The Bordeaux Bubble

Chateau Lafite-Rothschild

“It is almost painful to tell the story of another great vintage in Bordeaux,” wrote Robert Parker in his introduction to the 2010 vintage.

Painful, perhaps. Embarassing—just about. Here is the pattern for the past decade: the infant Bordeaux are tasted in barrel by Parker, who pronounces the vintage to be one of the greatest in recorded history (2000 was one such vintage, as was 2005 and 2009, and now 2010). The chateau owners, being no fools, wait for his assessment of the barrel samples in April before setting their prices for the futures campaign. Armed with the “vintage of the century” tasting notes, the wines are released at stratospheric prices. And then—as surely as the sun rises and the tide ebbs and flows—Parker criticizes the high prices he has almost single-handedly created.

The top wines of Bordeaux are a drop in the bucket compared to the region’s overall production. Given the current mania for fine wine in Hong Kong, however, there is no shortage of buyers for the First Growths (Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Margaux and Haut-Brion). Last year, when the futures price of 2009 Lafite-Rothschild was $17,000 in New York, a Hong Kong buyer paid $70,000—for a case of wine that would not be bottled for another two years. We can expect the 2010 mania to be very similar.

Increasingly, the problem is not the First Growths, since the supply of those wines is finite and the demand is both global and extraordinary. The real issue is with Classified Growths further down the food chain, wines that should cost a relatively affordable $50-60 and now sell for more than $120. Major U.S. retailers are already reporting sales of 2010 Bordeaux futures at 50% less than last year, and the 2009 futures campaign was not a stellar one in America. There are also signs of resistance in the pipeline—Barriere Frere, a Bordeaux négociant (merchant), has refused to handle the 2010 Rauzan-Segla due to what it describes as “ludicrous” prices.

In the world of fine wine there has always been a Hong Kong, a center of new wealth where price was no object. Should this bubble ever burst, however, there will be any number of people in the supply chain with egg (or Egg Foo Young) on their faces.


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