Will there be a Bordeaux en primeur campaign this year?

As châteaux send out samples across the globe, UK merchants claim launching the 2019 vintage now would be “the height of arrogance”

Words by Adam Lechmere

The UK wine trade is indulging in one of its favourite pastimes – falling out with Bordeaux over the annual en primeur campaign.

Usually, it’s about prices. London merchants have a long history of penning letters brimming with barely-concealed frustration to the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, saying the market will be killed by high prices. This year, the squabble is more elemental.

In an open letter to the UGCB sent in late April, a group of merchants (including Corney & Barrow, The Wine Society, Farr Vintners, Lea & Sandeman and other independents) told châteaux that launching an en primeur campaign would be unfair and insensitive, and it should be postponed.

Unfair because merchants would not be able to taste the wines prior to launch; and insensitive (“the height of arrogance” one merchant said privately) because the world is simply not ready for a major sales campaign for a luxury item in order to boost the already swollen coffers of classed growth châteaux. Another influential commentator, Anthony Hanson MW, suggested on that the campaign should be put back a year.

Unfortunately the letter seems to have fallen on deaf ears – or been misinterpreted. “The signatories request that the campaign be postponed… If they don’t succeed, they will have at least put pressure on release prices for this excellent vintage. Which is perhaps the real purpose of their letter,” the eminence grise Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages blogged.

His comment got short shrift from Tim Sykes of The Wine Society, who oversaw the letter. “That’s bollocks. Of course it’s not about the prices.”

Ronan Laborde
Ronan Laborde, president of the UGCB

The UGCB is unmoved by the background noise and seems determined to press ahead regardless of the evident hurdles imposed by coronavirus. The president of the body, Ronan Laborde of Château Clinet, has told international critics that tastings are expected to be held in a dozen cities worldwide in June.

Some tastings are already going ahead both under the aegis of the UGCB and by individual châteaux. Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château Mouton-Rothschild are sending samples, or inviting journalists to the property to taste at the end of this month and in early June.

The UGCB seems determined to press ahead regardless of the evident hurdles imposed by coronavirus

Florence Cathiard of Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan said they are holding tastings at the château this week for the French press – “we had 50 journalists on Monday”- and as it “had had many requests for samples,” is sending them internationally by Fed-Ex. Several high profile critics have already posted early impressions of wines they have been sent by individual châteaux.

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte

But the issue is complicated. Although 2019 is considered an excellent vintage, many merchants are seeing little appetite for Bordeaux futures in the current climate. “I have not had a single conversation about en primeur,” is a typical comment.

“There’s a bit of chat but certainly no feeding frenzy,” said Will Hargrove, head of fine wine at Corney & Barrow in London. In the US, merchants are ambivalent. While Devin Warner of the Chicago Wine Company said he’s getting no interest, another major buyer, Barbara Hermann of the 42-outlet Binny’s in Chicago, is keeping her options open. “I’ll probably call in samples to taste. Our customers expect to see the wines but I’m not sure how strong consumer interest will be.”

In Hong Kong two major players – Jo Purcell of Farr Vintners and Thibaut Mathieu at Corney & Barrow – reported “there have been no calls.” Purcell said it wasn’t surprising – there hasn’t been interest in en primeur in Hong Kong and China since so many speculators lost their shirts over the 2009 vintage. “If you’re not going to get a return, why invest in futures?” Moreover, Hong Kong’s crisis goes far beyond COVID-19. “People have other things on their minds.”

A major hurdle for some is the inability to properly assess the wines (in en primeur week, normally the beginning of April, journalists from all over the world spend a week or two in Bordeaux, visiting, tasting and discussing). “Tasting samples in London is just not the same – we normally have 11 people assessing the wines and I’m not allowed to gather that many together,” one merchant said. “All my key sales people have to taste. What happens if a client wants to know if a wine is good and we have to say, ‘I don’t know, I haven’t tasted it’?”

Typical UGCB tastings are off the agenda for the foreseeable future

Others see fewer hurdles. Max Lalondrelle, managing director for fine wine at Berry Bros & Rudd told Club Oenologique that, while issues such as quality of samples would have to be factored in, “Our people will most likely be working from home and resisting any non-essential travel, so the window to host this sort of event is very small. But it’s not impossible.”

Another major merchant said it had no problem tasting samples sent from Bordeaux, and in any case its customers are most interested in recommendations from “big name” critics such as Antonio Galloni or James Suckling. “The Bordeaux market in the UK is huge – and there’s a new demographic of younger, urban consumers. When they buy young wines they expect to read an expert, established opinion. They’re not interested in the politics of it.”

If the issue seems divisive from London, the Bordelais see it as much simpler: it’s a good vintage that should be put on the market. “We have to taste the wines. Insensitive? Perhaps three weeks ago, yes, but hopefully we will be out of [the crisis] by mid-June,” Cathiard said. She added that 2019 would be priced “lower than 2018. Importers all over the world have contacted us. We have a good opportunity to sell at least half our crop at a bargain price.”

Critic and Club Oenologique contributor Jane Anson counselled producers to look to 2014 prices as a benchmark. ”If they go higher, they won’t find buyers,” she said. “They should look to what happened in 2008, during the financial crash – they priced the wines accordingly, sold well, and then reaped the benefits a year later.”

For their part, UK merchants dislike being characterised as naïve or over-sensitive. “Look,” said The Wine Society’s Sykes. “We have principles but we’re commercial as well. We’re making provision for a campaign in June because, like everyone else, we need the business.”