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’.

Read all Decanter.com’s Bordeaux 2015 en primeur coverage

 

 

 

 

  • Julian Marshall

    When was the last time that apart from a select few properties (and even then), EP actually made sense for normal consumers? There was a certain amount of interest last year in the US because of the dollar, but if the dollar was to remain low, the wines will still be available at the same or cheaper prices on release. The log-jam of unsold vintages has been increasing for years and it will eventually have to be cleared. I quite agree about the 2012 vintage: my local Carrefour was offering Haut-Bages Libéral at a “discount” price of 25€ last week – I like HBL and I’ve no doubt it’s a reasonable wine, but in the context both of the vintage and the economic reality, it’s at least 7, probably 10€ too much, so obviously it didn’t sell. Someone will have to bite the bullet at one point.

  • Antoine Bisset

    Thanks for that. So far what I’ve read has been mostly enthusiastic with little note of caution. Of course, as most reports are from those who sell wine they are unlikely to wish to put people off. I’m going to be interested to read what the independent critics say. BordOverview gives a reasonably wide overview, including your own ratings.

  • timatkin

    This is not a great vintage. It’s very mixed. Some great wines, but plenty of thin (northern Médoc) and over-ripe ones (Right Bank) too. Prices need to be reasonable. The “vintage of the century” line won’t work.

  • Antoine Bisset

    Fine, then.

  • Fraser Bailey

    Well, yes, we know all that, although I would dispute that Californian wines are hitting greater heights except in terms of pricing. But my point was that three of the 2012 samples were poor and arguably unsellable at any price, never mind at a 50% reduction.

  • Antoine Bisset

    Possibly the chateaux/negociants are going to have to drop their prices on the wines of 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Especially as some of the grand cru wines are very drinkable now, but may not be for the long haul. This is maybe not the first time that wine merchants have had to face this, although not recently.
    I can envisage a situation where vintages are classified, with a price scale being agreed, so that 2011 would be priced at 50% of 2010, and so on. The notion that wine can be increased in price year on year by a chunky percentage without regard to quality or volume does not make commercial sense. It certainly makes no sense to those who wish to enjoy it.
    The buyers are at fault too, if they buy wines at higher prices than the wine is worth, taking into consideration the likely price to the final customer. If the big boys just don’t buy then the chateaux might review thei approach. We are all acting as if it is a sellers’ market. Is it? With wines from Chile, California and Italy now hitting greater heights?
    Smart wine merchants would be looking at the less well known chateaux, at the cru bourgeois level and below. Some of them have upped their game, with improved vineyard care, better wineries, improved vinification and control, clean cellars and carefully monitored aging. I am not referring to those cru bourgeois that command prices equivalent to Fifth Growths, but to those we have not yet heard of, which sell for under 10€ in French shops.

  • Fraser Bailey

    It’s all interesting stuff. The BX merchants must be sitting on millions of unsold and probably unsellable bottles from the last few years. A wine merchant I know sometimes receives hopeful samples from them of (mainly) minor chateaux from 2010 onwards. He was recently sent four bottles of 2012. Three were poor or very poor and will not improve.
    The fourth, a St Emilion Gr Cru with Deranencourt as an advisor, was good/nice in a modern, easy kind of way. But it would have to retail at 25 pounds or so, and there are more interesting wines to spend 25 pounds on.

    What will happen to all this wine?