It’s that time of year when the attention of fine-wine lovers is drawn to Bordeaux, with tastings of the region’s 2020 vintage set to start – and merchants, critics and collectors alike are wondering how it’s all going to play out.
Whereas in a normal year, the wine world would decamp to the Gironde for a week of tastings, slap-up lunches and networking parties, this year’s en primeur week will again be a more remote and drawn-out affair. On the surface, the mechanics of tasting the Bordeaux 2020 vintage are set to broadly replicate last year’s tasting of the 2019s – although whether the châteaux will repeat their dramatic price reductions remains to be seen.
Last year, châteaux priced their wines at an average of 21% lower than the previous vintage. This delighted merchants and provided a stuttering campaign with an unexpected boost. “Good pricing saved the campaign,” Farr Vintners chairman Stephen Browett said. “The question is, will Bordeaux feel that was a one-off, and therefore won’t do it again?”
Although the tastings, and critics’ verdicts, are likely to be more spread out, the actual en primeur campaign is likely to be compressed into a few weeks again. The wines will be tasted by merchants and critics towards the end of this month, with verdicts appearing shortly thereafter, and the first prices emerging by the end of May (last year Château Pontet-Canet, traditionally the first to release, did so on 28 May, and Le Pin, usually the last, at the end of June). Merchants are expecting to be sending out their offers throughout June and July, with the bulk of the major properties releasing in mid-June.
As to quality, producers are stressing the “low quantity/high quality” narrative. “It’s not a big vintage but once more, by chance, it’s a very successful vintage, because of wonderful summer weather,” Ronan Laborde of Château Clinet and president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) told Club Oenologique. “Strong and elegant” is the verdict of David Thomas, sales director of Bordeaux Index.
The wines will be “a little high in alcohol in some places,” Laborde adds. There was mildew in spring, a long, hot summer and a heatwave in September – all factors which impact yield and quality. Experts reckon that the top-performing appellations will be those with the ability to retain water – the clay soils of Pomerol and the plateau of St-Emilion, for example. Overall “quality is high, albeit variable,” Gavin Quinney of Château Bauduc in Entre-deux-Mers wrote on jancisrobinson.com.
The UGCB has again sent samples from its 131 member châteaux to key critics and retailers around the world. And while last year merchants and critics voiced considerable doubt over the viability of shipping fragile barrel samples of unfinished wines around the world, that debate seems to have been defused. “We were sceptical about tasting samples so far away from Bordeaux,” Browett said. “But they were fine last year – it wasn’t an issue. Samples have proven to be not nearly as delicate as people thought.”
Some properties which insisted on their wines being tasted in Bordeaux have changed their policy. The châteaux belonging to the Chanel group – Rauzan-Segla, Canon and Berliquet – have worked out a tracking system to ensure the samples arrive in the best condition. A sensor will alert recipients and the property if the bottles undergo rapid or extreme temperature changes en route.
“Of course, the best place to taste is at the estate,” sales manager Cécile Cazard said, “but we are genuinely curious as to how this will work. It’s a way to learn about what sort of conditions a wine can cope with.”
Whether any of the changes will be permanent or not remains to be seen. Some – such as past UGCB president Alain Raynaud and Haut-Brion owner Prince Robert of Luxembourg – continue to push for later tastings (both advocate tasting in May or even June) but most are adamant that en primeur must remain as it is. “The system has been in place for hundreds of years and it won’t change,” Laborde said. “The best way is to come to Bordeaux to taste and we hope to get back to that in the future.”
Laborde described last year as an “earthquake” which forced Bordeaux to rapidly adapt. Also seismic were the considerable price reductions – Pontet-Canet and Palmer, for example, were one-third less than their 2018 price, and many major properties followed suit.
Last year’s onset of the pandemic, and the associated economic uncertainty had an immediate impact on pricing, but this year there are multiple factors that will affect price. Will châteaux bank on strong demand for a limited supply of wine? Will the success of the 2019 campaign (and the fact that prices rose slightly after release) encourage owners to go higher?
“I highly doubt that the châteaux will price low two years in a row, even though the global economic environment is still hugely unpredictable,” Bordeaux-based journalist and critic Jane Anson told Club Oenologique. “Lower production levels may lead to châteaux raising prices,” Matthew O’Connell at Bordeaux Index speculated.
On the other hand, merchants point out, while 2019 was considered a triumph simply because it happened at all, the wines didn’t fly off the shelves. “Most of the wines are still available: they didn’t sell out,” Browett said. Other London merchants said they simply didn’t have enough to sell. “There was demand but they released less; the prices were really attractive so we could have sold more,” Patrick O’Connor, CEO of Fine+Rare added.
At this stage of the campaign, before the wines have even been tasted, few in Bordeaux are prepared to make predictions. “We will all be really cautious,” Cazard said. “The global economy is not at its best, the exchange rate is negative for importers – there’s going to be a lot of discussion over the next few months.”
Bordeaux will be waiting for the critics’ verdicts, but there are many more factors to be taken into account. One of the most important of these is the fund of goodwill that owners were (perhaps) surprised to find last year. “We had a lot of support,” Laborde says. “People were really looking for en primeur to work.”
The balance of goodwill over hard economic reality is the equation that owners will be sitting down to calculate over the next two months.