Apr. 22 (Bloomberg) -- His ponytail tucked into a tight knot, Baptiste Guinaudeau dodges raindrops and ducks into the tiny cellar of his family’s famed property in Pomerol, Chateau Lafleur.
As he pours barrel samples of his 2012 reds, he explains how tricky this Bordeaux vintage was: spring rains that delayed flowering, a 46-day summer drought that stressed grapes, uneven ripening, threats of rot and mildew in the vineyard.
I hear similar stories at nearly every chateau during my 10-day trip to Bordeaux for the annual en primeur mega-tastings in early April. Six thousand wine professionals from 67 countries are here to assess the latest vintage of wines still in barrel, and decide what’s worth buying as futures.
Chateau Lafleur is a success, the grand vin is subtle and elegant, with aromas of violets, spicy flavors and a succulent texture.
Many of the 500-plus wines I sip and spit are not.
Winemakers who picked at the right time and had a gentle touch in the cellar made elegant wines with intense red fruit flavors, freshness and charm, and alcohol levels mercifully below 14 percent.
The best will offer drinking pleasure way sooner than the grander, more concentrated and tannic 2010s. They’re better than the 2011s; many compare them to the under-sung 2001s.
But the winemakers who tried to ape the powerful style of the 2010s -- and there were many -- made wines that taste hollow, bitter, and unbalanced.
As Pierre Lurton, managing director of Chateau Cheval Blanc, a stunning, violet-scented success, says, “2012 was a vintage of strategy.” It certainly required money.
At Chateau Mouton Rothschild, managing director Philippe Dhalluin describes the complex weather software program he uses to track clouds and how he kept 750 pickers on standby.
To combat hydric stress at his top chateaus in Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, Christian Moueix, owner of negociant Jean-Pierre Moueix, cultivated vines at night to keep moisture in the soil. “I had workers rinse the grapes, to refresh them with a shower on a hot day,” he says.
I taste in stark, white rooms overlooking vineyards, in damp cellars, in grand chateaux surrounded by elaborately framed paintings and well-polished antiques. After sipping and spitting 50 to 100 wines each day, my teeth are purple and my tongue looks black.
I find winners and losers in every appellation. In Pomerol, the fabulous, super-suave Petrus, made from 100 percent merlot, the floral-scented Vieux Chateau Certan, velvety Chateau Trotanoy, and lush, silky-textured Le Pin are among my standouts.
On the Left Bank, highlights include the refined Chateau Calon Segur in Saint-Estephe and the fragrant Chateau Lafite Rothschild, deep, rich Chateau Mouton Rothschild, plummy Chateau Pontet-Canet, and perfectly balanced Chateau Pichon Lalande in Pauillac.
In Saint-Julien, Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou is wonderfully luscious; in Margaux, the stunning Chateau Palmer is loaded with energy; in Graves, whites especially shine.
At the final press lunch in Chateau Marquis de Terme’s cold cellar in Margaux, lit with candles, Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux president Olivier Bernard warns chateau owners, “With the 2011s, the prices didn’t go down enough for some chateaux.”
Blame the quality and the disorganized futures campaign. Many uber-expensive 2010s languish unsold in negociant cellars.
No one thinks the Chinese will spend big bucks. Many of them were burned on the 2010s, discovering prices can go down as well as up. While Berry Bros. & Rudd sold 30 percent of its 2009s to Hong Kong and Japan, for the 2011s the proportion plummeted to three percent. Plus China’s new president Xi Jinping has reprimanded big spenders.
“I think if we get the bargains everyone is expecting we will all fall back in love with my old pal Bordeaux,” Simon Staples, Berry Bros. sales director in Asia wrote in an e-mail. But will we?
“The campaign also has to happen quickly, or whatever interest exists will be lost,” adds Gary Boom, managing director of London-based Bordeaux Index. The company recently opened their first U.S. office in Los Angeles. Boom says they’ll offer futures of only about 40 chateaux, the same number as Berry Bros.
The ever-strategic Moueix has already released prices that are below those for the 2011s. Last week, Farr Vintners and Bordeaux Index started offering from his stable, the sleek, delicious Chateau Belair-Monange, at about $100 a bottle.
On April 18, second growth Chateau Rauzan Segla released its 2012 at a price 3 percent lower than the 2011. Merchants like Farr Vintners are offering the 2012 at $645 a case.
First growth Mouton Rothschild’s 2012 is 33 percent less than its 2011, and now selling for about $355 a bottle. Expect a flurry of additional price releases this week.
The problem, says one negociant as we chat over a spittoon, is one-upmanship. Price is part of a chateau’s image, and no one wants to look cheaper than his neighbor.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Greg Evans on TV.
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