Château Latour, 2014 Releases

The leading châteaux of Bordeaux have a long history of finding innovative methods to market and distribute their wines. En primeur is just one such method; it might seem an immutable part of the story of Bordeaux, but the system was in fact only introduced during the 1960s. It has become so firmly cemented in place because not only does it give the Bordelais an early advance on the recently harvested vintage, it also – in theory at least – gives consumers the best possible price as a reward for their early confidence. In other words it is a win-win system that should continue indefinitely, to the advantage of all, which only makes it all the more confusing to see it undermined by the Bordelais themselves with the en primeur release of wines priced at a premium, and not at a discount. If anything is likely to bring en primeur to an end it is this combination of unfinished wines offered for sale with mature-wine price tags. Why buy the dodgy 2013, when you can have a very appealing mature vintage for the same money, finished, in bottle, delivered next week, and ready to drink?

Bordeaux Privateers

A quick examination of Bordeaux’s history suggests that the en primeur system is not the first time the Bordelais have developed a novel approach to the selling of their wines. In the early years of the 18th century, after just six years of peace following the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick between Louis XIV of France and William III of England, war broke out once again. The noble proprietors and merchants of Bordeaux were dismayed, as England – especially the gentleman’s clubs and coffee houses of London – were a lucrative market for their pricy wines. Trade was effectively cancelled, not only with England but with many other nations reached by sea, as the merchant vessels sailing up La Manche were at the mercy of English privateers. Placing wine aboard ship was a high-risk activity, as there was little likelihood of it ever reaching its intended destination, and slim chance that the owner would ever see the money he was due. Or was there?

Château Latour

Surprisingly, despite this apparent risk, large volumes of wines from Bordeaux continued to turn up in England, including wines from Château Latour. Writing in The Story of Wine (Mitchell Beazley, 1989), Hugh Johnson describes a sale held at Brewer’s Key, near the Tower of London, which featured “an entire parcel of New French Clarets”, including the “growths of Lafite, Margaux and Latour”. There were also sales of huge volumes of Haut-Brion (200 barrels – surely an entire harvest), wines from Sauternes and even the Loire Valley (hurrah!). Hugh quite rightly questions why such large volumes of wine were sent by sea, cast adrift at the mercy of the English pirates. Why not, in order to lower the risk, send a little at a time? The answer to this question, as proposed by Hugh himself, was that the Bordelais and the privateers were probably in collusion, and rather than the wines having fallen victim to piracy they had in fact been delivered to London by a new kind of middleman, the pirate. No doubt they took a hefty cut, but the proceeds of the sale otherwise found their way back to the Bordeaux proprietors, such as the noble Daulède de Lestonnac at Château Latour.

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