Bordeaux’s 2019 vintage has been in the barrels for a few months and by most accounts, the region’s autumnal harvest proved highly successful in both quality and quantity. Although the vintage is being hailed as exceptional, the timing could not have been worse. The result is the potential for great deals now and a paradigm shift in en primeur campaigns moving forward.
The Exceptional 2019 Bordeaux Vintage
Weather is often the key factor in and 2019 began well for Bordeaux. Vineyards experienced optimal conditions that allowed most vines to thrive. A mild winter, including a dry spell during February and moderate temperatures during budbreak, generated early optimism among producers. However, the year’s defining weather event was a major heatwave in June and July; despite some concerns, ultimately the high temps allowed the grapes to develop all the complexity, fruit, and texture expected from this celebrated region.
During initial tastings of the 2019 barrels, the wines resembled the 2015 and 2017 Bordeaux vintages. Initially, these wines showed slightly less alcohol and prominent acidity. However, with a couple months more aging, critics reported that 2019 was moving in the direction of the 2016 and 2018 vintages. The wine had pronounced minerality to it, with seriousness and complexity. Like the 2016’s, the 2019’s proved highly aromatic with grippy tannins. Tasting of the young juice indicated that this vintage possessed all the necessary traits for another spectacular year.
En Primeur Price Cuts
Despite the promising vintage, several important Chateaux decided to release their 2019’s at significantly lower prices. The most obvious impetus behind these discounted prices was the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus sparked a global recession, a condition that doesn’t exactly inspire customers to purchase luxury goods like Bordeaux. Complicating was matters was Trump’s 25% tariff on most French wines, including Bordeaux.
In addition, sales reports confirm that the global customer base is increasingly purchasing wines produced in regions outside of Bordeaux… and even outside of France. Zut alors!
Struggling with an exceptional vintage in an awful year, many producers are completely rethinking their strategies. Notably, many prominent Chateaux opted to release their wines at dramatically lower prices than 2018. The shift is evident in the recent en primeur campaign.
En primeur releases are sold prior to bottling. The method is essentially ‘pre-ordering’ while these vintages are still maturing in barrels. More renowned chateaux, the houses with decades or centuries of clout often employ this technique, relying on their good name with consumers. Of course, the en primeur campaign was also hurt by the pandemic as buyers can not travel to Bordeaux for barrel tastings.
Many insiders have theorized that producers are quietly reducing the stock allocated for en primeur release in the hopes of an economic recovery before the bottled releases. Some chateaux are even skipping the en primeur campaign altogether.
Still, most big houses are pushing forward with some en primeur releases—albeit at very decreased prices.
Chateau Haut-Brion’s 2019 releases are a 31% reduction over 2018. Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Léoville Poyferré also reduced their prices by between 25% and 30%.
These chateaux were also joined by several Pessac-Léognan first growers, who were selling their wines for 30% less than the previous year.
Not all producers were able to drop their prices so significantly, with many producers in Saint Emilion only looking at a 15% reduction, with only a few dropping by higher percentages. Some of these chateaux include Chateaux Palmer, who dropped by 33% and Chateau Angelus who dropped by 30%.
Pichon Baron and Léoville Barton’s 2019 prices were also down almost 17%. Château Montrose is down about 25%
Unfazed by the economic crisis, Lynch-Bages and Mouton Rothschild were able to sell out their wines, purely from pre-orders.
Uncorking the Future
Although en primeur campaigns are entrenched in the culture of Brodeaux, the system is not without its fglaws. And, the pandemic only served to highlight the en primeur’s issues.
Calls to skip the campaign this year could potentially change how the system works in the future. Many critics of the en primeur campaign long argued that the rally sale does not allow sufficient bottle-age of the wine prior to release – which could be changed if the wines were to skip an en primeur year.
Under the skip-a-year proposal, en primeur sales would be held two years after harvest. Although such a change would carry a short term financial burden on wine exports, the long-term benefits would see Bordeaux implementing of of viticulture’s most innovative thing in decades.
Regardless of the long term plan for wine sales, buyers should recognize the current moment as a golden opportunity. A historically great vintage is available at historically low prices.