Millions of euros are at stake as the wine region must reinvent its annual tradition of en primeur. The wines are delicious. Will anyone buy?

At 9 a.m., I was sipping a barrel sample of 2019 Château Mouton Rothschild with Baron Philippe Sereys de Rothschild and managing director Philippe Dhalluin. Naturally, this was virtual: They were in Bordeaux; I was in the U.S.

The wine in my glass was real, though, and it was powerful, silky, and lush, “a rugby player in black tie,” as Dhalluin has described it.

Barrels of it are sleeping quietly in the first growth château’s cellars and won’t be bottled and shipped until 2022. But like all top Bordeaux estates, Mouton sells the wine en primeur, as futures, the spring after harvest. Meaning now.

And now, in the face of a pandemic that blocks travel and has squashed commerce, the estates are grappling with how they can continue with the long-standing tradition—and what it will take, without it, for people to buy.

Ordinarily, 5,000 merchants fly in from around the globe in early April to taste barrel samples of the latest vintage, then decide what to offer to consumers as futures. Châteaux woo them with lavish dinners and elegant lunches, trying to build excitement that will translate into buying momentum. Hotels and restaurants are full and bustling.

Wine buyers participate in a tasting of the 2016 vintage Bordeaux primeurs at Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac on April 4, 2017.

Like other journalists, I end up driving madly from Saint-Estèphe to Saint-Emilion, sipping 400 to 500 wines at group tastings and individual estates to find those to recommend.

Not this year. And maybe not ever again. The steep cobblestone streets of touristy village Saint-Emilion have been eerily quiet, and Michelin-starred restaurant Logis de Cadène, owned by Château Angélus, was cooking up 400 meals a day for medical teams at local hospitals, not visiting merchants.

With the lockdown, the Union des Grands Crus des Bordeaux (UGCB), the trade association of top estates, had to cancel its official tastings in Bordeaux. Other gatherings and appointments at places such as Mouton and Château Lafite, which normally welcome 2,000 visitors, were no longer possible.

In case you’ve forgotten how en primeur works: Châteaux sell the wines still in barrel to negociants, or merchants, who add a margin, then sell to importers and retailers, who add a margin and sell to you. You put down money and get the bottled wines two years later. The idea is that you’re buying wines at the very lowest price, and that when bottles arrive, they will cost more and you’ll have made a savvy investment. And after this year, it will have been accomplished without much pomp and circumstance at all.

Tastings Over Zoom

So far, the châteaux are trying to keep the current system in place, though there was plenty of disagreement about how to do it.

Last week, Lafite and Mouton hosted joint 45-minute in-person tastings of the 2019s for 28 U.K. merchants at Waddesdon Manor in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, which belongs to Lord Jacob Rothschild. There were no more than a couple of people at a time and careful sanitizing between tastings. The châteaux’ technical directors answered questions virtually, from a big screen.

relates to Without Lavish Tastings, Bordeaux Sells Itself With Discounts, Zoom
The author chats over Zoom with Château Mouton Rothschild managing director Philippe Dhalluin (left) and Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, as she tastes their new wine.

Ronan Laborde, president of the UGCB, says they have scheduled in-persontastings in seven cities around the world so far, where they’ll observe social distancing and take recommended precautions. He also runs Château Clinet in Pomerol, and for the past few months has been working at home with his three kids running around.

Many châteaux have been sending samples internationally for the first time, according to Fabrice Bernard of Bordeaux negociant house Millesima.

In the past two weeks I’ve tasted with winemakers remotely via Zoom, Whereby, Webex, and Microsoft Teams. One day I had the wines from Château Cos d’Estournel in front of me, while my screen showed the art-filled tasting room at the Saint-Estèphe second growth with owner Michel Reybier and technical director Dominique Arangoits explaining the vintage.

The next day I chatted with Bruno Borie, owner of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, who’d shipped a fancy purple box with 100-milliliter tubes that contained his four wines.

“Rich, Gorgeous … Soft as a Kitten’s Ear”

Everyone agrees that the quality of the vintage is very high.

Simon Staples, head of private clients at U.K. merchant Lay & Wheeler emailed that those he’d tried were “rich, gorgeous, with tannins as soft as a kitten’s ear.”

I totally agree. Château Cos d’Estournel’s top wine is spicy and velvety, with a dark, chocolatey note. The Château Ducru Beaucaillou’s grand vin is dense and dark-toned, seamless and subtle. Château Smith Haut Lafitte’s is savory and smooth, with warm red fruit.

And the Mouton is stunning, as are the wines from the Rothschild family’s two other châteaux, d’Armailhac and Clerc Milon.  Ditto the Chateau Lafite Rothschild (owned by another branch of the family) which I just tasted Friday.

I’ll report in depth on the wines in about a week.

Slashed Prices, Intense Bidding

Will anyone buy? For Mouton, the answer is decidedly yes—but at a lower price than usual. After they released at a price 30.8% cheaper than last year on June 9, the Liv-ex website crashed with all the trades. “In a complicated en primeur campaign like this, the first growths have to give the tone,” says Mouton’s Dhalluin.

Jeff Zacharia of retailer Zachys in Scarsdale, N.Y., has a Bordeaux representative tasting on the spot, but some merchants are basing their orders on a château’s track record and a handful of published reports. Most important, they say, is price.

When it comes to selling, Bordeaux was in trouble even before the pandemic. The 25% tariff the U.S. trade representative put on wines from France (and Germany, Spain, and the U.K.) cut consumer interest stateside. As Clyde Beffa Jr., owner of the Bay Area’s K&L Wine Merchants, emailed, “Selling wines as futures with tariff uncertainty looming is extremely difficult.” He doesn’t want to lose money. Whether purchasing bottles or cases, you pay the tariff only when the wines arrive in two years’ time. No one knows if the tariff will be gone or even bigger by then.

And Liv-ex points out in its recent Bordeaux 2019 Report, “Political tension in China and Hong Kong has led to faltering Asian demand.” That’s not to mention the global recession that’s hitting people’s pocketbooks.

“A Good Mood”

So Bordeaux faces the challenge of building enthusiasm without the grandeur of the normal en primeur tastings—and in the face of worldwide economic headwinds. “Even if there are good deals, though, are people in a good mood?” asks Emmanuel Cruse, co-owner of Château d’Issan in Margaux. “The British need to buy before Brexit, but we don’t expect to sell much in the U.S.”

A couple of dozen châteaux have now released their prices, and most are discounting heavily to drum up enthusiasm. Château Pontet-Canet released its wine at 31% lower than the asking price last year for the 2018. Plummy, pure ,and subtle, it’s $80 a bottle as a future.  Then came Château Cheval Blanc, down almost 30%, and Mouton at about the same. Considering the quality, these are serious bargains, ripe for investment.

James Miles, Liv-ex’s co-founder and chairman, tweeted that you can’t underestimate the impact of well-priced en primeur prices, calling it “the equivalent of a central bank intervention in financial markets … that injects enormous confidence into the system.”

Will those deep discounts be enough to pull Bordeaux through this year? As Jean-Guillaume Prats, chief executive officer of Château Lafite Rothschild, says, “Maybe Covid-19 will make us go back to the true and honest things.”

Wine Deal of the Week: The best book yet on Bordeaux has just been published: Inside Bordeaux, by Jane Anson, will be available at Sotheby’s in New York ($80) and Berry Bros & Rudd in London (£60).

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