Bordeaux could be excused for feeling smug in the wake of the annual barrel tastings introducing the 2018 vintage, the world's first chance to taste the wines before futures go on sale. Early reports compare the wines to recent excellent vintages.
Wine Spectator's lead taster for Bordeaux, James Molesworth, has spent two weeks in the region, meeting producers to discuss the vintage's character and quality, and conducting blind tastings of more than 280 barrel samples. The wines show great promise.
Wine Spectator website members can check out James Molesworth's preliminary scores and tasting notes for the top 2018 Bordeauxs; his reports on more than a dozen visits to top châteaus are free to all.
And despite global economic uncertainty, a gratifyingly large and diverse throng of professionals from around the world arrived for the barrel tastings, which stretch over three weeks. "We have broken the record for the number of people visiting us. We will have more than 2,000 people," Hervé Berland, general manager of Château Montrose, told Wine Spectator. "It's due to the fact that everybody has come: Americans are here, U.K. people are here, Chinese are here, Germans are here."
Other leading estates reported the same high attendance. At the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) tastings, another barometer of interest, close to 6,000 visitors attended, a "rather high figure, in comparison to the previous years," said Ronan Laborde, UGCB president and CEO of Château Clinet. That spike in attendance was led by international buyers. "The American wine merchants took a large part of that increase, so did the Europeans," said Laborde. "The Chinese visitors were as many as the previous year."
But there's a big difference between tasting and buying. Négociants were wary about drawing a correlation between attendance and an appetite for futures. "It's always difficult to translate the number of visitors—I'm cautious. A lot of people might be curious about the vintage but not buy the wines," said Yann Schÿler, CEO of Maison Schröder & Schÿler, a leading négociant firm.
The success or failure of a futures campaign relies partially on its economic context, and while the global economy continues to grow, anxiety does too. Current trade spats and the looming shadow of Brexit are sure to have an impact on this campaign.
At Château Mouton-Rothschild, CEO Philippe Dhalluin told Wine Spectator, "Of course for the Bordeaux wine merchants, there is a lot of interest in the vintage, they don't want to miss it. But they will probably only focus on the top, very secure brands, the 40 wines you need to have in your cellar. The international market is difficult to feel—there is a lot of interest from all countries, but there is a lot of economic incertitude."
The U.K. has long been Bordeaux's most loyal market. But Brexit has now been delayed until Oct. 31. No one is sure if the U.K. will leave the European Union on favorable terms, with relatively few trade barriers erected, or if there will be a hard Brexit or perhaps no Brexit. The uncertainty is impacting the buying power of the pound.
“The vintage is always priced on two factors linked to each other: the first is quality and the second is market conditions—demand will be affected by external factors we can’t control, like Brexit,” said Mathieu Chadronnier, managing director of négociant CVBG.
Check out Wine Spectator's "How (and Why) to Buy Wine Futures" for more on the benefits and pitfalls of en primeur purchases.
Of course, négociants are hoping a reasonably strong U.S. dollar combined with the quality of the 2018 vintage will pique American interest. "American consumers have always been here for the great vintages. They never miss one," said Schÿler, adding that Bordeaux relies on the American market. "The U.S. market has the greatest potential for the long term. It's always growing."
But U.S. merchants told Wine Spectator their customers show little interest in futures. With so many good vintages currently on the market, most Americans are happy to wait for the 2018s to arrive in stores before they buy.
China, on the other hand, is a capricious market, and there's been a recent, worrisome decline in shipments. According to customs figures, China imported $1 billion in French wine last year, a 9 percent drop from 2017.
And when it comes to en primeur, Chinese buyers haven't forgotten their losses in 2011, when overheated prices plunged. So absent speculation from Asia, this year's pricing will need to take into account what the négociants and markets will support.
Keep in mind that while China and America are priority markets, négociants travel the globe, drumming up business. “We have markets buying en primeur now that weren’t players 10 or 15 years ago. There is a perception that the campaign is small but that doesn’t reflect the global market,” said Chadronnier.
Prices, Schÿler anticipated, would be in line with the 2015 and 2016. "That would be logical. The vintage is very appealing. There is quality across the board—Right Bank, Left Bank—it's outstanding. We are speaking the same language as the 2015 and 2016, with slightly more concentration," said Schÿler.
This week, Château Angélus released its wine at the same price as the 2015 vintage. “I respect their decision to come out early and at that price,” said Chadronnier. CVBG had sold the wine in 15 countries by early afternoon the same day, including in the U.S. and China but also in smaller countries like Slovakia and Denmark. “It was the right price for Angélus, but we can’t say, across the board, that prices should be in line with the 2015 or 2016. If they release en primeur, it needs to be a success or it affects their reputation.”
Château owner Peter Kwok also released his wines early, but with a slight increase over the 2017, which Chadronnier said was in line with demand for Kwok’s Tour Saint Christophe and Bellefont-Belcier, wines he described as “rising stars in St-Emilion.” He also championed the petit château category. “For the category of wines that retail for €30 or less, always with reasonable pricing, offering terrific value, we need to trade fairly with them so they can invest in their estates for the future.”
Some think the lack of demand could be an opportunity for consumers. "The state of the economy and exchange rates also has an influence, which could mean that considering the very good vintage and the general economic uncertainty there could be some very good deals to be had," said Allan Sichel, head of the trade group CIVB.
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Whether the wines sell now, or down the road, vintners are happy with the quality. At Lafite Rothschild, technical director Eric Kohler said, "I will say it's much more classic than we imagined. Here in the Médoc, not perhaps on the Right Bank, we thought it could be a little bit too much, a Californian vintage. I think it's more classic than 2009. It's closer to a 2016."
Chadronnier said he feared that “we talk too much about pricing, when what is crucial and essential is the wines. The conversation of pricing overtakes the conversation of quality. The 2018 is a compelling vintage. For some estates, it will be a new benchmark.”