Re-thinking en primeur

Anthony Hanson MW in Bordeaux 2019

23 April 2020 This is such a good idea that it deserves wider exposure, so we are republishing it free today as part of our Throwback Thursday series. And see at the bottom of this article a cri de coeur from a specialist bordeaux merchant in Melbourne who begs the Bordelais to have a sense of reality. Further contributions are welcome. 

See also Anthony's follow-up article, Possible solutions to the 2019 en primeur conundrum, and this guide to our coverage of Bordeaux 2019.

21 April 2020 Anthony Hanson MW, pictured here in Bordeaux in April 2019, has been buying bordeaux en primeur for 50 years and argues that a dramatic re-think of the whole system is needed, and would be particularly timely. 

Obviously there is great concern, in the Gironde as around the world, about how the well-regarded 2019 Bordeaux vintage can find its way efficiently into the cellars of wine-loving collectors and consumers (see yesterday's When should Bordeaux launch its 2019s?, for example). Faced with the lockdown this spring and possibly summer, some in Bordeaux are offering to send samples to clients, who will no doubt be happy to taste and – if prices are fair, and if they love the wines – will offer them to their own customers in July, or this autumn. 

However, this solution will not be practical for all Bordeaux châteaux. During this crisis, could another approach be considered? 

I started buying bordeaux professionally with the 1969 vintage, in March 1970, and am still active as a buying consultant. I make the personal comments and suggestions below from a 50-year perspective. 

We should all take the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to re-think the Bordeaux en primeur campaign completely.  

This campaign has been twisted almost totally out of recognition during the past 25+ years, by a combination of châteaux, négociants and commentators coming together with traders to praise vintages – sometimes excessively – while the wines were unfinished, and before prices had been declared.  

For some years, buying Bordeaux vintages en primeur has been making less and less sense for wine lovers. Level-headed traders have always been able to find good buys each vintage at en primeur time, as certain suppliers, while making delicious wines, have kept their feet on the ground when deciding on prices. But, broadly, the whole concept needs a re-think.

Attempting to judge the 2019 vintage in a comprehensive manner during the next few months will be impractical, as well as risky and possibly dangerous to the health of tasters. 

Those châteaux in need of funds must of course be free to send out samples and offer their 2019 wines. The opening prices will ideally be down on recent vintages, considerably so if they are to attract willing buyers. Châteaux wishing not to lower prices substantially can hold back their launches, then offer their 2019s for tasting and purchase from April 2021 onwards. In this way potential buyers and journalists will be able to taste almost-finished wines, from assembled blends (or not, as we may be informed at the time), so that sensible assessments can be made. 

By spring 2021 economies may well have recovered, and what is said to be a very good vintage may successfully find its way into wine-lovers' cellars at prices that will satisfy growers, intermediaries and consumers. 

Shifting the launch of the vintage permanently by 12 months may be seen as revolutionary – but this would not be a revolution. It would be a sensible adaptation of the Bordeaux routine. The latter is still today perceived by some as a traditional system which can work well, but by many others as a thinly disguised cartel, which sadly no longer serves the interests of consumers well.

What is being proposed would allow those châteaux who wish to, to offer their 2019s during 2020 and, maintaining their tradition, to offer their 2020s in April 2021. Other châteaux can choose to offer their 2019s, and subsequent vintages, in the springtime, but 18 months after they have been made. Traders could easily adapt to this. Journalists would have two vintages to compare and contrast – and wine consumers would benefit from this change.

The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux may wish to run a 2019 campaign this year, but it will be hard pressed to make a success of it. With virtually no commentators or buyers visiting Bordeaux, how can it be anything but a half-hearted campaign? They should seize the opportunity to move the official campaign for the vintage to spring 2021, while leaving individual members freedom to sell their wines sooner if they can and wish to.

Recent Bordeaux en primeur campaigns have profoundly damaged Bordeaux’s reputation as one of the world’s prime sources of the greatest wines, with an outstanding reputation for quality, dependability and value.

But by fine-tuning its en primeur system to adapt to changed circumstances, and to today’s global health crisis, Bordeaux can build on its credibility as a much-loved, greatly admired region.

Daniel Airoldi of Airoldi Fine Wines in Melbourne adds this ‘message to my beloved Bordeaux friends on en primeur 2019’

Everybody who knows me in the industry, knows how much a lover of Bordeaux I am, of its wines, its food and its people.

My go-to celebration wine has always been and will always be the beautiful clarets of my home region of Bordeaux. It has been ingrained in me from my family from a young age. I have no choice!

The biggest emotions from any wine I ever get are from the finest bottles of bordeaux. Of course, I love and enjoy wines from all around the world, drinking them most days, but the smell of an old bordeaux transcends me straight to a Sunday lunch at my parents’ house with a younger me seated at the table and observing my father enjoying this fine nectar all too much! Call me nostalgic!

I am a big advocate of the Place de Bordeaux system, which has many advantages for us importers, and indeed over the past eight years of Airoldi Fine Wines, many Bordeaux wine trade people I have had the pleasure dealing with on a regular basis have become true friends.

Over the years with Airoldi Fine Wines, we have hosted countless châteaux’s commercial directors and ambassadors for memorable Australian tours across most capital cities, enjoying fabulous wine dinners in Australia’s best restaurants and memorable masterclasses and tastings with our country’s best wine professionals. Despite being a niche market for the great wines of Bordeaux, Australia is a global force to be reckoned with when it comes to wine and food professionalism, with some of the highest standards I have ever seen. It’s a country of true wine connoisseurs and lovers.

I have made it my personal mission over the years to be Bordeaux’s ‘ambassador’ to Australia. I simply love it and it is a passion. (The image on Airoldi Fine Wines' home page is shown below.)

Airoldi Fine Wines home page

We have so many plans for more châteaux to come to Australia and, like so many businesses around the world, we’ve had to adapt to the current issue relating to COVID-19, so we’ve postponed the events we had coming up with Cheval Blanc and Lafite-Rothschild, just to name a couple.

Now at a time of the year when, under normal circumstances, we would be seeing releases of the new vintage through the en primeur system, we instead hear through the grapevine (pun intended) that the UGCB is trying to organise some kind of a campaign that will need to be adapted to the current social distancing restrictions.

Indeed, with the tasting week cancelled, like so many Bordeaux lovers, I was so sad not to be able to make the trip to Bordeaux and attend what would have been my sixth straight visit to the en primeur week, which is always the biggest event on my yearly calendar. Thankfully there is always next year!

So, to the point of this heartfelt message to my Bordeaux friends is this. Yes there are some factors to think about, such as tradition and cash flow for the châteaux. After all, the en primeur system was put in place long ago so that châteaux could afford to buy barrels for the next vintage. But is a campaign really necessary this year?

We read on the news every day about how many more people have lost their lives and, for those who are still alive, how they have lost their jobs and thus their source of regular income.

Currently the Australian population is drinking more wine, no doubt to help through this difficult confinement period – and to some extent to help deal with home schooling!

The feedback we get several times a day is that people are looking for wines to drink now and at lower price points. This is totally understandable. We do the same at home too!

So why, oh why, in these uncertain times, would anybody be spending money on wines they will only be receiving in two years’ time? Just for tradition? For pride? For greed?

In normal circumstances, I am an advocate for purchasing en primeur as it does indeed have many benefits for the buyers, not least huge savings in the long-term. However, this year I am against releases as I find it to be disrespectful to those who would be purchasing, but this year can’t, due to loss of income and an uncertain future. I also think that, should release happen and prices are too high, it will put unnecessary financial pressure on the négociants who are still licking their wounds from 2013, 2014 and 2017 campaigns.

Do châteaux really need a cash injection this year or can they survive until next year? I understand the petits châteaux do, but surely not the majority of the crus classés?

Should châteaux listen to the market and adjust their strategy? This would prove to a world that – let’s face it – has been disheartened by years of pricing strategies that have been completely disconnected from reality, that this year they are willing to make a statement and ‘take one for the team’, either by not releasing or, if they must release due to financial distress, to release at a much reduced price!

For the love of Bordeaux, I truly hope that châteaux are going to use the opportunity of an unprecedented global crisis to press the reset button on the price trends that have lost them so many followers the world over, and use this as a platform to acquaint themselves with a new generation of enthusiasts and perhaps even reconnect with the lost ones.

In conclusion, I do not expect châteaux to listen to Daniel Airoldi 20,000 km away in Australia. But my point of view is shared by so many people involved with the Bordeaux trade. Many of them don’t want to speak out for fear of upsetting people, whereas I have been partial to opening a can of worms from time to time!

With much love and looking forward to seeing you in the near future,

Daniel Airoldi