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2014 Bordeaux Barrel Tasting

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James Molesworth is tasting barrel samples in Bordeaux to get a first glimpse of the 2014 vintage, likely the best the region has seen since 2010. Follow along with his tasting notes and daily blogs

March and Bordeaux have a strong connection. It’s at this time of year that France’s largest and arguably most prominent wine region unveils its newest wines during a period called en primeur. It’s the first time the wines from the most recent vintage—in this case 2014—are officially unveiled to the public. Négociants, press, retail and restaurant buyers, consumers and more come through the region en masse to taste the wines. And the Bordelais are optimistic about 2014: Yields remain down, but quality may be the best since the classic-rated 2010 vintage, with a strong performance by Cabernet Sauvignon on the Left Bank.

Yet the wines are still unfinished, sitting in barrel. The samples shown are generally the final blend of the wine, though maybe a tweak here or there might still be made. They also still have another six months or more to go before they will be bottled. Some folks complain that it’s too early to show or taste the wines and that there’s little that can be gleaned from tasting barrel samples. So why do the châteaus show the wines now? And why do I come here to taste them at this early stage?

Because the wines are about to be offered for sale, first to the trade and then to you, the consumer, as futures, for delivery once they are bottled. So if the Bordelais want to show the wines and sell them, it’s my job to report on their prospects. I’ve tasted wine from many regions, including from barrel, during my 18 years at Wine Spectator. It’s a job where experience plays a big role, as does a bit of humility—it’s important for everyone to keep in mind that it’s very early in the game.

In recent years, Bordeaux’s connection with March has been just as the expression goes: coming in like a lion but going out like a lamb. That’s because there’s initially an enormous amount of buzz generated when the world’s wine press arrives and all the châteaus talk up their wares. But as 2011, 2012 and 2013 were vintages of less-than-stellar quality, the en primeur campaigns fizzled, often dragging out into the early summer months with little demand from the trade or consumers. But even the great 2009 and 2010 vintages have so far failed to appreciate in value.

So, if it’s so early, then why buy now? Because as a consumer, the initial price offered by the château (with subsequent markups through the négociant system and eventually to retail) will likely represent the best price you’ll see if the vintage proves to be outstanding. Additional releases, or tranches, typically increase in price. By the time bottled wines reach retail shelves, the cost could be much higher, and the top wines could be harder to find. Should the vintage turn out to be stellar, those purchasing wine for investment might win in the long run by securing quantities of wine at the earlier pricing.

On the other hand, if it doesn’t turn out to be an excellent vintage, then prices likely won’t appreciate, and there may be no need to rush.

Still, perhaps you buy the wines of a favorite château year in and year out, or maybe you want to lock in quantities of a certain sleeper château that hits a home run. Whatever the buying tactic, everyone should exercise caution when buying Bordeaux futures.

This time around, 2014 provides Bordeaux with an inflection point. The 2014 Bordeaux vintage is by all accounts solid, and likely better than any of the past three vintages. But it won’t match 2009 or 2010. Quantity is also slightly down, and that follows a trend of decreasing crops from 2011 through 2013. So, is there enough demand combined with decreased quantity for Bordeaux to see an energetic en primeur campaign? Or could the château owners get overzealous and price themselves out of a good campaign?

I’d expect a little bit of both. The U.S. economy is surging and the dollar is now nearly on par with the euro. In addition, the backlash and Bordeaux hating in the U.S. market caused by the exorbitant prices for 2009 and 2010 has waned. Bordeaux is becoming hip again. The Asian markets are slumbering and the Bordelais are coming back to the U.S.

But are they coming back to make amends for forsaking their best market when times were good? Are they going to price their wines fairly in order to move the inventory quickly? Can they see the potential momentum they could create if 2014 turns out to be a solid vintage and the wines are smartly priced? Do they want their wines back on restaurant wine lists and to become a relevant category for the thirty-something crowd? There’s a lot of ego in Bordeaux and sometimes that gets in the way of smart pricing and a long-term view.

Keep in mind that my en primeur tastings are an introduction to the vintage, focusing on wines both widely available and popular in the U.S. market and highlighting sleepers and values, but this report is not a comprehensive overview of the vintage.

March 18, 2015

James Molesworth

Wine Spectator

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