As I write, the 2014 Bordeaux primeurs week has just finished. So my twitter stream has been full of complaints from the UK wine trade and several journalists complaining about the system and bemoaning the way that prices have been too high for the last few years. ‘Primeurs is broken,’ they cry. ‘It’s not fit for purpose.’ Still, though, the very same people travel dutifully to Bordeaux every year, and the same complaints are made, and the whole circus repeats itself endlessly.
From this, I conclude that even the ardent critics of the primeur system, with their recidivist visiting habits, actually quite like primeurs week. They positively enjoy it, judging by their instagram pictures. The normal behaviour for critics of a broken system would be for them to stop supporting it with their presence. But I suspect that they like the glamour, the big chateaux, the coming together of the world’s fine wine trade, the swanky dinners, and the chance to grumble some more.
I’ve never been to primeurs. It’s not because I think the system is evil, or that I dislike Bordeaux. [Bordeaux is actually a magical place. You can’t help, as a wine lover, being wowed by all these super-famous vineyards with their sense of history.] It’s because there’s simply no point in me attending. I can’t justify a week out of my calendar to taste far too many cask samples, when my output wouldn’t add anything to what’s already published. Besides, while I love drinking great Bordeaux, it is not one of the areas I’ve focused on in detail simply because it is such well-trodden ground and the Bordelais are already well supplied with wine journalists who make this region their speciality. [Especially those journalists chasing the $$$, because they are extra-keen to write for rich people.] I also nurture a sneaking suspicion that if I scored all the 2014 samples by guesswork, given the reputation of the vintage and the track record of each chateau, then no one would notice that I hadn’t tasted the wines at all. Remember: an increasing number of top properties no longer allow you to taste their wine blind: you have to go there in order to assess their particular cask samples. Visit a first growth and it’s hard not to give it 96–98/100, or even more in a top vintage.
Besides, there’s an awful lot of rubbish written after primeurs week by journalists who should know better. Dudes, these are cask samples! You shouldn’t be writing extensive tasting notes on cask samples and then pretend you have a reliable assessment of that chateau’s grand vin. Go through any red wine cellar and taste cask samples of a wine that only finished fermenting four months ago, and you see differences, barrel to barrel. That’s what people are looking at during primeurs week. These samples give a glimpse of potential quality. A glimpse! The problem is, critic scores assigned during this week can have an anchoring effect when people assess the wines further down the line. But critics like to deal in certainty, even when there isn’t any. Certainty sells.
As for primeurs itself, I have no beef with it. The chateaux have a system that has worked very well for them. I don’t think that delaying the release of the wines for another year, and showing the wines a year later in their lives, would necessarily work all that much better. It would still be cask samples. And it would require a huge collaborative effort for this sort of decision to be reached, and it wouldn’t necessarily be in the interests of the Bordelais, so I can’t see it happening. The current system isn’t perfect, but it works, and the attendance at primeurs seems to indicate that the trade don’t dislike it as much as they make out.
One criticism has been the recent high prices. What the Bordeaux chateaux are doing when they set their prices is pitching them at such a level that no one else makes their margin. They aim to get them as close to the true market price as possible, so they first have to make a guess as to the real market price. It’s a gamble. If they sell below the market price, then someone else will make the margin. If they set the price too high, then they risk not selling much wine, or upsetting people who have bought the wine and then find it’s worth less than they paid for it. It’s not rocket science; it’s simple economics.
There is some buffer in the system. The chateaux and negociants can sit on stock, waiting for the right time to sell. Dribble it onto the market and you can keep the price high: supply and demand. So there’s room for movement, but not infinite room. After a few years where properties have got their prices wrong, charging above what the market will take, then the pipeline is full and people will simply stop buying.
But there is a side benefit from pricing high: it means that the value of the back catalogue will go up. If recent vintages are very expensive, then older vintages on the market will suddenly look as though they are competitively priced. So if they are going to err in pricing, it’s best for them to stray on the high side, as long as this doesn’t happen for too many vintages in a row.
After making a lot of money with the 2009 and 2010 vintages, wine merchants are a bit cross with Bordeaux for not feeding them lavishly in subsequent campaigns. 2011, 2012 and particularly 2013 weren’t very successful. So they’ve been talking of moving to other regions. Will Brunello save them? What about Barolo? Or the Rhône? Merchants love en primeur campaigns because it’s easy money: they just have to send an email out to their customers and process the order. The problem is, though, there’s no region quite like Bordeaux in financial terms.
Why? First, people are prepared to drop proper money on top claret, and they seem to be reluctant to spend the same elsewhere. Second, Bordeaux has such a strong image: the top chateaux are properly famous. Normal people have heard of some of them. Third, no other fine wine region operates on the same scale. The leading chateaux have big vineyards – some are as large as 100 hectares. The whole of Côte-Rôtie is just 240 hectares. Their biggest production wines are their grand vins, and so there’s plenty to go round.
It’s for these reasons that I don’t think there’s as much as a problem with primeurs week as people are making out. When people stop travelling to Bordeaux each March, then we can have a discussion. For now, it’s just a question of economics. They need to get the price sort of right, more often than not, and there needs to be a willing queue of customers waiting to buy. There’s no other region that has a chance of doing what Bordeaux does. While on a personal level it would be great if I could afford to buy the top wines on a regular basis, I can’t realistically predict the demise of Bordeaux as the world’s leading fine wine region. At least not for now.