Time to reboot Bordeaux’s En Primeur

April is En Primeur month, when the world’s wine critics flock to Bordeaux to taste and rate. Not this year. Robert Joseph says maybe it’s a good time for a rethink.

Bordeaux/Photo by Guillaume Flandre on Unsplash
Bordeaux/Photo by Guillaume Flandre on Unsplash

In normal times, for many members of the finer end of the wine industry, this patch of the calendar would be described by the two French words: “en primeur”. Every year, during the first week of April, hundreds of merchants and journalists flock to Bordeaux and troop from chateau to chateau and merchant to merchant in order to sample the latest vintage, compare scores and speculate about prices and public demand.

Not this year, however. After lengthy – far too lengthy – deliberation, the powers-that-be in Bordeaux belatedly decided that the organised tastings of their 2019 wine would be indefinitely postponed. A very limited amount of sniffing, sipping and spitting is still going on, thanks to the effort estates are taking to leave samples on the doorsteps of Bordeaux-based critics like Jane Anson of Decanter. I’m sure some merchants benefit from a similar delivery service. But no one is imagining the launch any kind of sales campaign in the immediate future.

Judging from the comments made in a Real Business of Wine webcast on Monday, he general consensus in Bordeaux is that the events and tastings that were due to be held in April, should be rescheduled to June. Talking to Jane Anson, Decanter magazine’s Bordeaux correspondent, producers including Nicolas Glumineau of Ch. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, and Alain Raynaud president of the Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux and owner of Ch. du Park, pointed out how much the region – from the humblest cooperative members to the first growths – all rely on the attention and the cashflow provided by en primeur. 

That need is shared by the merchants both inside and outside the region and by the critics who fill their newsletters, magazines and newspaper columns with ratings and descriptions of the vintage. 

Wine drinkers used to benefit too. Back in the 1970s, en primeur buyers expected they could sell half of the wine they had bought within five years, for two or three times what they paid for it. In other words, in return for providing the chateau-owners with much-needed cashflow, they could effectively drink great wine for nothing.

But, as Justin Gibbs of Liv-ex revealed in the same webcast, those days are long gone. Today’s en primeur buyers are not rewarded – they’re penalised. The value of the wine they have bought in barrel has not only failed to rise over time; when storage and insurance is taken into account, anyone who has bought their wine in this way has probably made a loss. 

If restaurants had their own version of en primeur, they’d be asking customers to choose their meal – and pay for it – when phoning to make a booking. That would provide the chef with the cash for ingredients and a clear idea of how much to buy. Quite attractive for a restaurateur, but not quite as appealing for customers used to deciding what they want to eat shortly after taking their seat at the table. There are very few, restaurants that could get away with this kind of behaviour.

And, nor increasingly, can the Bordelais. Gibbs went on to say that while Bordeaux represented 90 to 95 percent of the fine wine secondary market in 2010, that figure has almost halved “and that probably has something to do with en primeur, because when people think about buying Bordeaux, [that’s how] the majority is bought.” And, he continued, “the mood music has changed… the lustre has come off.” UK en primeur sales of the excellent 2018 vintage were a third of the volume for the 2009.
The ProWein, Vinexpo and Vinitaly exhibitions will all more or less pick up in 2021 from where they left off this year. Bordeaux En Primeur may have to make some more radical decisions.

Would following the example of the Burgundians in selling the wine once it’s been bottled help resolve the problem? It would certainly put an end to accusations of samples being drawn from ‘journalist barrels’. Or how about regimenting the process, as Andrew McInness of Ch la Cardonne suggests – ensuring that all the estates release their wines and prices on the same day and agree to sell all of their wine en primeur rather than in varied proportions as increasingly happens today?

I’m not really convinced by either of these proposals, but I really like another of McInnes’s ideas: adopt the notion of a charity auction which has done so much for Burgundy, Napa and the Cape. I used to attend the Hospices de Beaune weekend every November, tasting the wines from the estate of the mediaeval hospital in its cellars, as well as samples from the region’s growers in the town’s less folkloric exhibition centre.

Back in the late 1970s when harvests could run into early October, some of these wines were less than a couple of months old; indeed, tasting them gave me a crash course in understanding great red wines that were still undergoing malolactic fermentation.

But, apart from the limited number of barrels sold at the Hospices auction where bids had to be made by, or at least through, local merchants, nobody was expected to buy any of these wines. Burgundy was still often bought before it was bottled, but the timing of these purchases was entirely up to the grower and their customers.

Bordeaux could have its own charity auction weekend in April, as well as a sales campaign the following year once the wine has been bottled. Of course, the producers and merchants would take a short-term hit to their cashflow, but that has been happening anyway. And on the plus side, Bordeaux could attract visitors to two events per year.

Andrew McInnes had another controversial proposal: that the 2019 vintage be released at the same price as the 2008. In ‘normal times’ any such idea would be considered laughable, but there is nothing normal about 2019, and that might just be the kind of reboot the region needs.

Robert Joseph

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