by Tim Atkin

Bordeaux en primeur: the case for change

As Bordeaux packs up the tents, ice buckets and traffic barriers for another year at Vinexpo, the region’s biennial trade fair, its focus has returned to the 2010 en primeur campaign. If you’re not a keen follower of the fine wine scene, you may be amazed to hear that it’s still going. But it is.

Like a day time soap opera you assumed had long disappeared from the screens, this one will run and run, even if its audience is dwindling. 2010 is already the longest en primeur pitch in history and it isn’t finished yet. Most of the big names from the Left and Right Banks have yet to declare their prices. At this rate, wine merchants could be offering the last few wines around Christmas.

As this crazy campaign finally draws to a close, maybe now is a good time to look at Bordeaux en primeur and to ask a few questions about the whole system. First, whom does it benefit? Second, could it be improved? And if so, how?

The answer to the first question is the châteaux above all. They generate cash flow by selling their wine while it’s still in barrel. Even if they over-price it (and 10%+ increases on record 2009 prices have been common this year) their wine is still purchased by the négociants, the middle men who normally take 15% commission but have had to work on much slimmer margins this year to sell the wines to reluctant merchants and consumers.

In 2009, every link in the supply chain turned to gold, but not this year. With a few exceptions, the campaign has been underwhelming, failing to engage collectors, investors and (remember them?) drinkers, despite the enthusiasm of wine writers. It’s partly that the wines have been expensive — higher than the current prices of 2009 and 2005, the last two “vintages of the century”, in many cases — but there’s also a slight sense of boredom.

Good and great vintages in Bordeaux seem to be the norm these days, rather than the exception. 2011 is already looking like another one, even at this comparatively early stage. If there’s plenty of excellent, mature wine on the market — and there is — why tie up your money in something that won’t be approaching maturity for at least another decade, especially if it isn’t going to show the returns that have turned fine wine into an “investment vehicle” in recent years?

The en primeur system needs radical change in my view. The wines are tasted too early for a start, especially from 2010, a vintage with some of the highest levels of acidity and tannin ever recorded. It was ironic that a couple of American critics thought they were scooping their colleagues by tasting two weeks before the rest of us. In reality, they were at a disadvantage, since the wines were even harder to assess in March than they were in early April.

Young Bordeaux is notoriously difficult to taste. Why not put the en primeur cycle back a year? We would all make more reliable judgments if the wines had more time to integrate in barrel. And given the price of top Bordeaux, reliable judgments are more essential than ever.

As things stand, the samples that are presented to journalists and the trade are not always (seldom?) representative of what appears in bottle: different blends, different barrels, unfined, unfiltered. In an ideal world, samples would be audited by the Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) for consistency. As things stand, the system invites abuse.

An even bigger problem is pricing. Journalists and merchants are asked to taste, comment and score individual wines before they know how much they will cost. The châteaux then fix their prices based on the reaction of the market. The situation reaches its nadir with Robert Parker, who remains the most powerful wine critic for Bordeaux. He can rail all he likes against the greed of the Bordelais, but they are using his scores and comments to make money. Millions of euros of it.

Parker could stop this by refusing to score the wines until the prices are released, as could all of us. But it won’t happen because most wine writers are competing with one another rather than trying to provide a service for consumers. It is our job to highlight value for money and, conversely, to criticise ridiculous prices. The gloves need to come off.

The same applies to most wine merchants, and not just in the UK. Rather than seeing en primeur as a way to make money, trying to convince punters that these are “must buy” wines when most of the time they aren’t, they should provide an honest and dispassionate assessment of the vintage, the campaign and the prices of individual wines.

There’s way too much respect given to the top châteaux and the 1855 classification. Blind tasting would help to eliminate some of this, but the top châteaux don’t permit it. “You’ve got to play the game,” one wine merchant told me recently, “or the Bordelais will exclude you.” Maybe they will, but it’s time someone changed the rules. This game has gone on long enough.

Originally published in OLN

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