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Liv-ex’s Anthony Maxwell in discussion with Neal Martin 

Following the annual En Primeur trade tastings and the publication of Neal Martin’s latest book “The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide”, Liv-ex’s Anthony Maxwell sat down with the critic to discuss all things Bordeaux.  

*Maxwell and Martin filmed the virtual interview on 9th May 2023.  

Maxwell begins the conversation: ‘So far we’ve had Cheval Blanc out, 20% up on last year and Angelus was released 32% up on last year. So the signs are that the growers and the Château owners think they’re onto a very good vintage. Any early thoughts?” 

“I would say it’s a very good vintage but with some caveats’, replies Martin. ‘I explain it all in the report… I think nowadays it’s an intense sales pitch to merchants and critics alike. And I think it’s more and more important that you say what you think, you don’t pull punches.’ 

Martin goes on to say, “For Vinous, keeping that independence is more important now than ever… Honesty and frankness are extremely important.” 

Critics Independence 

On the subject of independence, Maxwells asks: ‘Do you feel that it’s getting harder to remain true to [it], with the rise of a slight proliferation in the number of critics, the way scores and thoughts and commentaries are disseminated very quickly through the various social channels?’ 

’I couldn’t care less, to be honest’, is Martin’s matter-of-fact response. ‘I mean, the most important thing for me is to write a report deserving of the importance I give to Bordeaux wines, so I don’t really care how many other people there are, it doesn’t change what I do.’ 

Critic scores have always played a significant role during En Primeur, especially since the invention of Robert Parker’s 100-point system in the 1970s. Liv-ex discussed the subject in our opening report, Bordeaux 2022: A double-edged sword

Parker’s influence on the Bordeaux market (and by extension En Primeur) was colossal; the chart below highlights the market soared upon the release of Parker’s 100-point score to Pontet-Canet 2009.  

As such, the news in 2015 that he would stop tasting En Primeur left the trade reeling. Neal Martin was announced as Parker’s replacement but left to join rival publication Vinous in 2017.  

In the last few years, the number of influential wine critics has grown exponentially; currently, Liv-ex monitors the En Primeur scores of 16 leading critics via our critics scores grid. However, standing out from the crowd, Neal Martin was voted the most influential Bordeaux critic for the second year in a row in our latest En Primeur trade survey.  

Bordeaux 2008 

In his book, Neal Martin singles out ‘the subprime crisis [that] sparked the global economic crash’ as the most important event of 2008. The chart below shows the impact of the crash on the fine wine market. 

*Number 3: September 2008 – Lehman Brothers file for bankruptcy, signalling the start of the financial crisis.   

Maxwell points out that at the time, the Liv-ex indices ‘fell by a record 25% in two months in September and October, overnight’. 

The 2008 vintage was launched En Primeur into this nervous financial market. Maxwell explains that, as a result, ‘the wines didn’t really sell for those first two or three or four weeks, even though they were down 30% [in price compared to 2007]’.  

‘I think the Châteaux and the merchants felt that they could read how Parker was going to rate it’, adds Martin. ‘And it was the one vintage where I think they assumed that he was going to be quite negative about it. And I think they for whatever reason, they got it wrong’. 

The cautious pricing of the 2008 vintage benefitted collectors, who took advantage of lower release prices. Maxwell emphasises this, highlighting that ‘looking back at the last sort of 15 or so vintages, the vintage where the collector has benefited the most and have had the biggest return is the 2008’. 

Bordeaux 2019 

In the same vein, Martin talks of the ‘prudent’ pricing of the 2019 vintage, which was released into the market during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Maxwell points out the that the prices ‘were 22% down […] versus the 2018. And now, three years since they’ve been released, they’re up 23-24% across the board. So to the collector that’s not bad’.  

The Bordeaux 2019 En Primeur campaign grabbed the market’s attention at a time of great uncertainty and considerable financial stress. While the quality of the vintage played an important role, the success of the campaign was squarely down to its attractive pricing. 

This begs the question, does Bordeaux need some form of global macroeconomic event like COVID or the financial crisis for the balance to redress the balance of its prices? 

Martin talks about conversations he had with Châteaux owners, who correctly pointed out that every level of the supply chain has to make a margin. However, he adds, ‘the one they would also miss out is the consumer, but to me that is the most important person’. 

Comparing the 2019 vintage’s pricing strategy to 2022, Martin highlights that the Châteaux can price the wine however they want, but ‘if the consumer is thinking a) that’s a big hike from the last vintage, and b) I can get these physically available vintages at a cheaper price, then that’s going to take away from the demand’. 

The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide 

As Maxwell points out that Martin’s recently published book is ‘quite a different kind of wine book’, he wonders what the inspiration was behind The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide

Martin explains that ‘the inspiration came from the original wine market journal website […] and it was called the Bordeaux Vintage Guide back then as well. I wanted something that would trigger a sense of time in someone’s mind – the best way to do that is through historical events, films and particularly songs’. 

The book, which according to Martin was ‘never intended to be a book’, highlights how vintage quality is often viewed in very black or white terms when often it is more of a sliding scale.  

‘That’s why I avoided any kind of sort of star system or grading system. Michael Broadbent was a big inspiration, and he had the five-star system. But I just thought people are just going to just go to the five-star vintages. But those one- and two-star vintages, they’re quite interesting. And you can’t write a whole vintage off entirely, you know?’ 

Watch the full interview below to learn more about Neal Martin’s thoughts on the 2019 vintage, his first En Primeur tasting experience, his love of Sauternes and where the value lies for collectors of Bordeaux.  

Neal Martin’s book, The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide is available to buy now.