Sunday, 18 May 2014

Buying a vineyard?

This beautiful vineyard is valued at €10,000 per hectare.

Over the last few weeks I have been contemplating the question whether to buy a vineyard estate. I have been working in the wine trade/business for over 25 years in all aspects from restaurants, wine bars, retail, fine wine mail order, distribution, production and wine tourism. I have supplied wine to Buckingham Palace on numerous occasions as well as supplying wine to some of the wealthiest families in the World.
I have also sold large volumes of wine to UK supermarkets at remarkably value prices.
 Over the years I have lectured at the Royal Agricultural College in England (to MBA students) as well as serving as a Judge at the International Wine Challenge and being quoted in various wine publications such as Decanter, Wine Magazine, The Drinks Business and Harpers. I can not remember the amount of times I have explained fermentation, oak barrels, grape varieties, soils, climates, terroir, malo lactic fermentation, as well as botrytis, ice wine and secondary fermentation. I actually really love my job.
BUT it is one thing to talk about it, and it is another to actually do it!
So as I am now in my 44th year, when by all accounts I should be having a mid life crisis, I am now pondering the decision to invest in vineyards to create my own wines and establish a long term quality reputation. Something that my children (aged 10 and 12) will be proud of. Something that will last longer than a piece of paper, a quote or a tweet.
Last week I was offered 18 hectares of very good (ie well tended and well trained) vines in the south of France. The vines are planted at c 6-7000 vines per hectare. The average age of the vines is 25 years old. The grape varieties are Carignan (50%), Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre. The potential is to make various styles of wine:
1. A light Rose, that will sell quickly (and generate quick cashflow).
2. A spicy fruity red wine that has hints of wild thyme, wild rosemary and the garrigue.
3. A small batch of highly selected dark (mainly Syrah) oak aged wine that will age for 20-30 years.


The vineyards would be sold without any winemaking equipment (as the grapes have previously been sold to a Cave CoOperative). So there would need to be some serious investment in stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. But at least that is a clean sheet.

This could all be a complete dream, but it will be fun to see it all through. I will make clearer financial plans over the next few weeks to see whether this can be reality. Everyone should have dreams.
I will also try and grab hold of people who have done this in the last ten years(and who's wine I genuinely like!!)....people like Catherine Wallace at Domaine Combebelle, Katie Jones at Domaine Jones, John Bojanowski at Clos du Gravillas and James Kinglake at Domaine Begude.

This prime land in Saint Emilion is valued at €2 million per hectare.

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Friday, 11 April 2014

Are the 2013 Bordeaux Primeurs worth buying?

Alexandre Thienpoint, the philosophical quiet, owner of Vieux Chateau Certan in Pomerol told me last year that the key decisions for a Chateau owner are:
1. The date of harvest.
2. The precise date and conditions for bottling
3. Setting the correct release price for the wine.

Many chateaux owners are twisted with angst as they are busily working on the third point above. How do you sell the 2013 vintage....and at what price?
When Bordeaux vintages are great ....such as 2005, 2009 and 2010.....the decision(for the chateau owner) might be.....how much can I really achieve in this bright new world of incredibly expensive wines?
In 2011,2012 and particularly 2013 when the wines are clearly not as good, the decision can be tricky. However the Bear market financial strategists can still make money, if they are clever.
Lets consider some basic costs:
A new oak barrel costs between 6-800 euros per barrel. A barrel holds 300 bottles. Therefore the ageing cost is 2-3€ per bottle.
Agricultural workers are paid the minimum wage of €9.53 per hour in France.
At each chateau there will also be higher salaries for the technical team, the marketing and administration staff.
New fermentation tanks, new cellars, new bottling lines, new tractors are all major capital costs that have to be considered.
BUT even with variable costs and long term finance considerations the average production costs for a bottle of top quality Bordeaux wine will not exceed 15€ per bottle. And in many cases the cost of production will be between 5 and 10 euros.

So why do First Growth chateaux sell their wine for €600 plus ex negociants in a good year such as 2009 or 2010 and then €200 in a lesser year such as 2011 or 2012?
The First growths are still the most sought after wines in the entire world. The words Latour, Haut Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild are revered and respected in every country. If you want the best of the best you pay the price.
I recently had some Russian clients in Bordeaux. They exclaimed that if something is great quality you MUST expect to pay far more for that product. That sounds like a simple comment. But it is at odds with much of the bargain hunting mentality or discount culture that pervades UK consumerism at the moment. Wine and various products sell better in the UK if the price is slashed/reduced/butchered. This also confuses the consumer as a previously lauded and respected wine is savaged in price. Therefore at the same time the esteem for the wine is reduced. If you spend 20,30, 50 or 100 years establishing your wine (or brand) and invest in education, marketing, distribution and engendering brand loyalty why on earth would you then slash the price and, by so doing, send out a message to the consumer that there is a fault. Serious long term Bordeaux buyers will look back at the 2009s and 2010s and buy as much as possible. The wines are actually cheaper now than at the Primeur sale.
But this is the rollercoaster of making quality wine in Bordeaux. The climate is such an important factor for dictating the rise and fall of the prices.
BUT nowadays with instantaneous tweets, messages and information the consumer can not be fooled. 2013 is not a great vintage in Bordeaux. There are certainly some good wines. There are some fruity light clean styles of wine. But there are very few wines which can be recommended for long term maturing and investing.
The prices have to be in line. Ie at least 20% less than 2012 in most cases.
I will buy certain wines such as Pontet Canet, Lynch Bages, Grand Puy Lacoste, Domaine de Chevalier, Haut Bailly and Smith Haut Lafitte in order to continue my cellar. But I am aware that these wines will be popped and poured within the next 10 years just as the 2009s and 2010s might be starting to come around  to the start of their drinking window.
One awkward aspect for the chateaux and quite positive aspect for the negociants is that due to the severe selection and weather conditions during 2013 the volume of production is very low. So we will move on quickly.......

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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Bordeaux 2013 Primeur tastings

The impressive new barrel cellars at Chateau Montrose





It has been an exceptionally busy week tasting the 2013 Primeur barrel samples. This is always a highlight of my year as we assess the quality or style of the previous vintage. This year it was particularly interesting as the growing season had been very difficult during 2013, as detailed here.
My week was basically:
Monday: Tasting at many small tasting on the Right Bank near Saint Emilion and Pomerol. Tasting the wines made by Stephan Derenoncourt and Michel Rolland as well as many others.
Tuesday: Individual Chateau visits at Pavie, Canon, Cheval Blanc, Vieux Chateau Certan, L'Evangile as well as many group tastings organised by the Union des Grands Crus (UGC)
Wednesday: Individual Chateau visits at Calon Segur, Montrose, Cos d'Estournel, Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Grand Puy Lacoste, Pontet Canet, Leoville Las Cases, Ducru Beaucaillou as well as covering all the main St.Estephe, Pauillac and St.Julien wines at the UGC tastings.
Thursday: Individual Chateau visits at Palmer, Rauzan Segla and Margaux as well as tasting all the Grand Cru Classe Margaux and Pessac Leognan and Sauternes wines.
Friday: Visit and tasting to Haut Brion, Climens and Pape Clement.



Tasting at Chateau Mouton Rothschild.....always a pleasure.




My overall impression is that there have been some pretty, fruity wines produced. There are some strong styles and definite distinctive 'terroir' characters that come through. However there are also some real disappointments. There are some incredibly soft and very light wines that resemble the deep rose called 'clairet' rather than the dark crimson deep ruby wines that are age worthy. And that is the crux of the question: Will these wines age at all?
There are also some wines that are hollow and are awkward to taste. When we taste barrel samples we are looking for a balance of acidity, fruit and tannins. We are tasting for potential rather than immediate enjoyment. I will be intrigued to taste these wines after the 12-18 months barrel age, when the wines are in bottle. I think some of these wines will need to be delicately handled if they are to survive.
THE POSITIVES:
The best wines produced in 2013 were the sweet wines from Barsac and Sauternes as well as the dry whites. Unfortunately these are a small percentage of the total production of Bordeaux. However they are terrific. Chateau d'Yquem is sublime and will last 50 years. Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2013 has all the minerality , flinty fresh character and pure class that you expect from this estate. Clos Haut Peyraguey is a beautiful balanced sweet wine and Guiraud and Coutet are delicious.
The new cellars at Chateau Angelus in Saint Emilion.




A white horse ploughing some vines in front of the cellars at Cheval Blanc!





The tasting at Chateau Haut Brion in the Orangerie.




Some old bottles at Chateau Gruaud Larose. Not sure that the 2013 wines will last 200 years let alone 20.


My selection for favourite wines from the 2013 barrel samples tasted last week:

Grand Puy Lacoste
Domaine de Chevalier
Calon Segur
Haut Bailly
Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge
Cos d'Estournel
Lascombes
Clos Haut Peyraguey
Yquem
Guiraud
Coutet
Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc
Chantegrive Blanc

We are now starting to trade these wines. It might not take that long as there will not be high demand and the prices will not be very high and there is not much quantity.
Lets look onward and upward for a better quality 2014. The sun is shining today on 8th April 2014 and the buds have burst on the vines and if we do not have any frost, hail, rain, disease, rot, rain, snow, hail or problems everything will be fine for 2014!! Fingers crossed........

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Monday, 25 November 2013

Bordeaux 2013, Harvest Report.





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This is what rot looks like on Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. These grapes were harvested, but then rejected during manual sorting at the winery. These were picked at a top wine estate in the Medoc.









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"We lost around 280 hectares out of a total of 300," said Vincent Cruège, a spokesman for André Lurton, who owns Château Bonnet in the Entre-Deux-Mers region. The estate normally produces around 1.5 million bottles of white and one million bottles of red a year.
Quite clearly the 2013 Bordeaux harvest will be a struggle.



 Perhaps a flippant summary for the 2013 harvest would be:

 'Rain, Rain and more Rain'

Stéphane Defraine, president of the Entre-Deux-Mers Winegrowers Union, said hailstorms will cost winegrowers across Bordeaux at least €300 million, or about $400 million, in sales.
The French agriculture ministry projects this year's Bordeaux harvest will be about 4.4 million hectoliters, down 19% from 2012. The small 2013 crop puts wine producers in a difficult spot: low volumes will make it hard to meet global demand, but the weak quality of the grapes will make it tough to compete.




A summary of the 2013 growing season in Bordeaux:

January/ February/ March were very cold and wet.
April had some warm days, but was also very cold.
May was wet and cold. Too much vegetation on the vines (from the wet spring) meant that extra shoots had to be discarded on each vine. Mildew was present.
June was wet during flowering. Caused Millerandage (malformation of bunches)and set for late harvest.
July was hot but with severe rain at the end of the month. Green harvest to expose the fruit and hope for sunshine to ripen the grapes.
August was hot but with hail at the beginning of the month in Entre Deux Mers caused losses equivalent to 78 million bottles.
September was wet and warm and humid. Rain Sept 27-29.
October was wet(3rd and 4th October big rain) and the evenings were extremely humid. The harvest was brought forward by many wine estates as rot was becoming a major issue on unripe grapes. Initially planned to start October 7th, but many picked from October 1st and all weekend. Harvest mainly finished in Medoc by October 16th.
I was at Mouton Rothschild when all the employees were 'invited' to work over the weekend....literally all hands on deck.
The best soils of the Medoc eg the higer plateaux of Pauillac in between Mouton and Lafite had exceptionnally healthy grapes, but they also had the problems with possible rot due to the wet and humid conditions.
It was the most bizarre harvest as mostly the merlots of the Right Bank are harvested a week before the Cabernet Sauvignon of the Medoc. But due to the wet, damp weather grapes were harvested quickly. Some of the merlots were of uneven ripeness and the Cabernet Sauvignons were just OK.

Chaptalisation will take place at most Chateaux in order to bolster the wines.
Yields will be low due to the variable weather and severe selection of the best grapes.
'A year for the best terroir'......a quote during harvest from Paul Pontallier (managing director of Chateau Margaux)
A year for severe selection.......whether hand selected or by the optical sorting machines.

The taste of the wines........it is too early to say, but the growing conditions have been extremely challenging. We shall taste some of the post fermented juice over the next few months and we shall see the Primeur sample at the end of March 2014, when we will decide the quality. It would be miraculous if 2013 produces great wines!

Some optimisim from a Decanter article:
'We are looking at a vintage that is somewhere close to 2004 or 2007 in profile, even 2008, which for us was a very succesful year. ' Herve Berland, director of Chateau Montrose in Saint Estephe, told Decanter magazine.

Volume in the Bordeaux region may fall to 543 million bottles ( a drop of 30% from normal production). Smallest grape harvest since 1991.

Also we often overlook the Sauternes and Barsac areas for sweet wine production, when we talk about the Bordeaux harvest. This area thrives on the right kind of rot, but needs perfect climatic conditions.
Unfortunately the rain that pelted down at the end of October has impacted on the quantity, for what was initially looking like an excellent year for Sauternes.















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Botrytis on the grapes at Chateau d'Yquem during the 2013 harvest. Maybe rot is welcome somewhere!!!

In conclusion the best Chateaux, who have the most financial resources to select the best grapes and employ sufficient people in the vineyards and also to have the most high tech equipment should be able to produce some good wines. The interesting fact is that if these climatic conditions took place in the early 1990sor 1970s there would not have been much wine produced at all. Perhaps Monsieur Berland from Chateau Montrose and Monsieur Pontallier have reasons to be optimistic for their wines. The prices will have to be fair for this vintage.

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Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Mouton Rothschild 2011 new label released.

Chateau Mouton Rothschild have just announced that the French man Guy de Rougemont is the latest artist who will feature a piece of work on the 2011 Chateau Mouton Rothschild label.









Guy de Rougemont has already worked with Chateau Mouton Rothschild, as he designed a magnificent colonnade within the building where the original pieces of art are displayed.
Monsieur de Rouhemont is actually an old friend of Baronness Phillipine de Rothschild. They have known each other for over 60 years.
Rougemont frequently uses serpent like characters in his work, he has used his trademark "sinuous, random" undulating shapes, in bright colors ranging from gold to dark red. Mouton Rothschild says the artwork encompasses "the clarity of vines in sunshine to the darkness of the cellars – all the stages of the birth of a great wine."

The wine was bottled in June of this year and most of the wine has all been sold as Futures via the Bordeaux negociants and global imprters. The opening price (ex negociant was €360 per bottle). Robert Parker, the American wine critic awarded the wine 93-96 for the barrel sample, which was perceived as one of the top ranking wines of the 2011 vintage. The current trading price for the wine is approximately £3400-3600 per case, which is about the same as the release price. 2011 was a good vintage in Bordeaux rather than being spectacular. I have tasted the 2011 several times at the Chateau and during the ageing process. This wine will age well and be delicious in 10-15 years time. Whilst following the incredible 2010 vintage it might not be a classic it is certainly a very good quality wine for keeping.
Since 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild has invited artists to offer a piece of art to decorate the wine label. In fact in 1924 Baron Philippe de Rothschild invited Jean Carlu to design a label for the Chateau, but at that time the label was considered to 'avant garde'. Famous artists have been invited to design the label such as Dali, Balthus, John Huston, Chagall, Kandinsky, Warhol and Miro.
The original art work for the labels is now on display at the Chateau and with the re opened wine cellar (since June 2013) and the Museum of Art and Wine, it is certainly worth visiting and tasting at the Chateaux. The two other Pauillac wines in the Pauillac area owned by Baronness Philippine de Rothschild are also worth looking out for: Clerc Milon and d'Armailhac.
Bella Wine Tours regularly visits Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

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Saturday, 27 July 2013

Storms in Bordeaux

The unfortunate scene at Chateau Lafite Rothschild today after heavy storms last night.

The lovely parkland in front of Chateau Pontet Canet after the storm.

Two out of three flag poles have gone at Pontet Canet.

Big tree down at the village of Bages near Pauillac. The electrcity was cut out for most of the day. Hope the wine is OK in the barrel cellar at Chateau Lynch Bages.

There used to be a large tree in front of Chateau Palmer.....now there is a small pile of logs.

It is too early to say what the damage has been in the vineyards. There was certainly some hail on the Right Bank nearer St.Emilion, but the Medoc mainly had tree issues. The Bell Tower on Pauillac church was blown away with the ferocity of the wind.
Lets hope for a calm night tonight.
2013 has been a testing growing season.....Cold long winter, wet cold spring, bad weather at flowering (in particular effecting the merlot vines).....and now extreme heat followed by storms. There is still hope for a decent crop if the weather is stable over the next three months.



 

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Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Chateau d'Yquem theft and flowers



Last week I was lucky enough to visit Chateau d'Yquem with some clients. This stunning Chateau in Sauternes has a remarkable heritage and history dating back over a thousand years. The beautiful wine has been served at Royal housheolds throughout the World for many centuries. This wine is the epitome of a luxury brand. It is now controlled by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, who have an excellent track record for promoting, marketing and selling luxury.
When I visited the Chateau the gardens were in full bloom. The colours and smells were sensational. The bees were very happy.
Unfortunately on Sunday night there was a break in at the Chateau and 384 half bottles of the 2010 vintage were stolen....the approximate market value for these bottles is €100,000.

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