How the pandemic first threatened then saved Bordeaux's 2019s. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also our guide to coverage of 2019 bordeaux. Ronan Laborde, president of the UGCB, is pictured above by Taylor & Yandell.
Mathieu Chadronnier runs CVBG, one of the most important Bordeaux wine merchants. He measures his words carefully, often with long pauses before his answers. He is not given to hyperbole. But when I asked him at the end of last month how he felt this year’s en primeur campaign had gone he said immediately, ‘It’s a miracle! Honestly, we are so fortunate in this worldwide recession to be in the fine-wine business and to have had such a successful campaign. We should all appreciate this because we are the lucky ones.’
Some background for those untutored in the en primeur circus. Every spring the Bordeaux wine trade invites thousands of wine merchants and media to taste cask samples of the previous year’s vintage, hoping that their reactions and scores respectively will help them sell the wines ‘en primeur’, as futures, when their prices are individually released over a few weeks in early summer.
Thanks to relentlessly rising release prices, and the plethora of increasingly exciting alternative wines, there were signs that the world’s wine drinkers were becoming increasingly disillusioned with bordeaux in general and buying en primeur in particular as it no longer seemed to make economic sense. It was often possible to buy a more mature vintage at the same price as the embryonic, yet-to-be-bottled one.
On 11 March, less than three weeks before the en primeur tastings in Bordeaux were scheduled to start, at a big meeting of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB), the key château proprietors decided to go ahead with the campaign, to the surprise of many outside Bordeaux. Two days later President Macron locked down France and the UGCB realised that tastings and the like would have to be postponed. That the south-west of France was relatively unscathed by COVID-19 must have played a part in making the Bordelais seem out of touch. The majority of the UK fine-wine trade, habitual critics of their counterparts in Bordeaux, lobbied to have the en primeur campaign delayed for months or reset completely. Encouraged by the promise of déconfinement in France from 11 May, the UGCB tried to hold a tasting in London in June but were unable to persuade their UK events organiser it would be safe.
In the end, however, the campaign was launched on 28 May without the usual mass tastings, but with a dramatic 32% decrease in the price of the first release, Pontet-Canet 2019, on the 2018 price. It had yet to be scored but, like many other baby 2019 bordeaux, found eager buyers, including some new to primeur.
It has to be said that the châteaux can decide how much wine to release at this early stage, and clearly many of them released far from the full amount, to the chagrin of many of those selling the most popular wines. But the key thing was that for the first time in recent memory, there were price reductions across the board. Ronan Laborde of Ch Clinet in Pomerol, the long-suffering president of the UGCB, told me by phone that never in his 17 years in the Bordeaux wine business has he known such widespread price reductions, averaging 20 to 25% less than 2018 prices across the board. Wines such as Angélus, Pavie and Gruaud Larose released with only a modest reduction did not sell well.
Vintage quality? Ah yes, that. I have not tasted the wines because I did not like the idea of cask samples being shipped by courier, possibly in high temperatures, but those who have, including my fellow Master of Wine, Bordeaux resident James Lawther, who valiantly toured the châteaux tasting on behalf of JancisRobinson.com, have been extremely impressed by the quality of the 2019 vintage, as he wrote here. As Laborde put it, ‘we knew from October it was a great vintage. The producers could have said so then but we’ve said it so many times… The pandemic gave us an excuse to shut up. After all, it’s only wine. There are more important things in the world.’
Perhaps the most important thing about the pandemic for the Bordelais is that it provided them with an excuse to lower prices, even for a great vintage, without losing face. And consumers lapped it up. The relevant thread on our Members' forum was ablaze as Nick Martin of Wine Owners supplied graphs showing how each new price compared with that of previous vintages and whether, in view of the commentators’ scores on which the trade now depends, the day’s releases were decent value.
As the last prices trickled out towards the end of June, Martin observed in this summary of the campaign, ‘What’s also been fascinating is the response to the vintage at an emotional level, expressed by several commentators on the forum as providing a sense of comforting normality, and engendering optimism for the future as buyers look ahead two years hence to when the wines arrive at their bonded storage accounts.’
It is probably also important that the wines were not released until there were signs of the end of lockdown, and some confidence returned. Laborde again: ‘we were all happy to survive, full of energy and euphoria’. Unusually, the campaign was compressed into two and a half busy weeks with, for once, releases carefully scheduled and announced in advance so that merchants could prepare their offers, even if they didn’t know the prices until early on the day of release.
Another factor that helped the campaign was that, because of the lockdown, potential buyers had more time than usual, and tended to be glued to their screens, via which all the offers were made. The primeur campaign offered an opportunity to play the market (Liv-ex have already reported some trades), with some deliciousness guaranteed eventually. This was the online primeur campaign, as Chadronnier acknowledged. Though he has an additional theory: that during lockdown it was meals, and the wine served with them (routinely in his household, I’m sure), that assumed increased significance, adding near-sacramental colour to the day.
According to him the wines sold particularly well in the UK, Germany and Switzerland, and he was surprised by demand from the US, despite the 25% tariff on European wine imports imposed there last October. Further incentives have included an easing of payment terms. The négociants and proprietors are often at loggerheads about who bears the cost of what, but Laborde observed this year ‘a real esprit de corps. It’s like a war and people forget their small disagreements.’
Gary Boom of BI Wines is more prosaic: ‘the négociants are delighted this year because they don’t have to sit on overpriced stock’.
The sizeable portion of the crop not offered en primeur will trickle on to the market eventually, doubtless at much higher prices, pleasing everyone, especially those who, against all expectations, bought at last month’s relatively bargain prices. Bordeaux is back!
2019s that were particularly successful en primeur
Two significant London merchants’ ten bestsellers in terms of volume sold in descending order, with their release prices per dozen bottles in bond, some of which have already risen. Many of these allocations are already sold out.
According to BI Wines
Mouton Rothschild £3,588
Cheval Blanc £4,500
Léoville Poyferré £616
Pichon Baron £1,300
According to Farr Vintners
Langoa Barton £354
Léoville Poyferré £616
Léoville Barton £648