Random ruminations

November 2005

Machinations of the market
It would seem that vintage appraisals are flexible, indeed for the people on the spot they can appear to be completely elastic. Critics are praised or damned in equal measure for being revisionist – ‘they called it wrong’ are the cries, regardless of whether there actually is a right answer – just look at 1993… Of course many inhabitants of the Côte d’Or, unless they are actually looking to cast doubt on certain critics abilities, are less interested in such discussions of past vintages, rather they want/need to sell wine, and that wine is always the vintage they are about to release. Today it is harder than before; not just because the world of ‘fine wine’ is flooded with contenders for your credit card, but because we have an embarrassment of riches from the Côte d’Or itself. Do you think that there would have been any difficulty in selling 2000 or 2001 in the 1980’s? – certainly not – but the higher average quality of the 1990’s and the new millennium mean that today’s market-makers need to use all the tools at their disposal – and it seems that flexibility is key.

You can see all these skills being tested to the full, right now. Lots of people, from the moment the grapes were picked, started to tout the 2005 vintage; a great vintage, the vintage of the (very young) century etc., etc. We were also expected to believe that it could be another 1990 or 1999 – “no, hold that, it’s better than 1999!” “Why better?” – “Well 1999 is becoming a little disappointing don’t you think?” – I think this was the ‘hard-sell’ in full flow! Suddenly the impressions of 2005 become more woolly, less bombastic, more critical – why? The wise heads have suddenly remembered about some barrels of 2004 that need bottling, if they oversell 2005 as the next vintage of the century it is quite possible people could pass over a vintage like 2004 with the aim of buying double of the next. It’s great fun to see the market in action like this – provided you can retain a certain detachment – anyway it looks like we will hear very little of 2005 for the next 6 months!

christies hospices de beauneThe Hospices de Beaune goes Corporate
Since the summer ‘issue’ of Burgundy Report the Hospices de Beaune has taken a giant leap into the future – or should that be the present? After close to 150 years of auctioning their own wines the Hospices will now maximise their return by harnessing all that modern day global marketing can offer – they have now handed their auction baton to Christies. Some 100 or so years before the Hospices took the auction route, Christies were the first auction house ever to sell fermented grape-juice so it seems rather fitting.

The entry of Christies will, for the first time, bring the opportunity to buy bottles/cases from the personal reserve of the Hospices – wines that have never left the Hospices’ cuverie – it will of-course be a one-off unless they decide to retain a portion of bottles for future sales. The Christies’ sale will also be more egalitarian, it will be quite easy for anyone to buy a barrel – cash permitting of course. So are there any down-side’s? Of-course, always. Prices will be less ‘controlled’ as, for the first time, non-professional bidders fight over possession. This combined with the almost perfect grapes of 2005 look set to provide a heady cocktail – prices are set to rocket. Still, it’s all for charity and the buyers can afford it…

Random Oxidation
It seems that I have been very lucky. About twenty bottles of 1996 white burgundy have been consumed in the last 2 years and not one of them was a strange golden or orange colour, nor were any oxidised – I’ve had this with 1997 and a couple of 1998’s – but not with a 1996, not yet anyway. I have a thing about oxidation – I don’t like it – anything that smells or tastes of sherry is poured away – even sherry! So is there a problem? Yes indeed; when even some growers admit to having random problems with their wines, then yes – ‘Houston we have a problem’.

Whilst there is only one random component in a bottle of wine – the cork – and whilst the vintage first noted to have this problem coincided with a change in how corks were cleaned by their producers, there are potentially other components to the problem. Changes in vineyard and cellar practices could have rendered the wines less resistant to oxidation, certainly the addition of sulfur dioxide has slowly reduced over many years. This is not a ‘one dimensional’ problem.

The producers have a problem. Wine buyers have higher levels of information at their disposal and there is more than hint that they might start to revolt. The trade to restaurants might not be affected to the same extent – where can you buy 8-10 year-old white burgundy? – much of this wine is drunk by its 4th birthday. The question is; how will the industry tackle the issue? Sweeping the issue under the carpet whilst hoping that someone finds a solution will not be a very well received strategy. There needs to be some leadership from organisations with ‘pull’ – the BIVB for instance. The University of Dijon is close at hand, but growers (who have no testing resources) can only conjecture on the true cause, and certainly can’t wait three years for a PhD student to come up with the answers. Everyone needs the route-cause to be unequivocally determined and disseminated – and soon. I believe now is the time for some leadership, no? It will take more than the ‘flexibility’ of market-makers to return the lustre to the prospect of well-cellared white burgundy.

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?

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