2014 Bordeaux Primeur – Boom or Bust?

The end of the Bordeaux Primeur system is nigh so everyone is predicting. It happens every year but it seems more serious in the run-up to the futures tasting starting week 30th March. (For the full Bordeaux primeur 2014 programme) Why is this?

Tasting the 2013s a year after its outing at the primeurs in the chais of Millesima
Tasting the 2013s a year after its outing at the primeurs in the chais of Millesima

Perhaps it coincides with the first vintage in 37 years that Robert Paker will not be commenting on (he has handed over to Brit Neal Martin). The reason I believe is more deep-rooted. Rising prices have just continued to rise due to the increased demand on the world wine markets over the last few years particularly from the Asian markets. Despite a series of average and small vintages since 2010 we have had little contraction of prices (except perhaps for 2012 when prices came down on average 30%, ironic as it is the best of the last three vintages). Its been boom, boom boom but without the sales down the line. There are lots of stocks in the wine merchant houses left unsold and even 2013 left unsold ageing in the barrels. At the same time the markets (the key UK players penned an open letter) demanding a significant price fall in these austere times –  a return to 2008 prices (low due to world crisis) for the baby 2014. Many of the top classified châteaux owners do not agree.

In nutshell the miserable wet and grey Summer of 2014 was abruptly caught up at the beginning of September when the sun shone hot and steady for 6 weeks. We are not sure of the effect of having the ripeness happening in such a short, sharp period. The Cabernet Sauvignon is more adapted to dealing with this heat late in the season being the last variety to ripen. Merlot perhaps is less suited to this late heat as it likes to ripen earlier. We will not know what the impact is on the ability to age of the 2014 vintage not until years down the line.

Selling En Primeur – what does it mean? selling the wine as a future, before it is finished and bottled while it is still in the middle of ageing in the barrel. It is a way for the classified growths to get some money upfront to pay particularly for the expensive oak barrels. Bordeaux is the key region that uses this method of selling though other régions such as Burgundy and the Rhône. The wine is released in ‘tranche’ slices. In theory the earlier you buy, the cheaper. Cheaper than when it is ready to be bottled and shipped two years down the line. Today this is not always the case.

En Primeur – why did it develop in Bordeaux? Bordeaux lies on the 49th parallel and its relatively cool nothern climate (compared to other wine régions) is further cooled by the effect of the Atlantic Ocean. Its very changeable, maritime climate means that there is a lot of vintage variation. Nowadays with technological advances (such as the optical lazer sorter that sorts grapes by computer at 80km per hour) there are no ‘bad’ vintages but challenging ones. When lighter wines are produced. (Explanation – In good years there is a lot of sun, the vines get water stressed and produce a few concentrated ripe berries. In a year when nature is more fickle and the grapes are unable to ripen properly due to the lack of sun, lighter wines are produced. There is always a battle between the wine producers and the weather. It sorts the men from the boys, who has the courage or intuition to push the limits and risk their crop for a day or two of extra ripeness. Good ‘terroir’ that advances the ripening cycle helps a lot in these years. You can spot them when tasting wines side by side from a year like 2013)

So selling en primeur developed in Bordeaux to iron out the effect of the differences in the product. Spreading the risk for the producer of lighter vintages. Each year the merchants take their allocations (what has been alloted to them) or risk losing it the next year (which may well be the vintage of the century). Their extensive networks then sell these wines all over the world. There was always demand for their wines. But that was before the increased competition from California, Australia and South America.

En Primeur – how does it work? It only works when there is more demand than supply. The classified châteaux sell uniquely through the wine merchants on the ‘place de Bordeux’ (stock exchange). Everything is done through ‘hEvery year the châteaux show their new baby wine to the world’s press and buyers in the first weonour’. There are no signed contracts. Many wines (only 6 months old, so only have lived a quarter of their time in barrel) have not been blended yet so the eventual blend has to be guessed at! Most producers admit to showing their best lots. The châteaux then usually during May or June release their opening prices (no-one wants to go first) to the wine merchants who will then buy according to their allocations. They will then sell on to their distributors who sell to the private clients. The idea is that everyone takes a margin and the resulting price is similar.

It is a historical way of selling Bordeaux. Up until the 1960s the wine was sold in an eaven riskier way for the wine merchants ‘sur souche’ on the vine itself!

The smaller producers who could do with the Financial injection generally do not sell en primeur as their wines can be bought later for similar prices (there is not the fluctuation of prices here even in exceptional years).

A Year like 2013 will be the downfall of many small and larger businesses who do not have the buffer to support it. No-one wants it – not helped by journalists ‘bashing’ of the vintage. It was rejected before it even had a chance.

At a tasting yesterday of mostly classified 2013s at Millesima one year on, it was interesting to see the 2013’s stripped of their plump baby fruit flesh and sweet oakiness, now one year on since they were the subject of the primeur’s coming out. They are light, the best are integrated elegant wines with sour cherry and spicey notes for earlier drinking. (I just sold some 2010 from a small but very good St Emilion Grand Cru Château Béard la Chapelle direct to wine drinkers in my SIP Club and many found it too Young. Few have the space or conditions to such keep wine. Years like 2013 are needed). My favorites of the tasting were; My star wine was Château Pavie Macquin St Emilion, Châteaux d’Aiguille Côte de Castillon, Sociando Mallet Haut Médoc, Sénéjac Haut Medoc, Domaine de Chevalier Pessac Léognan, Canon La Gaffelière St Emilion, Figeac, Clos Fourtet, Larcis Ducasse, Marquis de Terme Margaux, Léoville Poyferré, Branaire Ducru, Beychevelle, Pichon Baron Pauillac, Pichon Comtesse Pauillac, Grand Puy Lacoste Pauillac, Cos d’Estournel St Estephe, Lafon Rochet St Estephe, Phelan Segur St Estephe.

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In a year like 2013, the wine producers remember why the role of the negotiant (wine merchant) is so important. But due to close to zero demand merchants have not ‘played the game’ and much 2013 has been left unsold. This has a massive Knock-on effect on the entire Bordeaux market including the smaller producers many of whom without healthy balance sheet  or friendly bank manager will not be able to survive. Whatever nature présents during the year in Bordeaux the crippling social security demands continue to fall….

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