Bordeaux’s En Primeur institution was thrown into disarray this year, with chateaux and merchants forced to find new solutions. Jane Anson asks if the changes are here to stay?
Cruse, co-owner of 1855 Third Growth estate Chateau d’Issan, gave an interview in France’s Figaro newspaper in early April. In it, he described the chaos engulfing the industry at that point, and suggested putting Bordeaux’s annual En Primeur campaign back to September or October 2020.
Commentators agreed with him. Prominent critics said they would not be tasting the new crop of 2019 wines. Others argued now was the time to rethink the En Primeur, even cancelling it entirely and selling on release in bottle.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the 2019 En Primeur campaign was not its eventual success – helped by average price drops of 22% – but the reminder it provided of the sheer resilience of the Bordeaux system.
Not that Bordeaux should be too quick to congratulate itself. Only 50 chateaux at most carried out a campaign, which resulted in wines being traded on the secondary market at higher-than-release prices.
I already hear chateaux talking about online tastings to stay in touch with customers
This was the first de-centralised En Primeur campaign. Bernard Magrez couriered his entire range over to selected merchants, while both Mouton and Lafite Rothschild held tastings at their (shared) UK ancestral home, Waddesdon Manor. The Union des Grands Crus, the organisation behind the usual En Primeur week, hesitated before eventually sending out the 100-plus applies, I expect, to the speed of the campaign.
All wines were done and dusted over four weeks from Pontet-Canet at the end of May to Le Pin at the end of June. The pace helped the trading platform Liv-ex report that by July 2020 activity had tripled from the previous year. But is it sustainable with a return to more normal trading conditions? With so many chateaux relying on En Primeur for cashflow, it won't be without a fight.
The same applies to stock. The merchant community complained that estates missed a trick by holding back stock despite generous production yields and a willing market. They are fighting a losing battle over this: September 2020 will see Léoville Las Cases and Palmer release older stock through the Place de Bordeaux, and others will follow.
The Bordelais have woken up to a new feature in the calendar where Opus One, Almaviva, Masseto and other international wines make their way to market, and they want in.
It underlines that some of the changes of 2020 were less to do with Covid-19 and more to do with the long-term strategy of Bordeaux estates, as determined as ever to maximise returns as the world changes around them.
- Read our review of Anson's Inside Bordeaux.
This article was first published in the 2020 autumn issue of Imbibe UK.