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In Bordeaux, a glass half empty

After enjoying several years of financial and gastronomic glory, Bordeaux winemakers fear a bitter aftertaste.

Figures released last month by the Bordeaux winemakers association showed sales of St. Emilion, Medoc and other Bordeaux wines in 2008 were 32 million bottles, flat on a year earlier. Exports to European Union countries were down 12 percent in volume terms. But the year was saved by the high prices fetched by the 2005 vintage, the best of which hit store shelves last year. Overall sales of Bordeaux wines reached 3.84 billion euros last year, up from 3.4 billion euros in 2007.

This year figures should be less flattering. Even without considering the financial crisis, currency fluctuations look certain to batter Bordeaux. Winemakers’ expenses are in euros, while much of their sales are in British pounds and American dollars, both of which have been falling against the euro.

Many key merchants are not even bothering to visit Bordeaux this spring during the annual tasting. Among the high-profile defectors is Farr Vintners, a fine wine firm based in London. Its directors say they see few buyers for the vintage without a big price drop.

“We have to change this image of Bordeaux associated with arrogance and black ties,” admitted Alain Vironneau, the head of the Bordeaux Winemaker’s Association, to reporters at a gathering here in Brussels to present the 2008 results. For Vironneau, this means prices of elite wines must fall. “We must expect, like with all luxury products, an adjustment of demand, and therefore supply.”

Other trends also worry Vironneau. In France, overall consumption of wine continues to fall, with fewer drinking daily during meals. Many younger Frenchmen are turning to spirits and reserving wine for special occasions. Sales of basic “vin de table” are falling and this translates into tough years for basic Bordeaux, Vironneau said. In addition, he noted that the French government has stepped up its fight against drunk driving with new, tough restrictions. Some officials are even considering raising the drinking age from 16 to 18.

Against these concerns, some in Bordeaux are hoping that critics still will save sales. The most powerful wine critic in the world, Robert Parker, recently travelled to Bordeaux to taste the 2008 wines. If he praises them, it could spike demand, said merchant Jeffrey Davies.

“Just did my big Bordeaux 2008 tasting with Parker and am pleased to report that he found the quality surprisingly good, especially after reading some of the initial reports about the vintage,” Davies said.

Instead of selling, many Bordeaux winemakers may prefer to hold their wines off the market and wait for an economic recovery. For those who cannot wait out the crisis, though, this year’s glass of fine wine probably will end up half empty.

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