Love it or hate it Bordeaux En Primeur isn’t going to disappear. Why would it? If nothing else it is a marvellous marketing opportunity. Where else do the world’s wine press, critics and merchants descend in such numbers at a set point in time to taste the produce of a season? The downside of En Primeur is that it can be speculative and risky – not just for the merchants intending to buy but for the chateaux owners themselves. Will the vintage be panned? (It depends). Will the price be right? (The price is never right in the eyes of the wine merchant). However this year Bordeaux 2013 is in for a kicking.
To be honest you do see negative press about En Primeur (usually about pricing) every year. Normally this is nothing more than the posturing of interested parties but the 2013 vintage has been dogged by particularly bad luck . . . and the bad press has taken an ominous turn. The gloves are off with calls to cancel the 2013 En Primeur Campaign and critics suggesting that they won’t attend the Tastings (held at the end of March/beginning of April in Bordeaux). What follows are my frank thoughts on the subject, the reasons that the 2013 vintage has a battle on its hands and why it shouldn’t be written off without a chance.
1. The growing season in 2013 was horrendous and many chateaux had a much smaller grape harvest than normal thanks to severe weather (including golf ball sized hail) and poor growing conditions. This means that they have struggled and produced significantly less wine. In some cases the grapes were devastated and the yield so low that certain chateaux have only produced a tiny amount of wine. A few will not be producing any at all. Wealthy chateaux such as the top ranking Grands Crus Classés (GCC) can weather the storm but my heart goes out to the smaller and mid range producers who are facing real financial hardship thanks to the appalling year.
2. Worryingly, people are forecasting that the 2013 wines will not be that good either. There has been banter about 2013 being a ‘bad’ vintage. That, my friends, is an exaggeration – at least as far as the GCC are concerned. Wine making techniques are so advanced amongst the GCC that making a ‘bad’ wine is out of the question. Generally, the 2013 GCCs will be what’s known as a ‘drinking vintage’ (i.e. one to be consumed quickly rather than tucked away in a collector’s cellar). From a connoisseur’s point of view there is little reason to buy the 2013 for investment or laying down and there will be calls that the price should reflect this. Much as I’d love there to be one, I can not see a price drop here. The GCC will release tiny amounts at high prices. And their market will fall flat on its face. Again. You will also see some GCC decide not to release a wine at all rather than risk a poor rating which will devalue their brand. This is nothing new – some Sauternes did not release a wine for the En Primeur 2012 due to poor growing conditions eg Chateaux d’Yquem and Rieussec – but we may see a lot more chateaux take that path this year.
It is a different story for the mid range and petit chateaux that don’t have the benefits of buoyant bank accounts, cutting edge equipment or a guaranteed market share. Here too, some wine makers have the tough choice of whether to make a 2013 or not. But Bordeaux is a large region and not every vineyard suffered from the weather – some were spared, some were lucky and some will have saved the day. There will be good wines to be had. It’s my job to search them out and that is one of the most enjoyable tasks I have at En Primeur.
3. Robert Parker has delayed publishing his report on the 2013 wines until the end of June which has really put the GCC owners in a fix. Usually the report is out at the end of April and the GCC owners use his scores to help them price the wines. Obviously a wine is priced more highly if it receives a great review from Parker. Normally the En Primeur campaign is over and done with by the summer but if the chateaux decide to wait on Parker’s report this will clash with the summer holidays when few buyers are about.
There is also a danger that the campaign will lose its impetus if they wait. The En Primeur tastings generate a mass of articles, blogs and reports which are eagerly devoured by merchants and connoisseurs alike who are keen to see which wines are the best bet to spend their money on. The pricing soon follows and ‘bang, we’re off!’ the buying frenzy begins. Will the chateaux risk a lack lustre campaign by waiting till June to price the wines? I doubt it. The GCC will push forward a few chateaux who will release their prices, like lambs to the slaughter . . . and then watch to see what happens. This will lead to a prolonged Campaign, as having tested the water, they will then dither as to what price to set themselves.
4. There have been calls to cancel the 2013 En Primeur Campaign and suggestions that some wine critics won’t even bother to attend the Tastings. Let’s be realistic here. There is no way the 2013 En Primeur Campaign will be called off. The notion that some critics might not attend the Tastings annoys me. Don’t they have a job to do? Will they be judging the entire 2013 vintage on the backs of others without even bothering to taste a single drop of it in situ themselves? I’m glad to see some critics have declared that they will attend, well done!
And shouldn’t the 2013 vintage be given the opportunity to show what its made of? I do not believe that it should be written off without a chance – after all some of the greatest wines were made in adversity. Who knows what gem may lie undiscovered if the 2013 is passed over? My flights are booked and my itinerary is taking shape nicely. As for the 2013 . . . I have decided to find out for myself. And I am looking forward to it.