I was so busy driving between châteaux and tastings last week that I almost missed a minor storm that was brewing behind the scenes...
En primeur 2015: The word inside Bordeaux
It started innocuously enough with a headline on Monday morning in the local Sud Ouest newspaper that proclaimed the Bordeaux 2015 vintage was the ‘last chance to save the en primeur system’.
We’ve all heard that before of course. This time around it was an interview with the president of négociant company Vintex, Patrice Ricard, who organises one of the most popular ‘off-circuit’ tastings for buyers and journalists. It was a great interview from local journalist César Compadre, a pretty searing analysis of the primeurs but nothing that we don’t already know, detailing too many years of overpriced wines, small releases, unsold stocks piling up in merchants’ cellars.
‘Thankfully interest rates are still low,’ Ricard said, ‘which means it doesn’t cost too much to finance the stocks sitting in the distribution chain. If they were higher, the whole thing would have already blown up’.
Ricard mentioned the superb châteaux that are available to buy between €10 and €20 and lamented the focus on the big names that often directs attention away from these smaller properties.
This is the part where you know the drill. I tell you what is happening behind the scenes but don’t tell you who told me. This time it is a number of small châteaux owners who were both relieved and rather thrilled to read Ricard’s ‘courageous’ (their words) views that suggested both that they should be given more of a chance and how the system is stacked in the favour of the big guys.
Their pleasure was short-lived, however, when they heard that by mid-afternoon on the same day of publication Ricard had sent a letter to a number of major châteaux owners refuting the interview (which he referred to as ‘an informal conversation’) and underlining their continued importance.
The reason that this is of interest is that it shines a light on one of the real potential issues with the en primeur 2015 campaign.
The wines are, by are large, pretty great this year. Not vintage of the century maybe, but there are a tonne of extremely lovely bottles out there. And the soft supple tannins and rich fruits in many ways suit perfectly the smaller châteaux. They might not age as well as vintages such as 2010 of course, but for the smaller properties, nobody plans to cellar the wines too much anyway. So in theory labels such as cru bourgeois or the St-Emilion satellites or Graves reds have an excellent opportunity in 2015 to sell en primeur (or at the very least to have orders confirmed now for delivery and payment when in bottle) when in more difficult years nobody is interested in buying at this level.
Successes for both big and smaller châteaux are the true mark of great vintages – remember that in 2005 92% of wines put onto the en primeur market sold down through the sales chain to a final customer (according to Bordeaux wine broker figures).
In 2009 this figure was a still-respectable 85%. It means that even if prices go up, in theory there is a greater demand so the wines sell. In less interesting vintages, such as 2013, things are different. Tastet & Lawton courtiers reported that in 2013, 62.3% of classified estates entirely sold their En Primeur wines – but for many that meant the wine left the châteaux but stayed with négociants, no longer moving all the way through to a final customer.
There is every reason to hope that Bordeaux 2015 wines manage to find their way through the system – but Ricard’s line about stocks sitting in the distribution chain suggests that this might not be the case across the board.
No vintage exists within an island. The Bordeaux merchants might want to buy but they are still tied by their available funds. And after four or more years of stocks piling up and in many cases depreciating in value – even at low interest rates – banks are going to be unwilling to extend credit indefinitely, no matter how good 2015 is. In France the fiscal year ends in March; so pretty much just as the en primeur week gets started. It means that plenty of Bordeaux bankers have just discovered that they lent money for wine that is now worth less than when it was paid for. And they may not be too thrilled to risk it all over again.
So – great wines but a small available pool of resources. Inevitably this will change the usual dynamics of a great vintage. If châteaux want to raise their prices, something has got to give.
This is what I was told: ‘This equation, between the limited finances of merchants and the elevated prices of châteaux is inevitably going to create a spasm. And the effect will be that this primeur campaign is only going to concern a limited number of châteaux due simply to the liquidity of négociants’.
The smart guys should think about releasing their prices early, before those limited available funds get eaten up. The even smarter ones should think about being market-friendly in their pricing.
Because even in his apology letter, Ricard made one thing very clear, ‘2015 is a great vintage. But it arrives in a complicated social, economic and geopolitical moment. I hope everyone is conscious of that’.