"Always follow the money. Inevitably it will lead to an oak-panelled door and behind it will be Mr Big.” The advice, from the 1975 book Crime in Britain Today by Clive Borrell and Brian Cashinella, has led many investigators to criminals and many reporters to the heart of a story.
In Bordeaux the adage applies in reverse. We know where Mr Big lives, or at least where he works – in the groomed châteaux behind grandiose gateposts. But every tale and every show of manners; the highs and the lows, the intrigues and the crushing disappointments, every part of the elaborate dance of making and selling the wine, all of it is guided by one thing – pecuniary success.
This is why the elevation in April of Essex-raised, orange Kit Kat-loving amateur DJ Neal Martin to full reviewer of bordeaux coverage for The Wine Advocate was such big news. Last year Martin took over from the hugely influential American Robert Parker as the critic for en primeur (wines shown at barrel sample stage and sold as futures in the spring following the vintage). A big step, but as Giles Cooper of wine merchant BI points out, the locus of power could only truly shift when Martin was responsible for scoring in bottle too. “Otherwise people could just wait for the Parker points that would follow the Martin ones.”
Parker scores could move markets. Such was his dominion that the mere information he was to update his scores on a particular set of wines could send their price up in anticipation – as happened in the six months before he published a retrospective tasting of the 2005 vintage last summer.
Without question, Martin inherits some of this leverage. He is a superb writer and a trusted palate who also brings to the job a substantial following that is all his own. His report of the 2015 wines was released at the end of last week. For the six châteaux (Margaux, Canon, Haut-Brion, Vieux Château Certan, Pétrus and Yquem) given a potentially perfect banding of 98-100 on the famed Parker 100-point scale, there will have been great rejoicing.
Doubtless also Bordeaux will be crackling with the discomfort of proprietors whose châteaux have been outscored by their neighbours and who are forced to conceal their lacerated pride with magnanimity and smiles. Latour might well be smarting at having been bested by Pichon Baron and equalled by Pichon Lalande, for example.
As the season proceeds, what everyone will be jostling to know is: what effect will Martin’s report have on the money? To what extent will his scores and notes move sales and prices? This is a complex market and there are many other factors at play. For instance, 2015 is touted as the best vintage since 2010, so Bordeaux is hoping for a pick-up in sales.
In the UK, currency jitters caused by Brexit uncertainty might prove off-putting to buyers. And then there are reputational effects. Amid uncertain conditions, brand equity carries a higher status. One merchant reports that during the campaign for the 2013s (an awful vintage) 90 per cent of their en primeur turnover was in wine from a single high-calibre brand: Château Lafite.
An important element of Parker’s success was his gamesmanship. He had an unerring instinct for creating just the right amount of surprise: a few châteaux scoring unexpectedly low, while others scored unexpectedly high, for example.
He also created nerve-jangling suspense. For instance, when he rescored the 2010s in bottle he (or his team) let it be known that there would be one lucky new entrant to the perfect-scoring 100-club, a snippet of information that kept the whole of Bordeaux in a state of frenzied excitement for days.
In fact, there were two, and neither of them were the châteaux that had been hotly tipped. Le Dome (a St Emilion) and La Violette (Pomerol) were the surprise new 100-pointers and the financial result for Jonathan Maltus, owner of Le Dome, was not negligible: a €750,000 turnover in four days.
Parker might have handed over the role to Martin but he seems reluctant to let go of such dizzying power entirely. In a restaurant review published in the Hedonist’s Gazette section of his website on April 22, he dished up 100 points to Pape Clément 2009, which he had enjoyed over dinner at a restaurant in his home state of Maryland. The trading price immediately leapt up 35 per cent.
Martin is a different sort of player. He has an Englishman’s appreciation of understatement and quirky humour. He is also very much his own man. He may have stepped into Parker’s job but he will not be trying to step into his shoes. This is clearly a good thing. But the main question will be: how much of the money will follow him?
What I've enjoyed this week
Tio pepe en rama 2016 bottling NV Spain
(15%, The Wine Society, Lea & Sandeman, Adnams, around £15.99 for 375ml)
Tio Pepe en rama is here. This season’s very limited release of Tio Pepe sherry, bottled straight from the cask with no fining and no filtration, is intended to capture the freshness of fino as if you’re tasting it in the bodega. Salty, dry and crackling with energy, it always sells out rapidly. Grab your bottle while you can.
Ramon Bilbao Single Vineyard Rioja 2014 Spain (13.5%, Majestic, £9.49 or £7.99 on the mix six deal)
A sleek, smooth and contemporary rioja with neat sides and a strawberry brightness. This is absolutely not one of your manure and barnyard riojas, but a clean-edged wine made from tempranillo and garnacha. Lovely to drink, but does need you to be mixing six to get good value.
finest* Las Lomitas Merlot Colchagua 2015 Chile (14%, Tesco, £6)
This isn’t my kind of wine but if you are the kind of drinker that likes red to be as thickly almost-solid as builders’ tea, it might be for you. It smells of dry chocolate powder and heavy black fruit and would be good with a smoky barbecue or chilli con carne with chocolate in it.
Telegraph Bespoke present The Telegraph Wine Experience on Tuesday, 12 July 2016. Join us for the ultimate luxury tasting experience to find your perfect grape. Find out more at kaleistyleguide.com/ wineexperience