How Coronavirus could change the face of Bordeaux en primeur for good

How Coronavirus could change the face of Bordeaux en primeur for good

On Monday, nine wine experts, château owners, merchants, and scientists gathered for an online panel to discuss the 2019 vintage, the implications of delaying its spring en primeur release, and how Bordeaux winemakers are adapting to their new reality in the time of Coronavirus. The panel was hosted by The Real Wine of Business and led by Decanter correspondent and award-winning writer, Jane Anson.

As mentioned by panelist Axel Marchal, researcher at the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences, the 2019 Bordeaux vintage is looking promising, with weather conditions favorable for a good ripening towards the end of the growing season. Remote Sensing specialist at Saturnalia, Daniele Di Vecchi, who correlates satellite imagery and climatic data to perceived quality of a vintage, declared that 2019 shows promise similar to 2015. But despite a good forecast of quality, the future of this vintage has become hazy with the delay of the Bordeaux en primeur (“wine futures”) set to take place this week.

The en primeur is a longstanding Bordelais institution, whose modern day iteration was established just after World War II. In this system, négociants (wine merchants) purchase wines that are not yet bottled and that they will receive at a future date. This system was seen as a win-win for the châteaux and for the négociants; the châteaux received vital up-front cash flow, and the négociants were able to secure their desired volume of wine at advantageous prices.

The en primeur was delayed this year until further notice in response to the global Coronavirus threat. Many speculate it will take place either in June (if the Coronavirus lockdown is lifted) or September (late enough to avoid the firmly rooted French tradition of August vacances).

Many panelists highlighted the struggles that winemakers could face by delaying the en primeur. Didier Marcelis, Owner of Château Serilhan in Saint-Estèphe, highlighted the importance of promissory notes in the wine world. While en primeur is reserved for Bordeaux’s most prestigious châteaux that might be facing a more stable economic situation than Bordeaux’s smallest mom-and-pops, a missed sale is still a missed sale. Holding wine stocks could find many winery owners in a difficult situation rapidly.

Justin Gibbs, Co-Founder of Liv-ex, went further into the economic implications of a delayed en primeur. If consumers are not purchasing wines, châteaux could be forced to lower their prices. This leads to a dud year for Bordeaux négociants, with no wine sales to be had for the 2019 vintage, and for the courtiers (brokers) who earn a 2% commission in their role as middle-men between producers and négociants. Not to mention all the Bordeaux hotels and restaurants that rely on the business from the April en primeur week. As Didier Marcelis puts it, “We are very much part of the same ecosystem.”

For other panelists, however, delaying the en primeur is a good thing. Alain Raynaud, former president of the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux (which runs the en primeur event) and current Founder and President of the Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux, finds the system to be antiquated. En primeur used to be a way for journalists and wine critics to come to Bordeaux and rate the latest vintage, early enough in the season to influence the purchases of négociants. But in today’s day and age, where a simple click of a button can have wine ratings posted online in seconds, this system is obsolete, Raynaud argues. And this year particularly, the opinions of wine critics could fall on deaf ears as consumers have their attention turned towards the Coronavirus, reminds Justin Gibbs.

In a perfect world, Raynaud would like to see one en primeur tasting around June, after wines have had a chance to mature slightly longer, and another tasting after wines have been bottled. The problem with this idea is the logistical hassle of gathering 6,000 professionals, journalists, and critics twice for the same vintage…

So what is the best way forward? Do we continue with the April tradition, promising up front cash flow for Bordeaux’s best? Or do we take this year’s eye-opening global pandemic as a chance to turn the page on an antiquated system steeped in infamous French bureaucracy? Like so much in the wine world, we’re afraid, only time will tell.

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