China Buys Bordeaux Chateaux, Wine as 2008 Vintage Hits Shelves

2008 Chateau Pichon-Lalande
A 2008 Chateau Pichon-Lalande at the annual Union des Grands Crus tasting was a top pick. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

A blizzard threatened the New York arrival of nearly 100 Bordeaux chateau owners who were eager to show off their 2008 vintage, now bottled and soon to appear on retail shelves.

They, and the wines, made it and tales of hours on airport tarmacs mixed with wine talk as I sipped and spat the 100-plus reds and whites at the annual Union des Grands Crus tasting at New York’s Metropolitan Pavilion just over a week ago.

Many owners are already touting the greatness of 2010 and suggest 2008 may be Bordeaux’s last price/quality buy.

I’ve heard that about other vintages, but this time it just might be true -- at least until the Chinese start hoovering up these wines. After all, 2008 Chateau Lafite, that country’s favorite label, has skyrocketed from $600 to nearly $2,000 a bottle in the past year, riding Chinese demand.

Even in barrel, the 2008s were a surprise, much better than anyone expected.

“It was a cold vintage, and at the end of August we thought it was all over for the reds,” said spiffily suited Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier as he splashed wine in my glass. “Luckily September and October were so nice we could wait for real ripeness before picking. I have never harvested so late.”

What’s tough for reds can be good for whites, and Domaine de Chevalier’s rare white ($95) definitely deserves five stars.

While the reds are inconsistent, the best showed plenty of finesse and fruity charm, though not the concentration and ageability of the great 2005s and tannic 2009s.

Think of the 2008s as classic, medium-weight Bordeaux. (I kept writing the words ‘appetizing,’ ‘balanced,’ ‘savory’ in my notes.)

Right Price

The prices are right with many wines, cheaper than any other good vintage on the market. Most of the still-in-barrel 2009s cost a third to half more, don’t arrive until 2012, and won’t be ready to drink for at least a decade.

The delicious Chateau Cantemerle is $25 while Domaine de Chevalier’s very solid red is $50. From Saint-Emilion, I like lush, ripe Figeac ($90), a steal considering its ‘09 goes for $250. From Saint-Julien my picks are plummy, silky Lagrange ($35) and dark, rich, smooth Leoville Barton ($60). In Margaux, my favorite is fragrant, tender, elegant Rauzan-Segla ($70).

As usual, Pauillac’s Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron ($80) has power and finesse, but the star of the tasting is the ripe, layered Pichon Lalande ($110).

As Gary Boom, managing director of London-based merchant Bordeaux Index puts it, “The ‘08s are the hottest ticket right now. You can get two cases of 2008 Pichon Lalande for the price of a decent handbag.”

Staggering 2009s

The first growths, already soaring in price, and a few other top chateaux don’t deign to pour in these group tastings.

When 2008 futures went on sale in summer 2009 in the middle of the recession, top names sold because they were very fairly priced, says Chris Adams, president of New York’s Sherry-Lehmann.

There was a serious uptick last fall after the staggering 2009 futures prices were released, making the 2008s look positively cheap by comparison.

Now, the costs of 2008s vary widely, as much as $600 and more a case. That’s thanks to currency fluctuations and the fact that each time retailers buy more, they pay a higher price. Paul Favale Jr., vice president of negociant and importer Joanne Bordeaux USA, points out that retail prices can be lower than wholesale, depending on when a retailer purchased the wine. Caveat emptor.

Asia largely stayed out of the 2008 futures game, with only a few top labels in demand, said Boom, whose company maintains an office in Hong Kong. Besides the first growths, a handful excite interest.

‘Dragon Boat’

Chateau Angelus is known as ‘kin chung,’ the golden bell, after the symbol on the wine’s label, an association that boosts its sales, explained co-owner Jean-Bernard Grenie.

Chateau Beychevelle is called ‘dragon boat’ because its label features a boat with a gryffon. Calon Segur, with a heart on its label, is often given as a token of affection.

Now that 2008 is being released in bottle “and the wine is physical,” Boom thinks another 20 to 50 labels will sell in China, pushing prices higher. He reports sales to Asia of second growths like Pichon Baron went up 35 percent over the past year.

Besides embracing the wine, the Chinese are snapping up Bordeaux estates. UK wine magazine Decanter reported last week that Cofco, a Beijing-based grain and food company owned by the government, has just bought Chateau Viaud, a small property in Lalande-de-Pomerol, as part of a bigger business deal.

That’s the third Chinese chateau purchase in the past two years, and more are said to be in the works.

After 2008 and 2009, will any buyers invest in the 2010s, supposedly another ‘vintage of the century?’ I’ll report on whether the buzz on quality is justified in April, after the annual en primeur tastings.

“I always prefer to have the problem of how to sell really great wine,” said Sherry-Lehmann’s Adams.

We’ll see.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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