Bordeaux and Robert Parker

There is no doubt about Robert Parker’s influence on Bordeaux. Ever since he famously got the 82 vintage right whereas many others got it wrong, he has been by far the most influential commentator on Bordeaux’s annual release. His influence, together with that of other critics, is much increased by fact that most Bordeaux wines are sold en primeur, pushing consumers to make their purchasing decisions long before they have a chance to taste the wines. Unless you want to pay prices that in good vintages can be much higher by the time the wines are available, you have to rely on the opinions of critics who taste en primeur.

In most vintages, chateau owners wait with bated press for the April issue of the Wine Advocate containing Parker’s ratings of the vintage. When Parker did not make his visit to assess the 2002 vintage (because of the Gulf war), Jancis Robinson commented that the Bordelais would now have to relearn the whole art of selling their wine en primeur – without Mr. Parker. But in every other vintage for the past three decades,the Wine Advocate rating has been an important factor in determining the level of interest in the vintage – and presumably in individual chateaux.

There are certainly some striking examples of the effect of the Wine Advocate’s ratings of individual wines. In the 2001 en primeur campaign, Climens was its usual one third above the price of Suduiraut and Rieussec. When it was promoted to a perfect score of  100 in the final review in June 2004, its price differential over the others increased to 200-300% worldwide. In the en primeur campaign for the 1990 vintage, Chateau Montrose’s release price was in its usual position just below Cos d’Estournel. The Wine Advocate’s review of the vintage en primeur rated it highly, but then a re-review after bottling promoted it to 100 points. Immediately its price reached double that of Cos d’Estournel at the auctions.

Both these examples represents cases where the wine was available on the after-market when the 100 point review came out. I’ve been looking for some way to assess whether critical influence has the same effect when the wines are en primeur. I’ve just spent a week in Bordeaux working on my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, but also picking up data for a new edition of my earlier book, What Price Bordeaux?, including en primeur prices from the Place de Bordeaux for recent vintages. The 2008 vintage is an interesting situation that might answer the question.

2008 was a difficult vintage in Bordeaux. Various climatic problems resulted in a rather small vintage, decent but not outstanding in quality. When the en primeur campaign started in April 2009, the world economy was in full retreat and it was not obvious to the Bordelais how they would be able to sell the vintage. The first growths took an unexpected lead. Usually they come out at the end of the campaign, but this year they acted in concert right at the beginning, dropping their prices by almost half from 2007. This was a clear signal to the market to create value. During the second half of April, chateaux came out at prices ranging from two thirds of their 2007 prices to a couple at parity.

The opinion of the vintage expressed in the Wine Advocate at the end of April was a surprise. Mr. Parker declared that the vintage was much better than had generally been appreciated. “I was worried that at best, quality would be average to above average… several French newspapers came out with stories about the deplorable quality of the 2008 Bordeaux vintage,” he said, but then found that “It did not take me long to realize that the 2008 vintage was dramatically better than I had expected… the quality of the 2008 vintage turned out to be excellent, with a number of superb wines that are close to, if not equal to the prodigious 2005 or 2000 vintages.”

Comparisons with 2005 and 2000 might be expected to give a definite lift to the reputation of the vintage. Indeed, chateau proprietors who had already committed their prices felt somewhat rueful that they might have done better to wait. But those who came on the market later did not in fact see much significant gain. Excluding the first growths, chateaux declaring during April averaged 87% of their price relative to 2007, while those coming out in May averaged 94%. The difference is mostly due to a small number of chateaux whose prices were rather low right at the beginning of the campaign, around the time the First Growths came out. If the Wine Advocate report had a direct effect, it was probably to reinforce a view that was already developing that extreme reductions (below 80% relative to 2007) were not necessary. As a scatter plot of the data shows, the majority of chateaux were in a range between 80% and 100% of their 2007 prices throughout the campaign (the First Growths are in red).

Chateau prices for 2008 relative to 2007 during the en primeur campaign

Now I am not suggesting that the Wine Advocate doesn’t have influence: far from it. But I suggest the data show that there are other important factors also, in this case the combination of a poor reputation that (rightly or wrongly) had already been established for the vintage, together with the background of economic difficulties. Generally speaking, when the Wine Advocate presents its view of the vintage, it’s against a background where expectations have already been created, and to some extent the detailed ratings refine and extend those expectations. When it’s reputed to be a great vintage, consumers are looking for assistance in making their decisions. It seems they are not so easily swayed when the news is significantly different from their expectations. In the same way, I showed in What Price Bordeaux? that the most important influence on the relative price of a wine in any year is the price it achieved the previous year. It’s not that criticism isn’t important, but that – with the notable exception of cases where a wine is give a perfect score that lifts it right up out of its usual situation –  critical opinion takes some years to affect the annual pricing.

So the naysayers who worry that Robert Parker (or any other critic) has undue influence over the entire process might take some comfort from the thought that there are many influences at work here. Some of those influences are due to informed opinion, some are due to propaganda, some are due to ignorance, and when you look back years later at the supposed vintages of the century, it’s far from evident that the outcome, however determined, is particularly accurate at the time. Certainly it’s not easy, even with experience, to be sure of judging wines after only six months in the barrel, and if the blame is to put anywhere for the rush of the lemmings, it’s on the system rather than individual critics.

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The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet

Flying transatlantic isn’t a great opportunity for fine wine and dining, but there really isn’t much else to do on the flight besides eat, drink, and sleep, so I thought I’d make an assessment of the present state of the high life. Flying American Airlines from New York to London, en route to start research in Bordeaux for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, my assessment got off to a poor start in the lounge before takeoff, when the sparkling wine was Gloria Ferrer Brut from Sonoma. Judged by the taste, Brut is clearly a misnomer. Sweet to the point of being sickly, the monotonic palate had a strong taste of green apples (although without the matching acidity you might expect), and if you had told me it was a sparkling apple cider, I would have been hard put to argue. There are some fine sparkling wines made in northern California, but this is not one of them, and proved to be a sad harbinger for what was to follow.

Things improved briefly after takeoff when the Champagne was Pommery. Now this has never been one of my favorites – it always used to strike me as too thin and lacking in fruit – but it has definitely improved since Vranken acquired the brand name in 1990. I don’t know whether taste is affected by the low pressure at altitude, but this now seems to be a respectable, if rather ordinary sparkling wine. There’s not much character to it, and the dosage is just a touch too high for my taste – I wonder whether my impression that dosage has been increasing is right or whether my palate has changed – giving an impression that sugar is being used to compensate for lack of flavor interest. The wine seems essentially uninteresting and its flat flavor profile gave me some trouble in trying to find descriptors for a tasting note. You don’t expect originality from Grand Marque Champagnes, but I still think Pommery could do a better job to disguise its mass produced origins.

The white wines offered a choice between L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State and Thilion Torbato Sauvignon Blanc from Sardinia. I had some trouble distinguishing them. If I were to be unkind I would say that the Chardonnay was a forlorn attempt to achieve the New World style. The palate has been loaded with oak to disguise the lack of ripeness in the fruit. The oak flavors stand aside from the fruits, and if I didn’t know that the wine had been aged in barriques I would have wondered about the use of oak chips The oak gives a hard, disjointed, phenolic note to the finish. This is one of those rare wines that would have been improved by a shorter finish, as what mostly lingers on are those disjointed oak phenolics.

Despairing of the Chardonnay, I turned to my wife’s Sauvignon Blanc (actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the indigenous grape Torbata), although its relatively deep golden color made me feel suspicious even before I tasted it. A sniff made things worse. Instead of the expected grassiness or herbaceousness came a sort of slightly astringent citrus note. Maybe this is due to the Torbata, which is supposed to have a smoky aroma. Again the palate was loaded with harsh phenolics. I would have placed this as an aromatic variety in a blind tasting, but I think I would have had some trouble recognizing Sauvignon Blanc in it. I wonder whether I would have been able to identify the wines, if I’d been given them blind and told that one was Chardonnay and one was a Sauvignon blend. It wouldn’t be easy to find varietal typicity in this pair, but perhaps the greater acidity and aromaticity would identify the Sauvignon.

On to the reds, where we tried the Villa Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and the Tres Picos Garnacha. Now I remember a period in the late 1970s when Villa Mt. Eden had a great reputation. In fact, based on Robert Parker’s recommendation, I bought a case of the 1978 vintage and drank it for several years. It never achieved greatness, but was still holding up quite well in 1993 when I had the last bottle. Sic transit gloria mundi. I do not think the old style is remotely recognizable in the current wine. When I swirled and smelled the wine, I wondered if there had been a mistake as the aromas of black cherry fruits with some piquancy came up at me. No, I decided on smelling my wife’s wine, which was even more aromatic and piquant. Following to the palate, the Cabernet showed no more typicity of Cabernet than the Chardonnay had of Chardonnay. The only note of relief was an oaky vanillin that seemed artificial. I’ve never really thought of Cabernet Sauvignon as an intensely aromatic variety, but after this wine I might have to change my opinion. (To be fair, you can find some high-end Napa or Barossa Cabernets with fairly distinct aromatics, but although I don’t usually like the wines, at least I can recognize a matching concentration and fruit intensity that hangs together.)

After this, I approached the Grenache with trepidation. The only information American Airlines provided about its origins is that it is produced in Spain. It turns out to come from the Campo de Borja DO, just to the south of Navarra, where Grenache is the principal grape. I have to disagree with Robert Parker’s high ratings for this wine. Aromatic and piquant on the nose, it followed through to the palate with bright red cherry fruits and a piquancy that made me wonder about acidification, with a slightly sickly nutty end to the finish.  But I have an idea. Add a little sugar and the profile would be perfect for a dessert wine. (After this, I decided not to sample the dessert wine, which however seemed to be a perfectly respectable vintage port.)

I can’t completely exclude the possibility that my palate was out of whack at 35,000 feet, but at all events the common feature of these wines seemed to be excessive striving for intensity. Subtle they ain’t. Even at the crunched price point – I calculate that if every passenger had a glass of wine American would be spending about $2.00 per passenger – there could at least be more variety of choice.

The food was better than the wine but not by a large margin. In all the years I have been on American Airlines, the food has never been up to much. Ranging from barely edible to inedible, sometimes it strikes me as unfit for human consumption (well, consumption by this human, anyway). In the past year or two there’s been some slight improvement. There was always a tendency on American to make the food highly spiced – just what you want at 35,000 feet where you tend to get dehydrated anyway – I assume to disguise the poor quality of the ingredients, but fortunately that phase seems to have passed. Of course, the days of  Krug and caviar on transatlantic flights are long since gone, but surely they could do better than to serve dried out hot meals. I’d settle for cold salads made from better ingredients any time (but I guess the bean counters won’t wear it). In any case, I’ll leave the last word to an American flight attendant, who some years ago said to me, “We’re not fine dining, we’re transportation.”