Chloe Ashton reports on another highly promising vintage for the region, and hopes leading producers will seize the opportunity to reset prices during the Covid-19-complicated en primeur campaign

By this time of writing (early May) in a normal year, members of the international trade have tasted Bordeaux’s latest vintage, and garnered a solid understanding of what to expect from the quality of the new wine to come. As it turned out, the 2019 vintage had a turbulent introduction to the world even before samples were bottled. With news of the Covid-19 outbreak evolving on a weekly, even daily, basis leading up to the annual Bordeaux en primeur tasting week (March 30–April 3), there remained hope that it could go ahead as planned up until the last hurdle. Finally, however, on March 13, President of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB), Ronan Laborde, announced the cancellation of its tastings, and châteaux holding individual tastings quickly followed suit. Four days later, France went into total lockdown. With the world in turmoil, and much of the industry grappling with contingency plans for a whole sector of business—the on-trade—en primeur speculation began to simmer.

Into the unknown

Once tastings were canceled, it became clear that a normal campaign format was (and still is) an impossibility. Wine Lister asked its Founding Members (approximately 50 key members of the fine-wine trade across the world) what they thought should be done about 2019 Bordeaux in light of the pandemic.

The first question was whether 2019 releases could go ahead without tastings having taken place. At the time of asking (the survey closed on April 10), 20 out of 50 respondents (40 percent) believed a campaign without tastings was impossible. A further 16 believed the campaign could go ahead “partially,” implying that a handful of the strongest brands would sell themselves.

Comments from respondents clarified that perhaps only top critics needed to taste, arguing that the majority of wines could be sold on the basis of their scores. Many, however, emphasized the current context as more problematic than the issue of tasting. “If major critics were able to taste bottled samples, we might be able to get away with it, but to be honest, I don’t think the vintage will be a commercial success until a cure for Covid-19 has been found, and the world’s economies are picking up the pieces”, said one top-tier UK merchant. In the end, responses to the question of when might be the most appropriate time for a rescheduled tasting week and subsequent campaign reflect the uncertainty of the circumstances in which we are living.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a campaign closest to the normal timing proved the most controversial option, receiving equal amounts of “first choice” and “last choice” votes. Delaying the campaign by an entire year was a slightly less divisive option, earning as many first- and second-choice votes added together as a campaign this year, but with fewer detractors. The middle ground appeared to be a campaign toward the Fall.

Since collecting these results, the UGCB has announced that it hopes for a campaign in “early summer,” and on the basis of eased lock-down restrictions in France, Bordeaux négociants have begun to taste on an individual basis at the châteaux. Berry Bros & Rudd’s Buying Director, Max Lalondrelle, expresses support for this timing. “We believe that the trade in general—from the producer, to the consumers—wants to see, and needs, a campaign,” he says. “It will be a great opportunity for most of us to re-engage with our customer base and re-energize the trade after what can be described as one of the most difficult times we have all experienced.” Lalondrelle is not too worried, either, about the lack of opportunities in the short term for him and his colleagues to taste. “We will offer the wines based on their longstanding quality pedigree, on the quality of the vintage, and the price.” Other members of the UK trade, though, remain unconvinced. Chairman of Farr Vintners, Stephen Browett, tells me: “We were very surprised that many in Bordeaux seemed determined to press ahead with an en primeur campaign when the world was in crisis.”

Even if négociants on the Place de Bordeaux are able to taste, and samples are sent to major critics around the world, Browett believes that the risk of unstable cask samples being tasted miles from their home will be only the first challenge. The second, he explains, boils down to existing, price-related issues: “One thing that is absolutely crystal clear is that for this en primeur campaign to work, Bordeaux must return to the fundamental (and recently ignored) concept that en primeur wines need to reach the consumer at lower prices than physically available vintages.” Lalondrelle agrees on the particular point of price reduction, telling me, “In order for consumers to put their faith in the product without knowing too much about the quality or style, the producers will have to offer some relatively good prices to entice consumers to take the risk.”

The crux of the matter

Bordeaux is once again creaking—this time with stocks of 2017, and the impending arrival of just-bottled 2018s, whose en primeur release prices once again all too often missed the mark by not offering enough value appreciation to buyers. Regardless of timing, for a 2019 campaign to be at all successful, this crucial question of pricing must be taken into account—on top of the exceptional context of the global pandemic and its resulting recession.

Pricing appears to be the crux of the matter for many of Wine Lister’s survey respondents. A top-tier UK merchant argued there could be some interest in a campaign this year “if the prices are super-reasonable, such as 30–35 percent below previous prices of similar vintages.” Another survey respondent, and member of the Place de Bordeaux, admitted that “releasing on the back of a crisis could encourage the reset needed on prices from the châteaux.” Despite the potential risk of a campaign in any form within such a difficult context, Browett, too, sees an opportunity for Bordeaux: “If 2019 turns out to be a great year, then customers will be happy with their purchases, and a new confidence may return to buying en primeur after recent disappointing campaigns.”

Following a focus group held by Wine Lister with further key players of the Place de Bordeaux to discuss the survey results, the message from Bordeaux was this: “Bordeaux remains acutely aware of the virus’s development in markets around the world, markets which remain, of course, at the heart of any final decision. Whatever the timing of the campaign, in this unprecedented context, prices must be adapted such that everyone involved can benefit.”

A miraculous 2019

By all accounts of the quality of the 2019 Bordeaux vintage, the timing of the pandemic could not have been worse. “Could Covid not have come for the 2017 vintage?” joked one producer. I have had high hopes for the vintage since the first few days of the harvest, when I witnessed the sorting of the first Merlot grapes at Pichon Baron. Though very slightly on the small side due to another year of summer heat waves, the grapes were in perfect health. At Château Talbot, Director Jean-Michel Laporte confirms that the same is true for the St-Julien property. “Thanks to the impressive health of the grapes, sorting in 2019 was purely about choosing the very best quality.”

Véronique Sanders, Director of Château Haut-Bailly, is calling the 2019 a “classic” wine in an unclassical year. Referencing not only the campaign’s unprecedented context, but also the growing season, she explains that the vintage began with a warm winter, resulting in bud break two weeks earlier than average. A cool May brought the vine cycle back into balance, with floraison starting around May 23—more or less normal timing. Like 2018, the early summer brought extreme high temperatures. “Our new cellar was in the process of being built, and for a few days in July the construction work was done at night, so that the workers could avoid the heat of the day,” Sanders recalls. A storm at the end of July brought sufficient rain to prevent drought stress in the vines for the rest of the summer. The final product, she tells me, is an Haut-Bailly with “exceptional energy.”

Nicolas Glumineau, Technical Director of Pichon Comtesse, further fuels my frustrations at not having been able to taste yet. He believes his grand vin has finally overtaken the heights of his heretofore hero wine—Montrose 2010: “I don’t think we’ve made anything better for years,” he says, adding, “it’s a miracle, because we’ve had an exceptionally dry year, starting in July 2018 and running more or less until July 2019.” Luckily, the drought was relieved by just enough water in Pauillac, too, to ensure freshness. In St-Estèphe, Cos d’Estournel’s Michel Reybier adds his own praise for the “miraculous” vintage. “There was heat, but rain each time we needed it at precisely the right moment,” he explains, calling his 2019 grand vin “more sophisticated than 2018—a little less powerful but with great balance.” Cos d’Estournel’s 2019 white is also “the best white we’ve ever made by far.”

On the Right Bank, Thomas Soubes, Director at La Gaffelière, is very happy with the quality of 2019, and of the Cabernet Franc in particular (which makes up 40 percent of the blend of the grand vin). “We are lucky to have quality and quantity this year,” he tells me, echoing the theme of exceptionally healthy grapes, resulting in the need for less vigorous sorting than in 2018.

Thus far, only exceptional vintages have been used as a comparison for 2019 in quality terms. Glumineau sees similarities between the 2010 and the 2019 Pichon Comtesse; Sanders also likens the structure of the 2019 Haut-Bailly to that of the 2010, while finding other attributes more reminiscent of the 2009 and 2015.

Looking down the barrel

Though vintage comparisons may be entertaining and insightful—and they are certainly a hot topic during en primeur tastings—they can be risky, too. After speculation on the quality of 2018 led to claims (legitimate or not) from some that the wines were “even better than 2016,” the comparison too often encouraged even higher pricing, when a significant discount could have helped the wines fly. However good the 2019 vintage, Bordeaux has been under pressure too long for it to continue pricing with quality as the only rationale.

Bordeaux’s market share of Liv-ex trades has already fallen in 2020, at 49 percent on average for the year to date—6 percent below its share in 2019—reaching a record monthly low of 41 percent during the first quarter. The accumulating consequences of Brexit, political unrest in Hong Kong, and tariff changes in the USA have now been cast aside by an even bigger and scarier beast. And Covid-19 has only just begun to bare its teeth.

Responses to Wine Lister’s final survey question testify to longer standing problems. Asked how any revenue lost through a postponed en primeur campaign might be replaced, a worrying number of respondents replied that they expected little or no impact on their revenues for the second quarter of 2020. A top-tier UK merchant states, “Bordeaux en primeur is no longer an important part of our business.” This sentiment is echoed by specialist importers across the UK, the US, and Asia, with one top-tier Asian merchant specifying, “en primeur is a service to our clients, not a business focus.”

Thinking of it positively, the Covid-19 crisis may force an issue that would otherwise have taken longer to draw out. At whatever stage the 2019s are released over the next year, the only way of ensuring campaign success will surely be to press reset on price, and to the extent that the wines again offer true value—which is, after all, what the futures system is all about in the eyes of consumers. The support should still be there if the prices are right, as Max Lalondrelle believes: “We are confident that we can have a small but well-formed en primeur campaign, and are looking forward to offering the wines very soon,” he says.

Bordeaux is looking down the barrel of a gun. But with a high-quality vintage, and the perfect excuse to reduce prices, it is to be hoped that producers will be sensible enough to bite the bullet, and come up with a campaign that the market can embrace.

Photo caption and credit: Dawn at Château Haut-Bailly during the 2019 harvest. Photography by Florent Larronde.