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Jefford on Monday: Did The Earth Move?

Even for those of us who have no intention of buying any en primeur Bordeaux this year, last week was an exciting one.

The curtain had barely risen when the fat lady tottered on and belted out her aria. Agreed, it’s unfair to describe the always-elegant Lafite using a phrase drawn from the Bronx Guide to Opera, but rightly or wrongly the market has made Pauillac’s northernmost château the region’s prima donna over the past decade. The fact that it opened almost first rather than almost last, and at what Farr Vintners called “half of last year’s average price”, unquestionably amounted to a statement. Or statements.

The most obvious message, on price, might well have the effect of reviving what had looked to be a moribund en primeur campaign. It provided an unusual novelty: Lafite 2011 looks set to begin its life as the cheapest Lafite on the market. That’s what en primeur was meant to be about. If every other chateau follows suit, and given the fact that the vintage isn’t execrable, then merchants may well find purchasers where they only expected silence. Lafite, of course, can amply afford to lead by example; members of the chorus, on a fraction of the wage, may find it hard to follow. That, though, is what it will take to move unbottled 2011 Bordeaux.

Was the second statement, though, a veiled riposte to Latour? Was it an emphatic endorsement of the utility of the en primeur system, just a few days after its fellow Pauillac first growth had decided to break ranks and spurn it altogether?

Latour’s letter to négociants detailing that decision, sent at the end of the previous week, was a genuine eyebrow-raiser. Latour’s President Frédéric Engerer outlined to me how it would work. “From vintage 2012, wines will be released when we believe they start to be ready for drinking — i.e. on average after seven years for Les Forts and 10 to 12 years for Latour. We’ll still release them through the Place de Bordeaux; we’ll continue to work with the best négociants. But more efficient traceability systems will be used. And at en primeur time our tasting room will still be open for the new-vintage tasting. When the time comes, you can taste both the new wine and the wine which we are now offering to the market for the first time.”

So in April 2023, for example, the tasting room at Latour might offer three wines to visiting critics and merchants. The first would be 2022 as a young wine, for assessment only. The second would be 2012 Latour, as the youngest Latour available for purchase, and 2015 Les Forts de Latour, ditto. Mr Parker and Ms Robinson and M Bettane (or their heirs and successors) can carry on sampling and assessing the new wine as usual. The difference is that there will be a time lag before it is available for purchase. A long one.

“We think,” pursued Engerer, “this new commercial rhythm is in line with a growing demand from wine amateurs to be able to acquire wines that reach a ‘drinkability phase’ and that have been kept in perfect conditions in our cellars. More generally, we’re concerned by the fact that our wines are drunk too young, a criticism often heard by wine professionnals, and we believe is it our duty, especially for a long-aging wine such as Château Latour, to be concerned about that problem. The other great thing is that when we will travel and organize some collectors’ tastings around the world, I imagine we’ll get a lot of interest because we’ll be able to show wines that are not available yet on the market.”

At first glance, the biggest surprise is that it has taken this long for a leading château to make this decision. I remember having animated discussions with smaller right-bank producers over a decade ago about why they didn’t take control of their own sales narrative, given the fact that the huge profits which accrued from the rise in value of their wines were almost always made by others. Aside from the eminently respectable reasons advanced by Frederic Engerer, this must, too, be a factor. Imagine if Latour hadn’t yet sold a single case of the ‘perfect’ 2009 or the ‘probably perfect’ 2010, and wouldn’t do so until 2019 and 2020. Yes, warehousing and security will be expensive – but not that expensive, compared to the eventual selling price, almost all of which will return to source. The financial arguments for the decision are surely compelling.

So will others follow? In time, I expect that some of the other great Bordeaux properties will indeed follow. A few – tiny ones, corporately owned ones, or those owned by gazillionaires. You need to take a very deep financial breath in order to let your wine slumber out a decade before selling it, even if you then reap the rewards later.

It remains to be seen, though, how the market reacts to the long ‘Latour winter’ which will set in from 2013: up to a decade with no new wine to trade, and no young wine to assess and re-assess away from the watchful eye of M.Engerer. This, for me, is the biggest risk Latour is running. It might boost interest in, and scrutiny of, what is already tradeable – or we might all forget about Latour altogether.

For most Bordeaux properties, en primeur is still a godsend; indeed every red-wine region in the world would love to sell its wine on a cash-advance basis. Even if Lafite’s pre-emptive strike kindles consumer interest in 2011, it is still the kind of vintage where négociants will prove their worth to proprietors (by sitting on stock in order to preserve future allocations) rather than irritate them (by taking instant, effortless margins on wine which sells itself). The earth hasn’t moved – but it was an exciting week.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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