What does en primeur mean for the lower-ranking Bordeaux châteaux?

Bordeaux 2019 is in full swing and there’s a feeding frenzy as classed growths drop prices by up to 30%. But where does this leave the also-rans?

Words by Adam Lechmere

As the great properties of Bordeaux release their 2019 wines amid the usual fanfare – with the extra enticement, this year, of substantial discounts – hundreds of smaller properties are playing a waiting game. For the majority of them, this translates into simply keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

For a whole host of reasons – chief among them the pandemic – Bordeaux’s big names are reducing their prices by up to a third. Mouton-Rothschild, Pontet-Canet, Cos d’Estournel, Lynch-Bages, Leoville-Poyferré and Cheval Blanc have all released at 25-30% below their 2018 price. A swathe of other major châteaux have come out with substantial discounts.

As a result, the negociants, who buy the wines and distribute them to merchants to sell on, are having a spending spree, knowing that their clients around the world (even the most curmudgeonly of the London merchants) will be quick to snap up such bargains.

(Main image: Château de Pressac, St Emilion by Philippe Roy)

For smaller, ‘lesser’ names, though, the fact that 2019 has been decreed a “great” vintage, throws up its own worries – particularly because prices have come down to reflect the economic uncertainty. “When the prices go down, the negociants buy as much as they can, and then they won’t have any more money for ‘normal’ wines,” says Jean de Boigne of Château de Pitray in Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux. “I hope they won’t forget the wines that are for drinking, not for speculation.”

de Boigne, whose grand vin sells in the UK for around £18 with The Wine Society, doesn’t know if such an attitude will prevail, since he can’t speak to anybody. “Now all the top wines are releasing their prices – Mouton was this morning – don’t even think about calling a negociant or a broker. They won’t answer your call.”

For Jean de Boigne of Château de Pitray, sales are dictated by how well the vintage as a whole is rated by critics

There are around 6,000 properties in Bordeaux, from 1ha farms in lesser-known appellations to the world-famous châteaux of the Médoc and St-Emilion. Of these, some 300 sell their wine en primeur – as futures – via the negociants, which work through the long-established marketplace of the Bordeaux Place. En primeur wines range in value from solid cru bourgeois which will end up on a supermarket shelf for around £15, to the first growths at 30 times the price.

de Boigne makes about 35,000 bottles of his first wine, and sells 90 per cent of it en primeur. At the moment it’s simply a question of waiting. The negociants he works with have sent out samples to journals and critics like Wine Advocate and James Suckling. “As soon as I have a rating for the wine I can start selling. I have to wait and hope,” he says over the phone from Bordeaux.

He’s confident, however, since most years, his sales are dictated less by the quality of his own wine, and more by the perception of everyone else’s. “When the press says it’s a good vintage I sell a lot; and when it says it’s a bad vintage I have trouble.” In a vintage like 2019, which has been widely praised, this can work in his favour. Less so in ‘off’ vintages. “Even if my wine is very good, as it was in 2017, if the press has decided Bordeaux has had a bad year, it’s very hard to sell my wine.”

More modest producers worry that their wines will be something of an anti-climax

This year, of course, the situation is further clouded by the economic fallout of the coronavirus. And while the big names are able to take a hit by reducing their prices to reflect the situation, smaller properties don’t have this option. “I have a turnover of between €2.5 and €3m, so my profits are tiny,” says Jean-François Quenin at St-Emilion grand cru classé Château de Pressac, whose wine retails for around £20 in the UK through Berry Bros & Rudd. “If I took 30% off my 2019, I would lose my profit base.”

Nevertheless, he feels under no pressure to follow their lead on pricing. “The price of Cheval Blanc really isn’t relevant to what I’m doing,” he says – the St Emilion premier grand cru classé “A” is a few miles to the east, and sells its wines for roughly 50 times that of de Pressac. de Boigne is the same: it’s like the difference between an Aston Martin and a VW Golf, he says. “A first growth may go down in price but I can’t change mine.”

All of which leaves them in a vulnerable position. As consumers are seduced by slick marketing from merchants hawking big-name releases at knock-down prices, the worry for more modest producers is that the subsequent release of their wines – at less of a discount – will be something of an anti-climax.

Château de Pressac doesn't have the option of reducing its prices
Andrew McInnes has sent samples of Château la Cardonne to major critics

En primeur has come in for sustained criticism over the years for, among other things, favouring the great châteaux – who least need the cashflow – over the smaller properties. Yet however far they are from the balance sheets of the top châteaux, de Boigne and Quenin continue to sell their wines this way because it still works for them.

Indeed, even those that never sell futures take advantage of the annual tasting circus. Andrew McInnes, director of the Chinese-owned Château la Cardonne, a Médoc cru bourgeois which sells “less than 1%” through the Place, has sent samples out to the major critics. The wine has just been given 91/92 points by James Suckling in Hong Kong.

“That’s at the lower end of a good cru classé score but it makes me feel that we’re making great wine,” says McInnes. If he’s trying, further down the line, to get his wine in front of a Canadian monopoly, he points out, such a score is a major boost. There are dozens of properties that take advantage of en primeur in this way. That’s why, with only 300 properties actually selling through the Place, many critics taste three times that many wines en primeur (Suckling claims to have tasted “nearly 1,000”).

En primeur is a unique and very old-fashioned system (courtiers – the middle men between negociants and châteaux – have been around since at least the 14th century). As Ronan Laborde, president of the Unions des Grands Crus de Bordeaux has said, it’s in the DNA of the châteaux. As a publicity and marketing machine, it is extraordinarily effective, and – as this year has shown – it seems to retain the capacity to adapt and survive.