COVID-19 has caused a great many deaths and dislocations, so in any reasonable ranking of repercussions, wine-related problems rank pretty low. With that acknowledged, wine remains important for many of us, and the recent rash of illness has caused the cancellation of many a fine wine related event, including one of most important: barrel tastings of Bordeaux’s latest vintage, which were scheduled in late March and early April.
“It is too bad that happened, as it removed what creates buzz around a vintage,” remarked Bordeaux-based Michel Perrot, who has over 30 years’ experience working for the Bordeaux wine trade.
Indeed, after some 50 days in lock-down in Strasbourg, France, followed by travel restrictions, I did not go to Bordeaux to taste the 2019 vintage from barrel. Few did. Like others, I arranged for samples to be shipped to my home address.
Even though merchants are using scores from famous critics—including some very high ones—to peddle futures, the muted campaign for the ‘19s is just what the doctor ordered… for consumers at least. And not just for health reasons.
Having assessed some Bordeaux barrel samples that were shipped to me, I confirm that this latest vintage promises to be rather excellent, and different from the “bigger” style of 2018 that received so much media hype.
Lower hype and a questionable economic situation put downward pressure on pricing. For example, US tariffs on still wines from France below 14% alcohol are still in place, along with COVID-19’s negative economic impact at present, and uncertain outlook for the future.
But does this downward pressure fulfil the condition laid out last month from Liv-Ex, the highly respected database of fine wine prices? Its report on how COVID-19 is affecting the wine trade included a point about Bordeaux 2019 futures: “It is clear that now is not the time to release a highly priced and abundant ‘great’ vintage onto the market. It either needs to be postponed or presented at a price that the market simply cannot refuse.”
The latter approach has been taken as prices trickle out, and the trend looks to be a 30% reduction in price as compared to the 2018 offering last year, and people are taking notice.
“I have to say that it’s already rocking,” remarked Simon Staples of Lay & Wheeler Wine Merchants in the UK. “We had our biggest sales day since EP 2011,” he added, stressing that most offerings have been “sold out in hours” including Châteaux Palmer, Lynch Bages, Lafite- and Mouton-Rothschild, d’Armailhac, Clerc Milon and Calon Ségur.
Just this week, Château Mouton Rothschild was released for $400, which is a 30% decrease from last year. The Pauillac fifth growth Château d’Armailhac, at just under $43, is more of a bargain for most of us non millionaires.
Château Pontet-Canet set the tone on 28 May for €58 ($65) per bottle ex-Bordeaux: which was over 30% below the opening price of the much-hyped (sometimes over-hyped) 2018 release. It seems that the price met the Liv-Ex criteria, as many of these futures are sold out, with the expectation of a higher second tranche for this estate.
As Decanter reported, “Liv-Ex data showed that it is one of the lowest priced vintages of Pontet-Canet on the market, and the lowest ex-Bordeaux release price since 2008.”
One would think that the enduring 25% tariff would hamper sales. Some of that 30% price reduction could be offset by the higher tax. Indeed, Grand Vin Wine Merchants in Washington State includes a “Tariff Charge May Apply” to futures sales, with a box to check next to your online order to indicate “customer acceptance” of the product possibly being subject to a 25% tariff charge.
But Phil Bernstein of MacArthur Beverages in Washington D.C. is “cautiously optimistic” because sales have been “strong thus far, with Mouton Rothschild and Pontet Canet being the hot ticket items”.
“I think the pricing is attractive enough to garner interest; what’s been tough is the smaller allocations of the hot wines as I assume the châteaux are holding back stocks with the hope that the price can eventually be raised.”
As for the potential tariff, Bernstein is hoping that, “it will be gone by the time the wines arrive.” “If it’s not repealed by the time the wines arrive, I’m going to ask customers to split the tariff…or they can get their money back,” he adds.
Another factor is that even if people are starting to travel more and are making plans for summer holidays, a lingering risk remains that states may have “opened too soon” without having properly “flattened the curve” or that COVID-19 will mutate later this year into a more aggressive form, leaving everyone less concerned about buying the latest Bordeaux vintage.
Nonetheless, for U.S. buyers especially: If you can ensure that the Bordeaux you are buying would be labeled as at least 14% alcohol (say, a Merlot-dominated blend from Saint-Émilion), then 2019 could be indeed a superb wine buying opportunity.
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Check out Panos’s reviews of Bordeaux 2019 on Wine-Chronicles.com