Following their return from Bordeaux en primeur tastings, UK wine merchants seem keen to sway the narrative that has dominated discussion of the 2017 vintage so far: the infamous April frosts.
While roughly 40% of the potential crop suffered as a result of the plummeting temperatures in in late April – the equivalent of 240 million litres of wine – this isn’t the whole story, as Colin Hay argued in a recent piece for the drinks business.
Bordeaux fine wines “better than expected”
In fact, when analysed closely, the impact on the overall quality of the wine produced has turned out to be much less severe than in the worst frost years of 1956 and 1991. And in terms of quantity, frost damage on the main terroirs of the Left Bank was in some places so mild than some estates have produced more wine than they did in the historically large 2016 vintage.
Setting these facts aside, it is clear that public opinion has been affected by the news of the terrible weather that struck Bordeaux last year. This wariness, combined with uncertainty over pricing schedules, the prospect of a long drawn-out campaign and the apparent buyer apathy than seems to be sweeping the market may well have a negative impact on overall sales.
“Everyone keeps saying ‘better than expected’ but it all depends what you expected,” comments Liv-ex director, Anthony Maxwell, who will be monitoring the campaign closely over the coming weeks.
He continued: “After the frosts that’s all anyone thought about but if you delve down there are some good volumes and the good terroirs and estates have made excellent wines.”
What the wine merchants say
Echoing Maxwell’s remarks, one fine wine director said he had been “expecting a very mixed bag and a three star vintage,” but had returned from Bordeaux convinced it is “very resolutely a four star vintage,” albeit one that is “difficult to pigeon hole.”
People often rush to describe a vintage as destined for either cellaring or early drinking, but a vintage like 2017 cannot be categorised in this way, in his opinion. There was a freshness and structure in many of the wines but it really is “estate by estate,” he said.
Another wine merchant agreed that the wines were very easy to taste and that it was clearly a “terroir vintage” – considering it was the position of the vineyards that saved them from the worst of the frosts in the first place.
“They’re not bombastic like the 2015s and they don’t have the textural uniqueness of the ‘16s,” he remarked, “but they’re the sort of wines you’ll be served blind in five to 10 years time that will make you go, ‘wow’.”
Taking into consideration these and other merchant’s comments, it is clear that there is the potential for a positive campaign on the back of these controversial wines. The deciding factor, in the end, will be the price.
Price: the key to the en primeur market
Since 2011, the market for en primeur has been steadily shrinking, though the UK has proved itself to be pretty loyal as well as willing to absorb price increases. With the pound now relatively stable and in a good position, as long as prices stay within the same range as last year there shouldn’t be any problem.
However, there is the unspoken problem of current buyer apathy. Recent market reactions to the ex-cellar release of Chateau Latour was lukewarm, and an expensive Burgundy campaign has already swept the scene this year.
The problem is intensified by the fact that, while this may be a better than average vintage, after shelling out for the 2015s and 2016s, with 2008s and some 2009s getting into their drinking windows and 2011, 2012 and 2014 offering early drinking opportunities, will collectors feel the need to fill up on another vintage of that type?
Maxwell notes that: “The market is having a bit of a pause which often happens before a vintage which people think will be complicated.”
As for price rises, it is difficult to tell what the Châteaux will do. The value is in the eye of the beholder, and some estates feel like they’ve produced a really good quality wine.
Maxwell said: “I’m not sure there’s a huge appetite from the growers to bring prices down. There will be some who raise, some who stick and then some will go down 10% even 20%.
Stay tuned for updates, tasting notes and more news from the fine wine market.