Here we go again. It’s early May and Covid-19 is far from behind us. I visited Bordeaux just once in 2020, to make rounds on a few producers across both banks towards the end of harvest. Looking back now, I stupidly tempted fate, thinking to myself how wonderful it would be to taste the 2020 vintage in person when things were “back to normal” the following spring. Alas, we were heading for a second Bordeaux en primeur campaign conducted from a distance.
Word on the ground reports another excellent vintage for Bordeaux. President of the UGCB, Ronan Laborde, tells me how pleased he has been to find “such finesse and balance” in the 2020s, alongside their “great colour, concentration, and tannins.” Though the vine cycle began early thanks to a mild winter, and stayed premature through a hot and dry summer right up until harvest, he says, “Bordeaux producers have learned from recent ripe vintages how to maintain drinkability, with less apparent oak.” While the wines are good, they are not as abundant as the last two vintages—yields are low across the board.
Small quantities of 2020 combined with the extensive recent frost damage affecting the 2021 vintage will no doubt have the trade holding its breath. Both facts point towards price increases, which would go directly against the grain of last year’s 2019 sales, hailed a relative success due to the generous discounts offered in the context of the pandemic. Results from Wine Lister’s latest annual survey (answered by 50 key members of the fine wine trade) show overwhelmingly that Covid-sensitive pricing is just as important going into this year’s campaign. One top tier UK merchant explains, “The 2019 Bordeaux en primeur campaign was a win-win… prices came down, offering value and a reason to buy the wines en primeur. This in turn renewed consumer interest and trust in the châteaux and en primeur system.”
By now in a “normal” year, members of the international fine wine trade would already have descended on Bordeaux to gain impressions of the vintage. Wine Lister’s survey results show that the alternative tasting format of receiving samples – necessary at the last minute in 2020, and planned more purposefully this year – has gone down well. Laborde endorses wholly the need to taste, noting, “doing a full en primeur campaign where only a few people have tasted the wines is totally inconceivable,” though he qualifies that “the best way to taste the wines is still in Bordeaux and at the châteaux.” Today, sending samples is simply the lesser evil. While some trade members may be getting comfortable with the current format, I do wonder if the more sentimental among them would not agree in the long-term. After all, there is nothing quite like the mad but exciting rush, flitting between châteaux for tastings held at the source, to grasp a genuine feel for the vintage, and absorb the stories from each estate that better serve to back the wines on release.
Short and sweet
A further win from the campaign of 2019s was its length. An intense four-week whirlwind covered the vast majority of releases, and gave the campaign some much-needed momentum compared to the classic schedule, drawn out over 2 months. The decision was made in September last year to push back the official en primeur tasting time to the last week in April (previously the first week) henceforth, so as to force a tighter campaign (and with the added perk of allowing the wines a little extra time to soften). Laborde comments, “It was brought on by Covid, but the decision was independent of the pandemic, and a direct response to requests from our international client base, who felt, justifiably, that en primeur campaigns were getting too long.”
While this will surely go down well with buyers of Bordeaux, the unity previously afforded the region through its unique selling system (and the associated immunity for wines pricing in view of their neighbours, instead of in view of their own market trajectory) may fade. Emmanuel Cruse, Grand Maître of the Bordeaux Commanderie du Bontemps and Owner of Château d’Issan, remarks that the pace of last year’s campaign “saw merchants choosing a certain number of crus” to focus on. He predicts this year that the same “avalanche of releases will continue to force buyers to be selective”, and that trade members will be watching those properties which “showed understanding of the exceptional context of the global pandemic last year,” for the 2020 vintage campaign.
There’s no doubt that pricing will need defter handling than ever in the upcoming campaign. Another round of releases priced above current market availability (as often appeared in 2016 and 2018) will surely undo the goodwill that Bordeaux bought back through the well-discounted 2019s. Perhaps naivete and my own personal fondness for the region get the better of me, but trade member feedback on the desire for better storytelling in Wine Lister’s survey results still leaves me hopeful. If Bordeaux can deliver on both fronts, it just might be the beginning of the end for “le Bordeaux Bashing,” and instead reignite a collective bragging about all the fantastic wines this ultimate region of reference has to offer.