Bordeaux remains the King of wines, but the unprecedented global situation of 2020 is forcing this traditional wine region to adapt as never before.
We’ll take a look at the 2019 vintage: the season, the wine, the selling process, and the prices.
Growing Season: Perfect?
Headline: Long and slow. Good ripening conditions. Rain at the right time. An undemanding harvest. Some isolated weather variability in the lesser appellations. Little frost and no mildew.
- The season began with a mild winter and average rainfall. The weather warmed in February and March, promoting an early bud break.
- Bud break came in late March/early April, and then, wetter and chillier conditions moved in.
- April and May remained colder with isolated frost and hail.
- Flowering started in late May into early June. Fruit set was good, though some areas experienced isolated damage due to the lower temperatures. June 4 was the mid-point of flowering, in line with the 30-year average.
- Mid-June saw a warming trend, with a heat spike late in the month, spurring the grapes to mature.
- While July was hot and sunny, except in Entre-Deux-Mers, temperatures fell for a few days at month-end due to heavy
- rainfall, reducing heat pressure on the vines.
- Veraison was consistent throughout August due to warm and dry conditions.
- Though hotter than usual for September, a late rainfall replenished the vines and allowed further ripening at a slower pace.
- Berries were small, healthy, and concentrated. Rains did not dilute the grapes.
- Growers started to harvest white grapes in late August/early September, taking advantage of chillier early mornings.
- The harvest sped up the third week of September, about 100 days after flowering.
- For red grapes (85% of production) the harvest dates ranged from mid-September to mid-October.
- Throughout the season, nights stayed cool, maintaining acidity and balance in the berries.
Overall, the season was prolonged and without drama, and warmer and drier on average. Vines and fruit were exceptionally healthy.
Yields were good at most top appellations, while others were lower due to fruit set damage.
- 2017 – 350 million liters, down due to frost
- 2018 – 499 million, would have been higher except for mildew
- 2019 – 486 million
- Ten year-average – 508 million
Wine Quality: Another “Vintage of the Century?”Headline: Balanced, concentrated, ripe, higher alcohol, good acidity, fresh, aromatic, fine tannins, structured.
- Left bank: dark, tannic, long, ripe, balanced
- Right bank: dense, vivacious, lush, high acidity
Bordeaux Supérieurs and the bulk market have similar qualities but can vary depending on location.
- Alcohol levels were higher because of the heat: white wines averaged 13.5% abv, Merlot 14-14.5%, and Cabernet Sauvignon 13-14%.
- Because of the extended growing season, berries developed more complexity.
- Despite higher average temperatures, chilly nights supported acidity levels.
- Heat added richness and suppleness. Wines are not over-extracted, but balanced because the higher acidity offsets the higher alcohol.
- These wines are approachable, intense, and aromatic, with vibrant color and powerful but integrated tannins. pH levels are lower versus 2018.
- White wines show higher quality than 2018, with good acidity and low pH.
- This lively vintage highlights elegance instead of power, because generous fruit balances the firm structure.
- Terroir shines through like in classic vintages, revealing each appellation’s distinctiveness.
The 2019 vintage is outstanding and extends the range of good years for the top wines.
The vintage is riper, yet fresher, with appealing fruit and silky tannins. Unusual at this early stage, the wines drink well, with a balanced abundance of fruit, alcohol, acidity, and tannin.
Many top châteaux received ratings of 98 points and higher. All major appellations showed well.
En Primeur Futures Campaign: What happened?
Headline: Disruption and adaptation.
En Primeur Campaign:
Buying en primeur (called “futures” or “pre-arrival” in English) means paying for wine up front when put in barrel. The wines are not finished, consumers have not tried them, and they won’t be delivered for two or three years.
This system has existed for hundreds of years. Producers made the wine, which négociants (brokers) bought, bottled, and sold.
- Benefits: cash flow, guaranteed sales at specific prices, lower prices up front.
- Risks: selling wine at too low a price, price drops while waiting for delivery, wine not the same upon delivery.
Négociants had more power, with producers accepting the price offered, to gain needed cash for investment.
The power imbalance began to shift in the 1970s when consumer demand for Bordeaux started increasing. Producers wanted a larger share of the ever-growing profit and started raising prices to the négociants.
Today, prices for the top wines are astronomical for the average wine drinker, even while lesser appellations can barely sell their wines.
Even so, châteaux, négociants, and critics praise just about every new vintage as “The Vintage of the Century.”
While no doubt Bordeaux remains the top tradable fine wine, futures pricing does not indicate a bargain. Prices have fallen after bottle releases and consumers are aware of this risk.
And with more global competition than ever, they have many other options.
2019 En Primeur:
So, what happened with this year’s en primeur campaign?
The Union des Grands Crus of Bordeaux (UCGB) scheduled its annual en primeur tasting event for March 30 – April 3, 2020. Along with 4,000 wine trade professionals, 116 châteaux from 14 appellations take part.
During the campaign, producers show the new vintage and release some or all the wine for sale. Critics release tasting reports and scores. Then, châteaux set prices and quantities for sale. Négociants receive allocations and sell them to other parties.
We all know what happened: COVID-19. On March 17, France went into lockdown, and the en primeur event was over before it had begun.
At first, denial was evident. The Bordelais did not readily accept the idea of sending barrel samples for tasting to people who couldn’t travel. Barrel samples can quickly deteriorate. Initially, tasting events continued for those in the city.
But it quickly became clear that significant changes were coming, and the châteaux would need to adapt before it all got out of hand.
Beginning in May, some houses pivoted. They started bottling small format samples to ship to those quarantined at home worldwide.
Major wine critics and other trade professionals around the world started receiving these samples, tasting in their homes.
A very different experience at home, they could take their time, savor, compare, and contrast the wines. They couldn’t taste as many wines because not all châteaux participated, and it took weeks, not days.
Some critics refused to participate in the “taste at home” program, believing there would be too much risk in sending these young wines during summer.
On May 27th, Châteaux Belle Brise released its price and tranche of futures, the first house to do so. The next day, Châteaux Pontet Canet surprised everyone by releasing their wine BEFORE any official critic scores. And they released it at a price more than 30% lower than the prior year’s vintage.
The UGCB presented their tasting in Bordeaux on June 5 (two months after the original date) in a restricted environment.
By mid-June, many estates were releasing futures, but at lower prices. They knew the vintage was excellent, and the scores that trickled out agreed. In recognition of the pandemic, the economic devastation, and the extraordinarily high prices of 2018, estates decided to reduce price.
Brokers and consumers took notice and started purchasing futures of the most famous wines.
Some top châteaux do not participate in the en primeur campaigns. Château Latour pulled out with the 2011 vintage. Others will release wines later when they are more complete and can perhaps demand higher prices. Some are releasing less quantity to hold back more for future pricing upside.
Pricing: Up or Down?
Details: Prices in Bordeaux are set based on the prices of the prior vintage, current ratings, and demand. Additional factors added pressure in 2019.
- In 2018, prices were extremely high.
- Scores and ratings for the 2019 vintage are high.
- Demand has been falling (before the pandemic, sales were down about 12%, including France and China.)
- Global inventory levels of prior vintages remain high.
- The global pandemic brought economic disaster.
Truly a perfect storm.
The principal trading market for Bordeaux, Liv-ex, is down by half. Bulk pricing has fallen off a cliff with prices below 1,000 Euro (breakeven.)
Some top châteaux reduced their prices by up to 30% below prior year. With most prices lower than recent vintages, 2019 is a buyer’s market.
|Date||Châteaux||% Decrease (USD) vs 2018|
|May 28||Châteaux Pontet-Canet||41%|
|June 3||Châteaux Cos-d'Estournel||23%|
|June 5||Châteaux Lafite Rothschild||16%|
|June 8||Châteaux Angélus||13%|
|June 9||Châteaux Mouton Rothschild||30%|
|June 10||Châteaux Lynch Bages||26%|
|June 10||Châteaux Pavie||12%|
|June 11||Châteaux Haut-Brion||30%|
|June 15||Châteaux Pape Clement||9%|
|June 18||Châteaux Margaux||21%|
|June 18||Châteaux Ducru-Beaucaillou||19%|
|June 20||Châteaux Léoville Las Cases||24%|
As a result of all these factors, demand for futures is growing.
Some négociants have already sold out of their allocations and investors are already selling these wines at higher prices on secondary markets.
US consumers should benefit since many wines in 2019 have alcohol levels above the tariff rates (14%.) But no one knows where tariffs will go over the next few years.
Big Hammer Wines: 2019 Bordeaux en Primeur Wine Expert
If you want to buy futures and make the most of your money, the expertise and access of a reputable dealer is critical to find the best values.
Also, because you must wait for years for the wine to be delivered, you assume the risk of the retailer going out of business.
Those interested in en primeur wines for the 2019 vintage should act now because of limited availability.
Experts in Bordeaux, Big Hammer Wines’ exclusive Bordeaux Direct Imports offers clients essentially wholesale cost on Bordeaux futures by the case.
Access to the list is usually restricted to wholesale clients, but Big Hammer believes all clients should have access.
With an innovative online business model and direct importation, cost reductions are passed onto customers, allowing them to buy the 2019 vintage at the best price.