For the Bordeaux wine industry, there are two crucial periods each year. In the fall, there’s the harvest, when the new wine is made. In the spring, there’s en primeur, when it’s sold.
By all accounts, the 2019 harvest went well. After a rainy spring curtailed the flowering, the weather turned dry and hot. Cabernet cruised along, living off moisture reserves from the spring. Not all the Merlot was as successful. As usual, the region’s vintners are enthusiastic about the quality of their wines.
But the en primeur campaign, when these young wines are sold as futures, has been rudely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
I normally travel to Bordeaux in March to visit wineries, interview vintners and taste hundreds of barrel samples. Other journalists and merchants also make the trek, collectively creating an image of the character and quality of the new vintage. Following that, in the late spring and early summer, the châteaus price the wines and release them to the trade. It’s a unique system, one that annually powers France’s largest wine region to the forefront of the wine industry’s collective consciousness.
This year, none of that happened. Instead, everyone sheltered in place, waiting and wondering what would happen next.
There were a few plausible alternatives. The Bordelais could have rescheduled the tastings for later in the year, once the world reopened, and then released prices. Or they could simply have canceled the campaign for the 2019 vintage, perhaps combining it with the 2020 vintage next year.
Instead, a significant number of leading châteaus seem determined to push forward with a kind of “virtual” campaign. To me, this is a mistake.
First, I believe these remote tastings are compromised. I have been inundated with requests to receive air-freighted barrel samples for tasting. Experience has taught me how difficult it is to evaluate a wine on the basis of a fresh sample drawn from a château’s cellars the previous day. What might happen to these unfinished, unstable wines as they travel 3,500 miles at 30,000 feet? I appreciate the Bordelais’ efforts here, but I cannot in good conscience make buying recommendations to my readers on the basis of such samples.
Second, the market is in turmoil. The U.S. is in its gravest situation since the Great Depression. GDP has plummeted and unemployment is flirting with 20 percent. The restaurant industry is in disarray. Prices for the 2019 Bordeaux vintage will start to be released in the coming weeks, and the Bordeaux négociants will be forced to take on inventory in a time when critical parts of the wine industry, from distribution to consumption, are struggling to survive.
Who will the négociants sell to? Who is going to buy cases of high-end Bordeaux that won’t even be bottled and shipped for another 12 to 18 months? What will the state of the global economy be at that point? And that’s not even considering the 25 percent tariffs on many European wines that were enacted in October 2019, with the specter of 100 percent tariffs still looming.
Maybe prices for the 2019s will be so attractive that people will be enticed to buy the wines even without reliable independent reviews. More likely, prices won’t be released low enough for that, out of fear of depreciating the value of the good vintages now on shelves (2016 and 2015, for example). So the system will likely freeze up.
I can understand the panic a crisis of this magnitude brings. But by choosing “business as usual,” the Bordelais seem oblivious to their headwinds. They may wind up rankling more than a few people with their hubris, as they did during the 2009 and 2010 vintage campaigns. It took a decade for Bordeaux to get its groove back in the U.S. market after that misstep. How long could it be before the U.S. market dives back in if the 2019s are forced upon them?
I wish the Bordelais luck, because their success supports a key cog in the wine industry. But I am not optimistic. This crisis has forced many industries and people to come up with new ways of doing business. Now is the perfect chance for the Bordelais to break free of the dogma of en primeur and come up with something that is genuinely consumer friendly—why not release older vintages at current vintage pricing, and reboot the market in a pro-consumer manner? In this down cycle, opportunity is still knocking. Will they hear it?