Bordeaux tastings offer hope for brisk sales

French wine capital Bordeaux wrapped up an intense week of barrel tastings of its new vintage Friday, with wines expected to go quickly on sale next week, as chateaux negotiate lower prices.

"In terms of attendance, the number of professionals that came for the UGCB events has never been higher," Jean-Marc Guiraud, director of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB), told AFP.

"Tuesday we had more than 3,500 professionals that visited at least one of the seven tastings -- more than recorded for the presentation of the 2009 and 2010 vintages," he said.

Europeans arrived in force and 30 percent of the visitors during the first two days were foreigners, according to Guiraud.

The total number of visitors per day was estimated at 6,500. Chateaux also opened their doors for dinners, parties, art exhibitions and concerts.

"The primeurs tastings are a unique marketing event each year that is a tremendous success," said negociant Antoine Darquey. "People buy plane tickets, get hotel rooms, just to come taste a wine that is not finished."

After a week of travelling from cellar to cellar, importers were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the vintage, with many of the chateaux receiving respectable scores from American critics.

"The vintage is better than the British press was indicating," said James Gunter, senior vice president of fine wines at Glazers, one of America's largest importer-distributors.

"What Bordeaux is doing in the vineyards, in the cellars, with technology and the warmer climate, they make great wine. They know what they're doing."

Chaotic weather, including devastating hail storms, tested the savoir-faire of even the most well-equipped chateaux.

"To produce this quality was a real tour de force," said Jean-Guillaume Pratts, director of Chateau Cos d'Estournel, who presides over a state-of-the-art gravity-led vat room.

Now that the quality of the vintage has been assessed, discussions are focused entirely on price and the release dates for the sales campaign.

Last year's futures campaign was long and disorganised, with prices jumping more than 50 percent for some labels, leading to mass defection from clients in Europe and America.

Glazers, which might buy 20,000 cases of Bordeaux futures when quality and price find their sweet spot, only purchased 2,000 cases of the 2010 vintage sold last year.

"Those 2,000 cases were very expensive," said Gunter. "We need a major price reduction."

Major customers in Hong Kong also remain cautious. Vincent Yip, owner of Topsy Trading Co. Ltd in Hong Kong, said that they would not maintain their allocations "at any price".

"We prefer to be cautious and realistic," Yip told AFP. Topsy Trading has been buying Bordeaux futures for two decades, and normally purchases 20,000 cases every vintage.

The fear of losing loyal customers in Asia as well as in traditional markets has forced the Bordelais into an about-face.

"The Bordelais learned from their arrogance and incompetence last year, ourselves included," said Pratts.

"The wines will be released early this year, and I think we will have some real interest from the US if the prices come down. There has to be a substantial price reduction to make it appealing to Americans."

Bordeaux's futures market is based on the principle that customers buy the wine up to two years in advance of delivery, financing the chateaux stock in exchange for a lower price.

Speculators and Asian demand have put pressure on prices the last two years, and traders are calling for a return to consumer markets.

"If chateaux care about the traditional consumer market, they must set a price that merchants are happy to buy and happy to sell, a price consumers are happy to buy and most importantly, happy to drink," said Yip.

Negociants expect the First Growths -- Lafite, Latour, Mouton Rothschild, Haut Brion and Margaux -- to slash prices up to 50 percent, and release their wines for sale shortly after the Easter holiday.

Bordeaux's smaller chateaux are also preparing for a brisk campaign in hopes of drumming up sales.

"We sell a lot of petit chateau wines, but it's quite a complicated situation for them," said Darquey.

"They do the same work, make investments and make some really good wine, but they have been selling their wine for the same price for ten years. It's very frustrating."

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