Bordeaux 2019: a vintage in limbo
Author: Mark Pardoe MW
This week I was meant to be meeting my Berry Bros. & Rudd colleagues at Gatwick airport to take a flight to Bordeaux. We would have been collected by the redoubtable Maryse (our regular driver), arriving in time for dinner at Château du Tertre, our base for the week – just as we have every year for the past two decades. Instead, I am confined at home – admittedly with a fine view from my study window of the Hampshire countryside under bright blue, spring skies – and adjusting, like everyone, to these unprecedented times.
The purpose of the visit was to be, as usual, the tasting of the 2019 Bordeaux vintage, prior to it being released for sale En Primeur from April onwards. The week of tastings, organised by the Union des Grands Crus, is an important fixture in the wine trade calendar and has grown from small beginnings in the early 1980s to be a vital cog in the commercial mechanics of the Bordeaux wine trade. For wine merchants the world over, the week of tastings has become unmissable – and the city, as well as the region as a whole, benefit greatly from this hungry and thirsty influx.
But now there is a big gap in the calendar, in potential sales for the Bordeaux wine trade, and for the wine merchants to whom they sell. What might this mean for the wine trade, and the future of this year’s En Primeur?
Let us begin by viewing the situation from the supply end of the chain. This is a critical trading time for most producers, providing an important injection of cash flow, and many may suffer as a result. Yet a safety net may already exist within Bordeaux’s unique trading structure. Its often-criticised distribution system, using courtiers (the brokers who coordinate deals between négociants and the producers themselves) and négociants (the Bordeaux merchants that hold the stock – selling to merchants like ourselves to then sell on to our customers), may be able to provide the elasticity and give some stability, with greater fluidity over stock, prices or payment terms, until the situation begins to normalise. It is for these extreme market fluctuations that the system originally evolved – and it may well prove its worth again, but the Bordeaux trade will need to all pull together.
From the merchant’s perspective, this also knocks a big hole in the year’s financial planning. There are no longer very many businesses who make their living exclusively from En Primeur. Most have a diversity of offering (broking, retail, wholesale and/or wine events) that in normal times offer resilience and, with today’s challenges, most will be able to keep the wheels turning, albeit slowly. It is a rare example of lessons being learned and retained from the past. In the early 1990s, a large number of merchants who had jumped on the En Primeur bandwagon ended up entirely dependent on each year’s campaign to pay last year’s bills, and the crash in the market following the disastrous vintages of 1991 to ’93 saw their demise.
The future of this year’s En Primeur campaign is less easy to predict; indeed, nothing can be predicted with any degree of confidence at the moment. The announcement by the Union des Grands Crus of the suspension of the tastings also included an ambition to provide an opportunity to taste the 2019s at a later date, but time is running out to find a suitable space. Even if the current restrictions are lifted by then, the usually blistering month of August is not really practical and, as soon as you move into September, not only will the 2020 harvest be underway but offers from other regions and producers also crowd the schedules, ironically often pushed to that calendar slot by the historic dominance of Bordeaux En Primeur in the earlier part of the year.
What remains is a small window to possibly release some of the wines in early summer. If travel restrictions prevent the wines from being tasted before release, faith will need to be placed in the reputation of the many properties that have delivered consistently top wines over the past decade, and the indications for 2019 are that it is a good to very good vintage (read our expectations of the vintage here). It may be that if there is trust from the market and the consumer in the best properties, and the price reflects the current difficulties, we could see some releases in June, July or, in a worst case, a campaign shoe-horned into September
Is there even an outside chance that, like the Olympics and Euro 2020, the event could simply be pushed back to the same time next year? From a purely personal point of view, I would welcome it. For several years I preferred to visit Bordeaux in the June following the En Primeur tastings. Commercially the campaign was already done by then, but – aside from being able to taste more easily and spend more time talking to producers – the extra three months in barrel often gave a much more articulate expression of the vintage. I recall being much more positive about vintages like 2004 and ’08 than my peers who had tasted earlier, an impression borne out by the much higher regard in which they are now held versus on release.
Yet this remains a very unlikely option. The scale of today’s fine wine market is too important and the impact of such a move, without damaging other aspects of the trade, especially from the properties’ or merchants’ perspective, would be very risky.
So what will happen to the 2019s? It would be commercially problematic if they somehow became overlooked and, qualitatively, it is, without doubt an important vintage that will justify space in any cellar. My instinct is that the resourceful and canny Bordelais will find a solution, but nothing can become clear until this current emergency abates, an appetite returns to the market and, don’t forget, no one knows what the 2020 vintage might look like.