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.
Read our initial report on Bordeaux 2019 here; or shop all Bordeaux on bbr.com.
In my view Bordeaux has been on a good vintage run for a few years with either good quality or high volumes so supply and value hasn’t been an issue. From a buyers perspective we probably won’t miss the odd year which won’t help the suppliers, but from a consumer view it isn’t a major challenge given the fact pricing of 2016/2017 wines is broadly inline with release levels. I think the global challenges of US Tariffs and demand from China are more likely to affects whether En Primeur is a viable model going forward.
A very useful and insightful update. Helps me, as a customer to understand not only the impact but the perspectives of the whole supply chain in these challenging times. Thank you.
As someone who campaigned against the speculative madness of the Bordeaux en primeur market, way back in the last century, I can only feel a certain satisfaction that this may prompt a serious pause for thought. The producers – all the renowned Châteaux which are actually concerned in this market – are flush with cash from years of ridiculous prices, and can certainly bear the cost of holding stock for calmer times. The consumers – other than the super-rich for whom money is no object – can rejoice in the possibility that some delicious wines may become fractionally more affordable. If there is anything to cheer about from this present nightmare, it is that the world made be remade in better ways in the future, even for wine drinkers.
Very useful piece, Mark. Many thanks.
I don’t share the schadenfreude of Mr Loftus, above. You’re talking about people’s livelihoods, and whilst some wealthy overseas owners might not be too troubled, the workers certainly will, as will the négociants, merchants, their families and so on.
Anyway, back to the point. It was extremely useful to get some insider insight, however speculative it is at this stage. I look forward to any updates!
I was in Bordeaux when the ban was announced, the producers were shocked but comfortable that a solution could be found. It’ll be an interesting EP buying year!
I’m fairly new to the joys of collecting and drinking nice wine and after only a few years I love the ritual of the en primeur campaign. I love the drip feed of articles and info in the build up and I love waiting for the notifications to hit my email and then buying more than I planned. I love the fact I can buy some of the best wine in the world at the same price as everyone else. For me buying the wine is about one third of the pleasure, tasting it the second third and the last third is sharing something special with special people. Anything which prolongs anyone of these rituals is a good thing in my book! My sense is that wine making across Bordeaux has gradually got better over time? Someone more knowledgeable than me would be able to say whether this is in part due to the investment that predictable cash inflows resulting from successful en primeur campaigns allow.
I agree with Simon – he is talking about the cru classe wines where the price for consumer has gone stratospheric. In general the more modest end of the market still produce good wines and make a living.
In response to Richard Stoughton, the workers on the great estates will be in no danger of losing their livelihoods – the work in cellars and vineyards will continue regardless. And the smaller estates are not really engaged in the primeur market.
As for the négoces, they are or should be experts at the ups and downs of a commodity market, and should have the resources to keep their teams and work through what is, after all, only a matter of timing until the wines are eventually released.
My comment was simply to express the thought that prices for the crus classés are overblown, and have been for many years – so a re-adjustment is long overdue.
A very informative and useful insight. Provided I survive the virus I will push the boat out on the 2019 vintage which will be memorable (and very drinkable) -albeit for the wrong reason. Something to look forward to!
I agree wholeheartedly with Simon Loftus. The question really is should we even have en primeur any more? I have bought EP since the 1986 vintage. It used to be a good system, and the chateaux at that time priced at a level that recognised that those putting in EP orders were effectively providing cashflow to them, and so deserved a level of return to mitigate the risk, because risk there is!. I was caught in the early nineties in both the Hungerford Wines and Nigel Baring & Co debacles, where my EP purchases were lost due to certian of the links in the EP purchase chain going under, and I lost both the money and the wines (It is still painfull given I had bought several cases of Montrose 90 and others!!!). EP still however, worked in general, and there was a financial upside for the EP purchaser to balance out the risk. That has not been the case since the 2005 vintage, and even less so since the 2009’s. It is still the case that with the exception of a very few wines, I could buy many 2009’s and 2010’s at the same price or below thier release price, ten years on. As a result it is hard to conclude anything other tahn that EP is broken, and to be honest it is about time it was ended. There is so much good wine from elsewhere in the world, that maybe a few greedy French proprietors should be left shouldering the burden of thier over-blown, over-hyped and over-priced product, which is after all just fermented grape juice. Don’t get me wrong, I love good claret, rhone etc., but the upper echelon have vastly over-priced thier product.