The way Bordeaux is sold is changing, and it is going to keep on changing. Despite frequently made predictions to the contrary, en primeur isn’t going to explode, nor is it likely to disappear altogether. I should also stress that nor will it return to the way it used to be, when cases were stacked high and cheap, and we could all afford first growths, or maybe super-seconds (or at least something). I believe that the approach currently taken by the Bordelais, or at least some top châteaux, which has diminished the significance of this once-feverish buying frenzy, is set to continue for the foreseeable future.
The most obvious force that shifts our attention away from buying en primeur is price. En primeur simply isn’t the great deal for consumers it used to be. Wines are frequently released at a higher price than many previous vintages, and buyers have often found in recent years that the wines have depreciated in value after their purchase. When asked to pay for a wine at least ten years from being ready to drink, consumers have to see some benefit from their early investment, and that means appreciation not depreciation. Consumers might put up with being burnt once. Or maybe twice. But to expect buyers to continue this pattern of behaviour year-in, year-out, is expecting a bit much. I don’t need to go into any great detail on this (there is already too much written on the price of Bordeaux), and we can all see this unfolding live with each new release from the 2015 vintage. I think the best way of determining how individual releases sit when compared with older vintages (both in terms of critic scores and pricing) is to check out the Liv-Ex blog.
Other moves in Bordeaux also diminish the significance of the en primeur season, and these are newer phenomena, the higher prices having been building for the past 10-15 years. We all know Château Latour withdrew in 2012, so that’s hardly news. No-one has yet followed them, but a number of other high-flying names are holding back more stock during the primeurs, releasing perhaps little more than half their production onto the market. Château Angélus is one, and the Rothschild estates (on the Mouton side of the family) have also followed suit. Le Pin hasn’t withdrawn from the primeurs, although they did not participate this year, apparently because a couple of barrels were not ready, and they also stayed out of it in 2013. It will be interesting to see if they come back next year.
High prices, supported by reduced volumes, have made en primeur less relevant to consumers, but from a merchant’s point of view the changes in Bordeaux have also diminished the significance of the primeurs week (we used to call it a ‘campaign’ – that hardly seems appropriate now). Those high prices mean margins are very slim if there is to be any hope of actually selling the wines to increasingly uninterested buyers, but at least there has always been the volume. With reduced stocks released onto the market (some châteaux holding back 40% of production) the volumes the merchants have to deal with are much smaller, diminishing the potential benefit of being involved in en primeur. And I think volumes are set to decline further, as big-name châteaux hold back more stock, and other châteaux follow suit. The grip on primeur sales will tighten even further. It must be very frustrating to be a merchant dealing in en primeur Bordeaux.
Coming back to my original point then, the question often asked of primeur is how long can it last? How long will it be before the Bordelais realise it isn’t working, that the system is being strangled? How long before the grasp is loosened, and we can all go back to how we were ten years ago? The answer I would give to this question is never. It won’t happen. En primeur will be an increasingly small part of how Bordeaux (or at least the most interesting part of Bordeaux) is sold, with more and more of the big-name châteaux looking to hold back stock, to support the releases prices and the value of what lies in the cellar, and to sell by novel routes. The interest will come with seeing how they achieve this. Will we see more focus on the bottled wines, rather than the hurried one-day tastings that currently tour the world? Will we see more specialist offers through merchants? What about group auctions, where top châteaux band together to sell their mature stock of exquisite provenance? There surely has to be some system to project the existence of the wines into the minds of the merchants and the consumers, because I don’t think a series of annual releases of mature stock, the approach currently taken by Château Latour, repeated across 20, 30 or 100 other châteaux, is going to work. You need something to replace en primeur, the greatest marketing machine any wine region ever invented.