Bordeaux 2019: The best “En Primeur” that almost never happened

Like the other 4,000+ wine trade professionals, buyers and journalists who usually attend En Primeur, we had planned to be in Bordeaux at the end of March for the annual presentation of the new vintage….. and, coincidently, one of the best week-long wine parties you could possibly imagine!

But of course, anticipation quickly changed to horror, as COVID-19 shut down the world. Wine producers and distributors, already challenged with Brexit and U.S. tariffs, saw their situation grow unimaginably worse as international markets went into a free-fall with no bottom in sight.

In quarantine, we speculated about the future of the wine industry. Would there be an En Primeur? Rumors were rampant and potential new dates came and went. Aside from when, the other hot topic was how much? Would anyone even purchase Bordeaux Futures in such a severely damaged economy? Predictions were bleak.

Then, suddenly, barely a few weeks ago, the châteaux and négociants announced they were releasing pricing and allocations. We, along with wine critics and other importers were shipped samples. Zoom tastings with châteaux winemakers replaced the face-to-face meetings typical of En Primeur. 

A few of the many samples we received for the 2019 vintage. Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande was a favorite.

We prepared to contact our clients with technical information, allocations and critiques — the few that were available on such short notice. To say we were skeptical about the whole process is an understatement. But we carried on, hoping for the best….

Appropriately, Château Pontet-Canet, famous for their sturdy Brittany horses, was first out the gate on May 28th. Only three critics had ratings available, but they were stellar: Suckling 98-99, Decanter 96, Wine Advocate 98-100, with Lisa Perrotti-Brown writing that the 2019 Pontet-Canet is “absolutely going to steal your heart!” 

And boy did it! Not only is the wine exceptional, it was also priced 30% below the previous year. We sold out of Pontet-Canet in a day.

Next up was Château Palmer. Thomas Duroux, Palmer’s CEO, is known for his gutsy, innovative decisions, and he didn’t disappoint. Also dropping the price 30%, Duroux, was direct, stating simply that: “2019 is a really fantastic vintage, but of course the world is not the same as it was last year.”  The only critic to have tasted Palmer 2019, Decanter’s Jane Anson, gave a 98 rating, saying “…the wine is both measured and elegant, with textbook floral Margaux character.” Our Palmer allocation was gone in a matter of hours.

A day later, wine impresario Bernard Magrez released production for all five of his Bordeaux properties: Château Pape Clément, Château Fombrauge, Château La Tour Carnet, Clos Haut-Peyraguey and Château Magrez La Peyre. Prices for Magrez wines are typically quite reasonable, but this year the collection was an even better buy with 12% additional discounts. Magrez also sampled heavily to help promote Primeurs. When we contacted Bernard Magrez to share news of our brisk sales, he told us: “We made it our mission to send out samples to help the world discover the exceptional quality of this vintage. We also believed that the right pricing was essential.”

Michel with Anthony Moses, owner of Twins Négociants, at a recent En Primeur. Photo by Marla Norman.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Château Mouton Rothschild, whose 2018 release was priced at €408 dropped their 2019 price to €282 — a 31% discount. “That really woke up the market!” enthused Anthony Moses, owner of Twins Négociants. “I think both Mouton and Lafite made the difference in this campaign. They were determined to release and they provided the leadership and momentum to make it work.”

Also significant at this juncture, was that many critics and journalists had finally tasted through the pallets of hundreds of bottles of wine that had shown up on their doorsteps. Their reports and ratings confirmed the quality of the 2019 vintage. 

Jeb Dunnuck neatly summed up the general commentary: “This is an incredibly high-quality vintage for Bordeaux that will certainly be included in the list of recent great vintages. The wines show beautiful ripeness and relatively sunny, full-bodied characters.”

Roger Voss writing for Wine Enthusiast observed: “Even this young, the wines are succulent and accessible. They don’t have the power and tannins of  2018 or 2016. The 2019 Bordeaux vintage is a cross between the openness of 2009, a popular vintage for American wine lovers, and the more structured 2010, perhaps with a little light 1999 thrown in.”

 

Thomas Burke, Sales and Négociants Relations Manager for Château Margaux. Photo courtesy of Château Margaux.

With promising critiques in hand, collectors, who were already eager to invest, went on a shopping frenzy. On June 18th, three weeks into the campaign, Château Margaux — in a show of impeccable timing — announced their release. At a 17% discount over 2018 prices, theirs was a more conservative discount, but reviews were extraordinary, with five potential 100-point ratings. Our allocation sold out in minutes.

When we spoke with Thomas Burke, Sales and Négociants Relations Manager for Château Margaux, he described the 2019 as “magical — with beautifully mature tannins, backbone and texture. Interestingly, 2019 is the second highest in IPT ever at Margaux behind 2018. But it is the quality of the tannins that is remarkable in 2019 — a very powerful, tannic vintage, but you don’t feel the tannins because of their ripeness and overall quality.”

He also added that Pavillon Rouge was one of the best releases ever, saying: “The gap between Pavillon Rouge and the Grand Vin this year has really shrunk. It’s one of the characteristics that stands out for me in this vintage. You simply can not call this a second wine, and better yet, it’s even a bit more open than Margaux at this point.” 

Three weeks later it was all over. On June 23rd, the last releases were announced, with the Thienpont family properties Vieux Château Certan and Le Pin providing the traditional grand finale for Primeurs. 

We caught our breath and looked at the numbers in amazement. Against all odds, the 2019 Primeur not only took place, but was one of the most successful ever to market. Obviously, a highly-rated vintage and discounted prices were key. But the other element was the buying enthusiasm and excitement generated by the pace of the releases.

Anthony Moses put it best: “The quality of the vintage, excellent value and a dynamic schedule created a synergy like we’d never seen. I think perhaps the Bordeaux wine industry — châteaux, négociants and courtiers — should consider implementing a four to six week calendar for Primeurs. To hold the world’s attention for three months is asking too much. We learned with the 2019s that a shorter, quicker-paced campaign is more effective.”

Ronan Laborde & Monique Bailly, owners of Château Clinet. Ronan also serves as president of the UGCB. Photo by Marla Norman.

Monique Bailly, who co-owns and manages Château Clinet with husband Ronan Laborde, agrees: “The campaign was very intense because of the short window we had between the end of confinement and before summer vacations. We were all forced to be more efficient, to communicate better with our distributors and to be more than ever aware of what the market was ready to accept.  We still need time to draw conclustions, but we will certainly learn a lot from this campaign.”

That the success of the 2019 un-Primeur would influence changes to future Primeurs is interesting to consider. We personally loved receiving wine samples at home and took advantage of the ability to taste throughout an entire day.

Michel prepares to taste 2019 Château Malescot Saint Exupéry. Photos by James Norman.

Victoria Norman and Marla sample 2019 Château Beychevelle.

A number of critics seem to agree. In his vintage review, Neal Martin wrote: “I was able to taste in quiet surroundings… I could taste at a leisurely pace, pausing over samples without worrying about being late for the next appointment…In some instances I examined bottles over 12-hour intervals, and in dozens of cases up to and including Grands Crus Classés, I tasted the same wine multiple times…”

Thomas Burke also noted how much easier the wines were to taste, saying “two months in the evolution of young wines makes a big difference. I realize that the logistics are probably impossible, but I wish there were some way to stage tastings at a later date.” 

Producers, understandably, are not eager to ship their vulnerable “baby wines” across the world again. “We did it because it was our only option,” says Hélène Garcin-Lévêque, owner of Château Barde-Haut, Clos l’Eglise and Château Poesia. “I don’t think it will be repeated. There are so many problems in controlling the transportation, temperatures, etc. C’était une solution par défaut.”

Ronan Laborde, president of the UGCB (Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux) concurs: “I think it was a relief for everyone to taste these wines and see that they were showing very well, even after transport. But the best tasting conditions are at the winery or close by.”

Hélène Garcin-Lévêque, owner of Château Barde-Haut, Clos l’Eglise and Château Poesia. Photo by Marla Norman.

The Château Angélus team: Jean-Bernard Grenié, Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal, Hubert de Boüard. Photo courtesy of Château Angélus.

Jean-Bernard Grenié, co-owner of Château Angélus, heartily agrees: “We were really afraid to send samples outside the cellars, or – worst – outside Europe. It’s very difficult to quarantee the conditions in which the samples are  transported. In the beginning, for this experiment, we tried to send the wine only for destinations where there was somebody able to check the wines, taste them and pour them in good conditions. But we could not find trusted people everywhere. For the next vintages, for sure, we will come back to tastings in the Château.”

Indeed, a number of top châteaux decided against sending samples altogether — Montrose, Palmer, Cheval Blanc, Rauzan-Ségla and Canon included. The absence of such luminaries is significant. In a recent Zoom wine chat, Antonio Galloni lamented: “I won’t feel that I have a complete understanding of the Margaux appellation in 2019 until I’ve tasted Palmer and Rauzan-Ségla,” 

Also missing were the hundreds of classified châteaux who don’t have the financial resources to bottle and overnight samples across the globe. Bordeaux’s vast production of these world-class wines under $50 is unrivaled. In traditional Primeurs, these wines can be tasted at UGCB collective presentations. Visitors have an opportunity to discover young winemakers or smaller properties that are up and coming — one of most enjoyable features of Primeurs.

A few of our samples from the Margaux appellation — the appellation as a whole, showed extremely well in this vintage.

Of course, the omnipresent issue with Bordeaux is cost. Many collectors feel that 2019 prices were a “once-in-a-lifetime event.” Our crystal ball is pretty opaque, but presumably economic issues will again play a determing role in final pricing for 2020 and subsequent vintages — as they always have.

In the end, just how the unprecedented 2019 Primeurs will affect Bordeaux Futures requires time to sort out. For now, this outstanding, irresistibly-priced vintage is welcome news — just when we needed it the most!

If you somehow missed out on the 2019 Bordeaux Frenzy or would like to add further to your collection, we still have some jaw-dropping offerings:

CRÈME DE LA CRÈME
Château Beauséjour-Duffau. DC-98 RP 96-98. $104.99. 15 bottles
Château Cheval Blanc. DC-98. $479.99. 18 bottles
Château Cos d’Estournel. RP 97-99+ JD 97-99. $152.99. 7 bottles
Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. JS 99-100 JD 97-100 RP 97-100. $149.99. 15 bottles
Château Figeac. RP 98-100 NM 97-99. $159.99. 9 bottles
Château Haut-Brion. JS 99-100 RP 97-99+. $398.99. 12 bottles
Château La Violette. NM 95-97. $269.99. 6 bottles
Château Lafite Rothschild.  JS 99-100, RP 97-99. $524.99. 11 bottles
Château Léoville-Las Cases. JS 98-99  RP 97-99+. $179.99. 27 bottles
Château Montrose. DC-98. $124.99. 33 bottles
Château Palmer. DC-98. $205.99. 8 bottles
Château Pavie. RP 97-100, JS 98-99. $299.99. 6 bottles
Vieux Château Certan. RP 97-100 JS 98-99. $219.99. 41 bottles

STARS OF THE VINTAGE
Château Canon. DC-98. $103.99. 20 bottles
Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion. DC-96. $99.99. 24 bottles
Château Clos Fourtet.  NM 95-97 AG 95-97. $92.99. 26 bottles
Château Haut-Bailly. JS 98-99 RP 97-99. $90.99. 24 bottles
Château Leoville-Barton. WE 97-99. $69.99. 14 bottles
Château Lynch-Bages. AG 96-98. $88.99. 17 bottles
Château Pavie-Macquin. JS 98-99. $64.99. 65 bottles
Château Rauzan-Ségla. DC-96. $79.99. 36 bottles
Château Smith Haut Lafitte. RP 96-98+ NM 96-98. $85.99. 59 bottles
Château Troplong Mondot. AG 96-98 RP 96-98. $79.99. $79.99. 17 bottles
Château Clos l’Église. JS 96-97. $69.99. 8 bottles
Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux. JS 96-97. $159.99. 12 bottles

BEST BUYS
Château Barde-Haut. NM 93-95. $30.99. 64 bottles
Château Brane-Cantenac. DC-96. $53.99. 22 bottles
Château d’Armailhac. NM 92-94. $39.99. 8 bottles
Château d’Issan. RP 94-96+ JS 96-97. $48.99. 24 bottles
Château Feytit-Clinet. JS 95-96 NM 94-96. $54.99. 4 bottles
Château Haut-Brisson. JD 92-94+. $21.99. 16 bottles
Château Malartic-Lagravière. WE 95-97. $37.99. 11 bottles
Château Marquis-D´Alesme. NM 94-96. $39.99. 12 bottles
Château Pichon Comtesse Réserve de la Comtesse. NM 92-94. $36.99. 18 bottles
Château Poesia.  AG 93-95. $28.99. 76 bottles
Château Prieuré-Lichine. WE 94-96. $33.99. 36 bottles
Château Tour Saint-Christophe. JS 96-97 JD 95-97. $25.99. 72 bottles

Finally, a personal note: As many of you know, Michel had a complete knee-replacement on June 16th — precisely in the middle of these Bordeaux Futures — a side event that definitely added to the drama of Primeurs for us. Your get-well notes and calls were much appreciated. We are so very fortunate to have clients who are also good friends!

À votre santé et merci!

2020-07-02T23:41:48+00:00June 29th, 2020|0 Comments