Why I have no beef with the Bordeaux primeurs

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Why I have no beef with the Bordeaux primeurs

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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.

Picture 445 pauillac vineyard

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.

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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.

11 Comments on Why I have no beef with the Bordeaux primeursTagged
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

11 thoughts on “Why I have no beef with the Bordeaux primeurs

  1. Great article Jamie. especially this paragraph

    “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.”

    So true. Most of them love the freebies,the food,being entertained etc and above all,thinking they are doing a service to the wine industry. Good for the ego 🙂

  2. Putting aside the silliness of wine scores for one moment, giving a precise score to a barrel sample rather than a range of potential scores is ludicrous

  3. Great post, Jamie. If I were in the position where I could get people to pay over 100€ up front per bottle, more than a year before the wine’s released, there’s no way I would be looking to change the system. Contrast this with Rioja where bodegas might sit on 6 or 7 years’ stock before trying to persuade somebody to buy it.

  4. Really good post, spot on.
    I agree with you, if you don’t support it dont go, and get visibility of another wine region.
    TA who spits on the system enjoys being well treated for 10 days I am sure !

  5. I have no concern with the Bordeaux Chateaux trying to maximize their earnings. Margin wise the top chateau have a cost basis that is at most 5-15% of what they sell to the negociants, so clearly they have a lot of room to play with price wise. The real question is… Are we in a bubble? Wine is NOT an investment like stocks or bonds. As much as people wish it, wine has a finite lifetime. Holding on for a higher price can become a fool’s game. Look at 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux. All the back vintage got pulled up, but what is going to pull up 2009 and 2010? The real long term risk is around who will be buying Bordeaux in 10-20 years. In the US the younger wine drinkers don’t even know about Bordeaux – they have moved on to Spain and Italy. Will the come back?

  6. Very sensible post, Jamie. I’m amused every year by people who go to Bordeaux en primeurs and bitch about it. Don’t go! I don’t. I’m not interested. There are so many other good wines in the world. But there’s clearly a market for expensive Bordeaux and for people writing about it, and it’s funny/sad to see beneficiaries of the latter complain EVERY SINGLE YEAR about the beneficiaries of the former.

  7. I have no difficulty with the Bordelais doing whatever they want so long as it is not illegal and doesn’t actually hurt anyone. It’s a free world and, as John Lennon puts it, whatever gets you through the night is alright. Whether what the chateaux owners are doing is in their interest, or even our interest, is more open to debate. Fashion is obviously a fickle thing and, just as obviously, wines fall in and out of fashion. There is no such thing as an objective scale of quality, beyond at a very rudimentary level – you cannot say a good Brunello is any better or worse than a good Pauillac. If you operate in such a way as to alienate your customer base, then you run the risk of your customers developing other tastes and of fashion moving on. History is littered with examples and will continue to be littered with examples in the future. As the ancients pointed out, the natural successor to hubris is nemesis. Time will tell if the Bordelais are safe with their product. But if they’re not, well, they won’t be able to say they weren’t warned. And if they are, well, it’s lovely wine so we can’t complain. But I am not aware of a business which has yet learned to survive without cashflow. At some point this is going to have to break.

  8. The drip, drip effect of all this gripping has on en primeur does not bode well for the future of Bordeaux in general. As one writer named Richard said on Wine Searcher re: Bordeaux 2014 en primeur pricing >>”Snobbism is eroding fast in the new world; local wines are getting more support than ever at the detriment of the old world wineries.” I simply ask you to turn your attention to the Liv-Ex wine exchange to see how the market is not static but does move however slowly. Financial Times “The market share of Burgundy has climbed from 1.2 per cent in 2010 to 6.8 per cent in 2013, according to Liv-ex, an exchange for fine wines. Italian wines have also made inroads, moving up from 0.9 per cent of the market to 3.3 per cent.” Small incremental numbers but worldwide Bordeaux in 2015 is starting to feel the effect. – Bordeaux sales worldwide by volume are down 8%. In value worldwide down 13%. You mistake the “mob” as evidence “there’s nothing to see here move along.” In a global market where multicultural consumers are more aware than ever en primeur has some serious issues to deal with. If not today….coming to a theater near you soon.

  9. A very thoughtful and precise piece. I feel it says more about the hypocrisy of the merchants and the journalists. If they really believed in what they have been writing, they should vote with their feet and not attend. But as we know, they can’t resist the jolly and chance of a few freebies.

    Adam, Bordeaux might have lost some ground to the likes of Burgundy and Barolo, even maybe to your precious Tuscany, but it is far too big a producing region for it to have an impact. EP as Jamie has correctly pointed out is not just about the price it has set for the current vintage it is about how that price will effect previous vintages.

  10. Because when current releases are very expensive, people suddenly consider the older vintages to be comparatively good value, so they go back and start buying them. This increased demand pushes prices up.

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