Jane Anson considers an alternative future for Bordeaux en primeur, following a disappointing 2017 vintage campaign for many merchants.
Walking past Justerini & Brooks last week in London, I saw they had a sign in their rather beautiful window – all vine leaves and wooden wine cases – that said ‘Bordeaux 2017: a Darwinian Vintage’.
My guess is they were referring to the weather, but the phrase could equally apply to the campaign itself. If only the fittest survive, then the 2017 en primeur campaign was the one that showed Bordeaux is in need of an oxygen mask and some 24-hour nursing.
The numbers for this campaign make for painful reading. Less than half the turnover of the last two years for almost every merchant I spoke to – some dropped even lower than 2013. Possibly because the average release price was just 6% below the current market price for 2015, according to Wine Lister.
Not coincidentally, over at Liv-ex they say releases prices were on average 20% above what they call ‘fair value’ (based on existing prices in the marketplace), with a corresponding 60% fall in sales from the 2016 vintage en primeur.
There were some estates that got the price right, but they were in the minority – Berry Bros reports that 12 brands out of 140 that they work with made 80% of turnover.
The names that I hear got it right were the select few: Beychevelle, Lynch Bages, Léoville Barton, Calon Ségur, Canon, Rauzan-Ségla, Carmes Haut Brion.
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And this is not just in the UK. Merchants in the US, Switzerland, Hong Kong and mainland China all reported the same thing. ‘The French supermarkets once again rescued parts of the campaign for the négociants’, says Berry Bros sales director Max Lalondrelle.
‘It’s clear that to make the 2017 work the wines should have been priced nearer to 2014. And yet once again châteaux struggled to go down to the correct level following a great vintage (or in this case two great vintages). The négociants will have to carry their 2017 stock for five years or more, and will not make any money even then.’
Anyway, I’m not telling you anything new here. So, this time around, I asked merchants, brokers and négociants what they would like to see in an ideal world. We already know what the châteaux want – en primeur convenience, ex-château older stock pricing. But what does everyone else want?
The future of futures
Let’s imagine we are in a post en primeur world. People are still buying Bordeaux, but the idea of giving the châteaux over-inflated prices to hold their own stock is a thing of the past.
We’re now somewhere around 2025. As of the 2020 vintage, the top 80 estates of both Left and Right Bank have pulled out of en primeur.
The 2018 and 2019 vintages continued to be hugely confusing, with increasing amounts of stock held back, and pricing continuing to be erratic, but eventually the decision was made by the most powerful estates, who could afford to finance the two year break, to simply switch to selling bottled wine.
The years 2021 and 2022 saw periodic releases of older vintages, but as of Spring 2023, châteaux have begun selling their 2020 vintage six months after bottling, at the same moment in the year as the original en primeur.
But instead of a sprawling campaign over three months, the Bordeaux buying calendar has been reduced to an organised six weeks under a clearly-timed plan.
The new vintage is still tasted in the region by merchants and brokers, much as it was pre-1982, and they take note of the quality, but no offers are sent out to consumers. Essentially all the top estates are now following the Latour system that launched back in 2011, but the wait is not as long before the bottles begin to move onto the market.
Overseas merchants and journalists arrive in Bordeaux at the same time as ever, but the focus is on wines that are ready to sell.
One or two classified châteaux still buck the trend and release offers direct to consumers for their en primeur wine, but they sell at 70% of what their later retail price will be, and make this clear at the time.
They have fierce followings, but are in the minority.
The less high profile châteaux, however, from Cru Bourgeois to Grand Cercle de Bordeaux, still sell the majority of their stock as en primeur.
This is because their main target is the European, US and Chinese supermarkets, whose buyers continue to want to plan their purchases in advance, and to take advantage of the better pricing that these estates are still happy to offer.
By stepping back from the system, the classified châteaux have finally given the estates that want to work in this way some room to breathe.
At the same time, international icon wines have also taken advantage of the two year window provided by the Bordeaux classifieds, and increasing numbers of high profile names, most notably from Napa, Barolo and Australia, use the Place de Bordeaux more and more effectively to grow their own international distribution.
Sauternes is no longer sold with the rest of the pack.
Instead all Bordeaux sweet wines are also held back until after bottling, but sold in the run up to what is the busiest time of year for drinkers to actually open bottles of Sauternes – the holiday season of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Sauternes is by 2025 the most collaborative of all appellations. Single châteaux sell verticals of older vintages by the case, or neighbouring chateaux work together to sell all the same vintage with two bottles of each in one 12-bottle case.
All sales are concentrated into the first week of October, finally giving a way for Sauternes to reconnect with the wine trade in the run up to the festive season.
For the classified châteaux, releases by 2025 are carefully staggered; with the trade knowing exactly what is coming. First are the Right Banks.
They release throughout late April to early May – Pomerols first, then St-Emilions, always led by Petrus, Le Pin, Ausone, Angélus, Cheval Blanc and Pavie, who set the tone with their pricing (that continues to differ year on year, because they just can’t kick that particular habit).
Those austere limestone-based Cabernet Francs have softened and gained body over the two years of ageing and the tastings are getting better at rewarding the wines that will actually age the best.
Next up is the Left Bank – released in an orderly fashion from St-Estèphe down to Pessac-Léognan, again with the most prestigious classified estates leading the way to set the pricing.
Merchants and consumers can order special bottle sizes and even customised labels far more easily than under the previous system, and bottles are delivered within a few weeks of orders being placed. The ties between classified châteaux and consumers are closer than ever, because this level of personalisation becomes a possibility.
Back in 2018
Could any of this happen? Paul Marus at Corney and Barrow certainly thinks it’s worth considering. ‘The Spring following bottling would be perfect, as the wines will have calmed down, and ideally the châteaux could release in a controlled but staggered fashion so we can work on each wine individually.’
Lukasz Kolodziejczykn, head of fine wines at Cult Wines says, ‘It would be clearer for all of us if we tasted the final blended wine. Many wines do not show their true colours during en primeur, and in 2017 we saw that very clearly. The huge scoring disparity between critics bothers me as a wine professional, and it is clear that a lot of scores are given for the chateaux not for the consumer. Tasting bottled final wines could reduce this.
‘Whatever happens,’ he continues, ‘châteaux need to find a smoother way of releasing. Tying up merchants for a long drawn out campaign is not making them any friends, and hanging their hats on Asia continuing to grow is a risky strategy with a market that is now seeing the potential of Italy and other fine wine regions. Many people on all sides are going to learn this the hard way, but it is clear that a shift in buying patterns is coming’.