 2015 Chinese people get bored when seeing yet another Lafite to impress them? How strong is the actual connection with these wines, aside from the superficial attraction of the bling-bling they have?

It is a fact, some top wines have already become part of big luxury chains like LVMH (Yquem and various Champagnes) and PPR (from François Pinault, the owner of Château Latour), and it’s the core business of these companies to create and maintain a thing like craving. So in the end this whole top-wines thing might be all about marketing.

But what if that fails, or if Chinese behavior turns out to be different than expected? Perhaps the economy experiences a first hickup, or we might see political unrest - even more likely these days... God knows what might happen.

There are many uncertainties in such an undeveloped market. The Chinese might become more cunning about wine and get interested in exciting alternatives. Today’s price development simply seems so immature. It is so extreme that it doesn’t give me the confidence of being a stable development.

Chateau Duhart-Milon Rothschild 1999Château Duhart-Milon Rothschild 1999, 4th cru classé de Pauillac

Look at the Lafite-Carruades-Duhart example. Did it, initially, make sense that the market shifted from Lafite to Carruades and then Duhart? No, it was a new phenomenon, and it surprised the traditional trade.

Of course an explanation followed: it is the ignorance of the Chinese, who search for the same name, a comparable label, that sort of stuff. Or for a certain symbol, such as the boat on the Beychevelle label. Surprising, and indicative of the way the Chinese consumer is perceiving these wines. The Chinese acquisitions of Latour-Laguens and Chenu-Lafitte can also be seen in that light.

But let’s go back to the Lafite-Carruades-Duhart trio. They’re all sold at preposterous prices now. Real prices, market prices, but what is still the relationship with the actual quality of these wines?

I will make a prediction: next in line for a price climb is Château Rieussec. Top Sauternes, from the Lafite stable, and… Sauternes has only recently been exported to China. It’s a new thing to this country so it might take a little while before it’s actually picked up, but all signs are ‘positive’. It also helps that there are exciting combinations to be made with Chinese food – despite the fact that I prefer beer with this cuisine.

I only hope we are not going to see a renaming of the château… Château Rieussec-Lafite as a new name would be quite a cheap marketing trick.

Red Lafite-brother Duhart-Milon is now sold at what used to be 1er cru prices just a few years ago. I have the feeling that we’re looking at a bubble, and a fast-growing one. And what will happen once a critical mass agrees that some of these prices aren’t actually realistic?

It has become so much a matter of economics (and it’s all so far removed from the actual thing, wine), that a minor price shift, a first correction, could have a big effect. An effect like we sometimes see in the stock market. A snowball easily pierces a bubble.

But for the next primeur campaign I expect there to be room in the bubble for even more carbon dioxide: a raise of the primeur prices of those wines that gained value since the close of the 2009 campaign. Bordeaux 2010 will be the year of the Super Seconds (the New Super Seconds, including the 2nd wines of the premier cru’s). I just can’t imagine the 1er cru’s to become even more expensive, and the true value will again be at the lower levels.

I'm writing this with a lovely glass of Duhart-Milon 1999. The market value of this wine is about 150 euros (consumer price) and I know it's not worth the money. I'm not at all negative about the wine, and I very much enjoy it, but no worries, I bought it at a fraction - let’s say, a realistic fraction - of its current value.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Brane and Brown in Sauerland

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Germany, experiencing the restless feeling of neglecting my blog. We’re not drinking Spätburgunder, which should be the case, but two Margaux’s that cannot be compared. A second wine and a grand vin. A 2008 and a 2004. And two different estates. So there is no point writing about these two in one posting, as least not from an academic point of view – the only ceteris paribus being… the appellation.

But what the heck, this is a personal blog and not a book. And I’m enjoying two different representatives of the grand terroir of Margaux. The first is the Baron de Brane 2008 (second wine of Brane-Cantenac), and the other one is Château Cantenac Brown 2004.

It is too bad I can’t make and upload any pictures from here: I’m looking at two beautiful labels, one silver and one gold. Silver for the second wine, and gold for the Grand Cru Classé.

It is the silver one that I’m enjoying the most. The Baron de Brane is so… drinkable. And it’s nice from the very start. Its building blocks are ripe chunks of lively dark fruit, blackberry-like, and the scent is seductive and somewhat sweet. In a recent tweet I dared to call it sexy but didn’t get a RT from the château so perhaps that was just not ‘right on’. The Brane is actually a bit too elegant (and fresh) to be called sexy. But what I meant is the sex appeal that purity can have. I really wasn’t thinking about anything low, or filthy.

Then Cantenac Brown. The troubled estate with the scattered land, the many owners and the jumping price. Other than the Brane, this wine doesn’t convince at the first sip, and it took many sips and thoughts before I concluded that this Margaux is actually a bit edgy and austere. Not that I didn’t like it, and I love the classy label with the impressive château, the elegant, modest font type and the appealing French-English name. It’s a true Christmas table wine for sure, but the wine itself… is more difficult.

But then again, let’s not compare the two. We’re enjoying both, here, in Germany. And it is allowed here, as Bad Fredeburg is far away from any German wine region. “It’s beer country here,” the hotel owner said. So I will be drinking beer after these bottles are finished. Looking forward to it.

Baron de Brane 2008, Margaux

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Visit to Emmanuel Brochet

As a kid, Emmanuel Brochet already knew that when he would grow up and the rent of his family's vineyard would come to an end, he would be the Brochet to once again gain control over the vines, the 2,5 ha patch of Villers-Aux-Nœuds premier cru. Finally in 1997, after Emmanuel finished his studies, the family land became available to him.

Emmanuel Brochet next to his ramshackle van that brought us up his Mont Benoit vineyardEmmanuel Brochet next to his ramshackle van that brought us up his Mont Benoit vineyard

Villers-Aux-Nœuds is a tiny, sleepy village at the very north rim of the Montagne-de-Reims. Its small, dispersed patches of vines aren't part of the unbroken carpet of vineyards that you find on the northern slope of the Montagne. No, the first time you come here you will really have to look for the vines.

Brochet's part-time colleague is pruning the vinesBrochet's part-time colleague is pruning the vines

At the time the classification was drawn up, this northern part of Champagne was more famous than today and Villers-Aux-Nœuds became a 'premier cru' village — this was also because of its proximity to important customers in the city of Reims. In the end, Reims was also one the reasons for the decline of this part of Champagne: there was a long period when it was more profitable to sell vegetables to the nearby city. Many vines were uprooted in those days.

Emmanuel Brochet in Le Mont Benoit vineyard
What is left today are the two best patches, two hills actually: a small one touching the little village, and a larger one, the south-east facing "Mont Benoit". Part of this 'Mont' belongs to Brochet. He works organically, and in a few rows he also experiments with biodynamical farming. His first vintage sold under his own name is 2003.

Looking down from Le Mont Benoit vineyard
Many producers have their own Leitmotiv, it seems. Emmanuel’s theme is pleasure: he wants to work in the vineyards, and in the cellar with pleasure. For him that basically means that he works in a fully artisanal and small-scale manner. Winemaking for him can never be something big and mechanical. Brochet wants to pay attention to every detail in the production of his Champagnes.

the pressBrochet's press: not too big

Brochet uses a quite old-fashioned press in which he works with small amounts of grapes which are gently pressed - on the same day that they were picked. As Brochet searches for purity, the must is not chaptalised.

Brochet's cellar, equipped with stereo to make work like hand-labeling a more pleasant task

Barrel fermentation is naturally followed by the maturation of the base wine (5% new oak). For part of the barrels Brochet blocks the malo (malolactic fermentation) to maintain freshness in the wine. But when nature decides that malo will take place next spring, this process isn't blocked at any cost. Filtering and fining are not applied, all matière will travel along into the bottle for the second fermentation and the - more or less - three years of bottle maturation afterwards.

Emmanuel Brochet preparing the tasting in his officeEmmanuel Brochet is preparing our tasting in his office...

As I wrote in my last posting, the proof of the wine is in the tasting and to be honest, I have hardly felt so much impatience during a domain visit... But there was no time pressure, there was no next visit. So we could truly perch down and taste.

Champagne Emmanuel Brochet Non DoséChampagne Emmanuel Brochet "Le Mont Benoit" Premier Cru Non Dosé

Champagne Emmanuel Brochet "Le Mont Benoit" Premier Cru Non Dosé. 50% Pinot Meunier, 25% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay. Production about 2.000 bottles. This is a natural beauty. Very gentle mousse, pure and refreshing. There's nothing between you and the Champagne. Nothing artificial, and nothing else either. Minerality, tension, salinity. Vibrant and energetic. And a long, electrifying finish. Brilliant in its simplicity. I think this is a wine to dig, or to not understand at all.

Champagne Emmanuel Brochet BrutChampagne Emmanuel Brochet "Le Mont Benoit" Brut Premier Cru

Champagne Emmanuel Brochet "Le Mont Benoit" Brut Premier Cru. 50% Pinot Meunier, 25% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay. Production about 5.000 bottles. The sweet (and irresistible) sister of the Non Dosé. Just 4 grams of sugar, which is really modest, but it makes a big difference. Not so much in the overall character of the wine; she clearly belongs to the same family. But this is friendlier and smoother. Soft in the mouth, gentle, more round. The Non Dosé is a wine to drink among Champagne freaks, and the Brut (which is actually an Extra Brut) can be enjoyed with anyone else who can truly appreciate a rare piece of true nature.

Brochet's products aren't easy to find. The Netherlands for example, existed without its presence. That is, until now. As from today the wines are offered in Amsterdam as well. And that's good news for all local Champagne devotees.