By Andrew Black
The 2019 harvest in Bordeaux today seems a long time ago, after the events the world has gone through these past months. That vintage was another fine one for the region, and during the ensuing winter months the top Bordeaux châteaux began their usual preparations for the annual showcase event -primeurs week, when wine buyers and critics from all over the world descend on the Bordeaux region and its châteaux to taste the new vintage.
Despite the promising quality of the 2019 vintage, the mood among producers in early 2020 was low key. New tariffs in the USA, Brexit and a particularly flat Bordeaux market were weighing on growers’ minds. And of course in China, one of Bordeaux’s top markets, there was talk of the spread of a new deadly virus.
So what could they expect of primeurs week, due to take place this year during the first week of April? Who would actually turn up to taste what promised to be yet another outstanding Bordeaux vintage? The primeurs system is reserved for Bordeaux’s classified growths and other top-end properties, who enjoy the luxury of being paid in advance for their new vintage by the Bordeaux négociants that distribute their wines. Many of the châteaux have profited greatly in recent years from this unique market, and understandably there is not much sympathy from outside the system when harder times come along; and when the pandemic hit France, the system found itself in uncharted waters.
For those unfamiliar with this unique way of selling wine, this is how it works. First, the new vintage is tasted during primeurs week at the end of March. A few days later, the wine critics’ ratings for the wines are published. This is the signal for the primeurs campaign to begin. The release prices are set, and allocations are offered by the châteaux to the Bordeaux négociant market. If all goes smoothly, within a month, the new wines will have been tasted, rated and the whole vintage sold. It sounds simple, but setting the right price, especially in an uncertain context, is no easy task. Setting the wrong price damages the image of the growth, while releasing high, speculative prices invites more “Bordeaux-bashing” from the region’s detractors.
The primeurs system is in fact a finely-tuned machine, slickly operated by brokers who represent both sides –the château owners and the négociants, while gauging the worldwide markets’ potential interest in buying a new vintage 18 months before it is even bottled.
As Nicolas Audebert, the managing director of both Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Château Canon in Saint-Emilion, says, “the primeurs campaign is a slot in the calendar when the spotlight shines on Bordeaux’s top-end growths as one collective unit. For it to work well, each growth must respect the system and play the game in the right manner. When the system functions well, everybody’s a winner, from the producer to the final customer.”
“Playing the game” means releasing an attractive enough price for everyone in the chain to make money, the implication being that some growths don’t play the game and overprice their wines, confident that négociants will still buy them rather than risk losing their annual allocations.
At the start of 2020, even before Covid hit, there was growing pressure on the top growths to lower their prices for the upcoming 2019 primeurs campaign. The view was that if the 2019 vintage came out at the same price as, or more than, the 2018, it wouldn’t sell. Buyers would instead wait and come into the market when the wine is available in bottle. As Pierre Lurton the CEO of Château Cheval Blanc and Château Yquem points out, “Why should a buyer purchase a wine “en primeur” if he can find it at a similar price on the shelf two or three years later? For the system to work, the Bordeaux market has to be willing to adapt and sometimes bring down its primeurs prices, even in a great vintage.”
But is it always as simple as that? For example, how would loyal clients who had invested heavily in the “en primeur” 2018 vintage feel, if they were told that they could now buy the higher quality 2019 at a lower price than the 2018? It’s a gambler’s market, some would reply.
These intricacies quickly disappeared into the background in March, when the pandemic reached France. Primeurs week, scheduled for the first week of April, was cancelled and then a nationwide lockdown was announced. While there were murmurs of rescheduling the event, the immediate concern was, as in other wine regions, the vineyard. The 2020 vine cycle was already well underway, and with record rainfall and mild temperatures, it was accelerating. As Nicolas Audebert remembers, “I had no idea what was going to happen next. Would the teams agree to continue coming to work? You can’t just shut a wine estate down like you can a socks factory. In the end, the teams unanimously agreed to come in and work. And we adapted, working more individually, rather than in groups. Tractor drivers only used their own tractor, and each member of the team clocked in and out of work at different times to minimise contact.”
Growers were overstretched, and many vineyards suffered downy mildew damage. But as the end of lockdown neared, some producers began to wonder if, after all, there might indeed be a primeurs campaign, even though no-one, except them, had tasted the wine. For the moment, most of the top growths appeared reluctant. At First Growths Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc, the message was that a primeurs campaign at this point just didn’t seem appropriate. This was backed up by the argument expressed by most growers that selling “en primeur” traditionally depended on a prior tasting of the wines and, for many years now, on the subsequent publishing of critics’ ratings. A campaign seemed inconceivable.
And yet, despite everything, the 2019 primeurs campaign went ahead; and what’s more, it proved to be a resounding success. Nicolas Audebert was one of those who had been convinced that it wouldn’t happen -and ended up having one of his best campaigns ever. “I just got it completely wrong. It was a weird situation. I just didn’t believe there would be the interest, with what was going on in the world. As the campaign started, we observed the situation and decided to keep the option open of not taking part, if ever there were no clients. And suddenly the interest was there!”
And as that interest grew, many châteaux busily dispatched samples of the 2019 vintage to importers and critics, desperate for them to discover the outstanding quality of the vintage. Such was the deluge of samples that some journalists complained that they had no more room in their offices. A number of growths declined to send samples, judging that the wines were not yet stable enough to travel or saying that they were worried about handling and storage conditions during the shipment. Château La Conseillante in Pomerol prepared special guidelines for tasters to follow with a “taste by…” date on the label of the sample. Zoom presentations were organised and videos on the vintage were sent out to the markets.
The fact that prices were generally slashed by 20% to 30% (and even more) goes a long way towards explaining the success of the 2019 campaign. In the history of the primeurs market, this kind of price decrease is rare and when it happened before it was usually for poor vintages. Pierre Lurton was astonished by the success of the campaign: “We released our 2019 Cheval Blanc at 25% less than our 2018 opening price, and within 2 hours we’d sold out. We could easily have sold double the amount. The demand was so strong.” Amazingly, Château Cheval Blanc was one of the growths that didn’t send samples for tasting. Clearly, the market trusted the brand, but does this perhaps signal a change in the way the primeurs market might function in the future? Has the wine critic’s rating become less important, since Robert Parker retired from the scene?
It was the same success story at Château Rauzan-Ségla and Château Canon, even though their prices were only moderately decreased. “On average, 2019 prices dropped by 25 to 30%”, said Audebert, “some growths needed to do that to sell. Others went even further and sold at a knock-down price. Rauzan-Ségla and Canon enjoy a good reputation for stability and consistent pricing. We decided to come down just a bit, but it all sold in no time at all”.
Château Ausone’s Edouard Vauthier, whose family also owns a range of Saint-Emilion brands, said that the situation allowed them to spend time with all of their négociant partners to discuss not only the vintage but also the prospects in the market. “We didn’t send out any samples, but in June we were open to receive négociants and wine writers and to taste our wines with them. We enjoyed a really successful campaign. All our négociants came, but unfortunately only three journalists were able to make it. It went so well that we’re thinking about doing this again next June, maybe instead of in March or April”, said Edouard Vauthier. Traditions die hard in France, and if a COVID vaccine is ready by next year, the primeurs could well revert to its usual format. But did 2019 sow the seeds of a new normal for future primeurs campaigns, in which the early spring tastings are less essential?
Amidst the hype and euphoria of the Bordeaux primeurs market, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. In the real world of corks being pulled, who actually drinks these highly sought-after wines? If you ask directors of top Bordeaux growths exactly where and how their wines are sold after they have left the négociant’s cellars, some of them still don’t have a clue. Incredibly, only a few years ago, some négociants deliberately kept producers in the dark to protect themselves from competition, while at the same time there were producers who, as Nicolas Audebert succinctly puts it, “loaded up the truck with the négociant’s order and didn’t give two hoots about where it ended up.”
Nowadays, châteaux are more eager to find out who’s drinking their wines, and négociants are becoming more transparent about where they distribute them. Many grands crus are developing sales teams, whose job it is to support the négociants by giving tastings and presentations alongside them. This has enabled the châteaux to be more in touch with the final consumer. As Benoît Prévôt, the director of Château Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol stated, “Our partnership with Bordeaux négociants in the future will involve accompanying them in their markets, helping them to promote our wine through tastings and events. The négociants do a great job for us, but in the future we must also play a more proactive role.”
As the First Growths get to know who their customers really are, they realise that a growing number of them are not necessarily consumers, but investors or collectors. Not everyone is comfortable with this reality, but as Edouard Vauthier says, “the number of rich people in the world has increased, and it’s no coincidence that sales of top Bordeaux have continued to increase”.
When I asked Pierre Lurton if he could explain the demand for his 2019 vintage during these uncertain times, he was convinced that, while the price was attractive for investors, demand for good wine had actually increased during Covid. His team, like at many of the more dynamic wine estates today, have their fingers on the pulse of the consumer market. “Thanks to the internet”, he said, “consumers have easy access to supplies of wine without having to leave their homes. On-line sales have been going through something of a boom during Covid. Since people were forced to stay at home, internet was the obvious sales channel. In France, higher domestic consumption has been recorded in 2020 because people have been enjoying great food and wine at home, which is obviously to the detriment of the hotel and restaurant trade. Clearly, wineries and wine distributors need to adapt to this new normal.”
And also part of that bigger picture are the great number of ordinary Bordeaux growths known as petits châteaux, for whom the new normal has been a massive challenge. Bordeaux négociants offer them few distribution solutions, while their ability to adapt to on-line selling is somewhat limited, particularly in the smaller business structures. The French government recently stepped in to introduce distillation of surplus wines, while pulling up vines is also on the agenda. This is a great shame because, as Pierre Lurton rightly points out, “Bordeaux petits châteaux offer some of the best value wines in the world”.
In the meantime, Bordeaux’s grape harvest, once upon a time a great festive occasion with joyous bands of pickers from Andalusia and local villages, is being carried out cautiously following strict social-distancing protocol. The traditional folk songs that used to ring out in the rows during the picking have long been replaced by the haunting drone of the mechanical harvester. But while hand-picking remains de rigueur at Bordeaux’s top estates, petit château producers, accustomed to making do on their own, have at least managed to stay safe within the protection of their harvesting machines.
Born and educated in the UK, Andrew Black is a graduate of Sheffield University and began his career at a négociant house in Bordeaux working in English-speaking markets. 6 years later he returned to his home country to train as an English teacher for the business world. In 1989 he joined the prestigious Pilgrims school at El Escorial, Madrid and became its director. In 1993, he returned to Bordeaux to set up his own company teaching English at numerous prestigious châteaux, such as Pétrus, Margaux, Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Figeac. Since 1998, he has divided his time between France and Spain, where he has given courses in most of the country’s appellations. In 2006, he founded Premiere Presse, a newsletter which enables producers to communicate regularly in English with wine critics and importers. In 2015, he created Rencontres Internationales Vignerons (RIV), which organises seminars in which prestigious wine producers in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal take part in technical exchanges. In his spare time, he tends his tiny vineyard in Bordeaux, from which he produces one barrel of wine a year.