The rumour filtered through to me Friday afternoon. Latour was, apparently, to cease selling its wine en primeur. I texted a couple of négociants I know and whereas the first could not substantiate the rumour – although he had heard exactly the same thing – the second could. The négociants dealing with Latour were informed, by receipt of letter on Friday 13th April, that the 2011 vintage would be the last that Château Latour would sell en primeur.
There is of course precedence for working outside the en primeur system; Jean-Hubert Delon of Léoville-Las-Cases refused to sell his wine en primeur for some time, and he seemed to do very well on it. The vintages were released typically a year or so later, and for a good price too. But the system that Frédéric Engerer of Latour is moving towards is something different. Latour will not be released merely a year or two after the vintage, but instead as the wines approach their drinking window. For me that would be about two decades after the vintage! That’s not impossible (look at Lopez de Heredia and their gran reservas – the current releases include the 1991s), but it is likely that a much looser definition of ‘drinkable’ will be applied here. I expect we will see vintages come onto the market at 6-10 years of age. It is not quite a first for Bordeaux (Gilette in Sauternes release only mature wines) but it feels like it, nevertheless. The first growth effect, I suppose.
Such a move is fascinating in light of how en primeur sales have developed in recent years. They favour the châteaux more and more, consumers dependent upon notes on unfinished wines from critics with no opportunity to taste the wines themselves, critics ‘bigging up’ the vintage with live tweets and hyperbole, and prices that once gave the consumer a break (the earlier you bought, the cheaper the wines were) now beyond the reach of many. Many of the châteaux clawed back the lost profit taken by others (who sat on wines as they climbed in value) by increasing the release prices. The benefit of buying en primeur was lessened for the consumer. Surely the next step is to stop selling through this system altogether; if the accountants agree (and at Latour they obviously do), weather the financial hit for a few years as your revenue stream sits unsold, but then reap the rewards further down the road. It’s what Latour are doing. The en primeur nay-sayers might be pleased, but this is a double-edged sword; now we can have reliable reporting on Latour – in bottle – before the wine is offered for sale. But, on the other hand, Latour is going to be more expensive than ever.
And this decision may have some knock-on effect. Will others move away from en primeur too? Perhaps, but the further down the food-chain we travel, the less financially capable the châteaux will be, and their ability to weather the loss of sales becomes more questionable. Latour may have the financial muscle to step out of the ring, but what about Cantemerle, or Angludet (first – more or less – to release their 2011 this week), Beaumont, Fourcas-Hosten or similar? If the primeurs lose the support of big guns such as Latour, it may well falter. And whereas some may welcome that, I would not wish the ruination of smaller châteaux to be the price we pay for such a change. And what of the négoce in Bordeaux, and the merchants across the world, who make a huge slice of their annual turn-over on en primeur sales? Once Latour is followed out by its first-growth and super-second cousins, will their en primeur revenue be comparable? Certainly not.