As I see it, there are two questions that are very important for Bordeaux wine producers each year and the decisions they take drive the fate of their businesses. The first is common to all wine producers while the second is specific to Bordeaux. Can you guess what they are? Shiv Singh reports from Bordeaux.
When to harvest?
The first decision is the most critical at the time of harvesting. It is determining when exactly to pluck the grapes. Which day to send out the pickers into the fields to start picking grapes from the different parcels of vines in the vineyard. Start too early and you miss opportunities for further grape ripening that could have meant better tannins and fruit. Wait too long and you run the risk of the grapes over-ripening or rotting. Choosing the right date depends on several different factors. Here are some of them.
The most important is the state of the grapes themselves. The winemaker constantly checks how the grapes are ripening by trying to understand their acidity, tannins and sugar levels. A refractometer is used to test the acidity of the grapes whereas, when it comes to the tannins, sometimes simply popping a grape into one’s mouth is the best way to test it.
The second factor at play is the weather itself. The Bordelaise obsess about the weather and with good reason. The threat of heat, rain, hail or frost which can damage the vines is always on the mind of winemakers. They study the weather carefully (as do our farmers in India) and, based on what they’re seeing, make decisions as to when to pick. Back in 2007 the weather throughout the summer was terrible but fortunately cool rains at the time of harvesting saved the vintage.
The third factor is peer pressure. Many vineyard owners pay careful attention to what their neighbours are doing. As soon as they see a neighbour picking grapes, it makes them wonder whether they should be doing so too. After all their neighbours share the same weather and very often similar soil conditions too. Peer pressure plays a larger role in the decision making than one may realize.
How to price the wine?
The second decision causes as much stress as the first one. Maybe even more for some winemakers. And that’s how to price the wines. It is the question on everyone’s mind during the En Primeur week and it invariably leads to much animated debate. Depending upon where you sit in the Bordeaux ecosystem (producer, courtier, négociant, buyer, journalist or consumer) you invariably have a different opinion about pricing. So how do the Château owners set the prices for their wine?
Once again weather, especially at the time of harvesting, is a consideration. That sets the tone for the vintage. Excellent weather conditions establish the fact that the wine is going to be very good leading to specific price expectations. 2005 and 2009 both had optimal weather conditions and coming into this year’s En Primeur week the industry was already primed up. So much so that a record number of buyers and journalists flocked to Bordeaux.
The next factor is how successful the actual En Primeur week is. Buyers from around the world are in Bordeaux to taste and learn about the vintage firsthand to form an opinion about its quality and selling potential. Between tastings and discussions with Château owners about their expectations, they quickling develop a sense of the direction it’s taking.
A third influence is visiting journalists like ourselves who race to make pronouncements about the vintage. Indeed, each year a verdict on the vintage is past sooner than later, as journalists strive to be the first to come out with an opinion. What they say, carries significant weight especially the words of one man sitting in Maryland, USA. Everyone knows that’s Robert Parker! Passing judgment on the wines through scores sets the tone for what the value of the wines will be and therefore how much a château will charge.
The fourth factor is the current economic environment. Château owners pay attention to this to understand what the market will accept. Prices dropped 50% last year for two reasons. The first was the vintage which wasn’t that special, but more importantly the global economic crisis which meant that fewer people were eating out and buying fine wine. As a result, the Chateau owners knew that the wines wouldn’t sell well if they were too expensive.
The final factor and probably the trickiest is what your neighbour is charging. Yes, with pricing, too, peer pressure plays a very big role. Château owners watch their neighbours from the same commune with wines of the same type and classification very carefully to determine how they’re pricing before deciding on their own prices.
So what about this year?
These then are two major decisions (among many others) that the Chateaux make in a year. The first is in the vineyard and the second is commercial. The second arguably is even more stressful. Just last night I heard about a Chateau owner who hides away for a week during the time of price setting. He gets so stressed that he disappears leaving his employees wondering what’s going on!
Most winemakers made very good decisions regarding the harvest (it showed clearly in the wines I tasted) and now the question is what they’ll do with the prices. It is obvious that the vintage is very strong warranting much higher prices than last year, but at the same time prices must be realistic if the wines are to sell. After all, we are still recovering from the global economic crisis. Extremely high prices mean that the wines are not accessible to many consumers. If priced too low, then the Château cannot recover its costs and worse still gets to see trade buyers benefit more from the vintage than they themselves. A tricky affair indeed (and much more complex than probably portrayed in this piece), with the jury is still out on how wines this year will be priced.
Today I’m tasting wines on the left bank in Saint Estephe, Pauillac and Saint Julien. It is going to be an exciting day indeed.