Bordeaux breaks the bank

Heralded as an exceptional vintage, premier crus 2003 Bordeaux wines are now on the market, much to the delight of wine enthusiasts — albeit at surprisingly high prices that may rather dilute that delight.

“In fact, consumers will have to pay 50 to 100 percent more than for the 2002 vintage,” said Shinya Tazaki, Japan’s world-champion sommelier during a recent Tokyo tasting of the vintage held at the Hotel Okura.

While not contradicting Tazaki on prices, a winemaker from the Saint Emilion area of Bordeaux was quick to point out that “It is one of the best vintages in 10 years.” His sentiments were echoed by Philipe Casteja of Chateau Trottevieille, who said, “The wine is well balanced, supported by a good structure, and it can be drunk early.”

Drinkers of these premier crus 2003 Bordeaux wines have the summer heat wave in 2003 to thank for such outstanding quality, said experts at the tasting hosted by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, the top producers’ grouping.

High expectations

“The resulting well-ripened grapes,” Tazaki commented, “produced a wine that is fruity, with minimum acidity and tannin — a bit like Californian wine.” He added: “It is a vintage carrying such high expectations.”

Enthusiastic writeups by critics, most notably the global wine guru, American Robert Parker, have helped to fuel the fearsome price escalation, experts said. Moreover, they cited stronger than ever worldwide demand for fine wines — those that age in the bottle and comprise a mere 1 percent of total wine production.

In this respect, in addition to the established markets in the United States, Europe and Japan, experts point to growing interest in top-quality wine in the growing markets of Russia, India and China. Apparently, it was with their eyes on those markets, and others now emerging, that the Bordeaux producers included China, South Korea and Taiwan as stops on the 2006 yearend Asian promotional tour that also brought them to Tokyo. In Korea, according to Caroline Dedieu, commercial manager at the Bordeaux-based Chateau Pichon-Longueville (which owns five Bordeaux chateaux, including Petit-Village), demand has rocketed by 100 percent in recent years, though from a small base. “The Asian market is very important for us,” she commented during the tasting. Although California, Italy, Spain and Australia all produce top-quality wines that also improve with age, Bordeaux remains the biggest single producing region and, Dedieu said, it currently exports 70 percent of its output of such wines.

The United States remains the biggest market in the world for these superior wines, and, although the Union des Grands Crus, comprising around 120 chateaux, will hold 2003 vintage tastings there this month, neither India nor Russia is on their schedule this time around.

However, to avoid putting too many of their bottles in any one export basket, and risk suffering from a sudden weakness there, wine-business insiders say that Bordeaux producers are keen to expand their global customer base. For instance, although Japan is among the top 10 markets for these top-end wines, accounting for around 8 percent of the export sales, overall demand here has not increased significantly, Tazaki said.

However, Japanese on average pay more for a bottle of wine than anyone else in the world, he said.

Most exclusive chateaux

For example, some of the best wines offered for tasting at the Tokyo event — Saint Emilion, Saint Julien, Pauillac and northern Medocs — retail here for 7,000 yen per bottle. As if that wasn’t pricey enough, he said that these wines from the eight most exclusive chateaux — Mouton-Rothschild, Lafite, Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour, Petrus, Ausone and Cheval-Blanc — command nearly 10 times that retail price, or more. In the meantime, statistics show that the prices of top Bordeaux wines have leapt by more than 600 percent in the last 10 years.

But this upward price spiral is only the beginning. The 2005 vintage, described by the guru Parker as “a perfect vintage,” seems sure to be even more “exclusively priced” when it is released in 2008. Indeed, Mouton-Rothschild is currently listed at a staggering $524 per bottle on the futures market. “We should boycott it,” said a salesperson at Cave de Re-lax, a wine merchant in Toranomon, only half-jokingly.

The irony, however, is that of around 4,000 chateaux in the Bordeaux region, only about 50 produce top-quality wines in strong demand globally. For the rest, as is the case in most wine-producing regions around the world, a glut of wines is still a huge problem.

Although wine consumption in Japan has not yet recovered the level of the bubble years, there is persistent demand for top-quality wine, experts at the tasting concurred. “Cultured people, celebrities and top athletes in Japan are drinking wine,” said Tazaki. “And the Japanese know more about wine than French people, because they take time to study it,” Dedieu added.

Nod to wise tipplers

However, Japan is basically not Bordeaux-friendly, because of the relatively weak, yen which Tazaki reckoned had fallen against the Euro by about 20 percent recently. But there is seemingly some comfort in looking ahead, since 2004’s Bordeaux wines — though rated “a less than great vintage” by Parker — “are likely to be discounted to consumer-friendly prices” when they are released later this year, he predicts.

What’s more, in a nod to wise but less well-heeled tipplers, he promises pleasant surprises in the wine from the southern Medoc . . .

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