When the Unions des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UCGB) announced that it would push its en-primeur tasting week back by a month, critics and producers all generally agreed that it was an excellent idea. The optimistically cautious decision to taste a month later than usual (bar the 2019 en primeur tastings that took place almost two months later than normal), seemed like a good solution in the still uncertain Covid times; it would allow for France to come out of its lockdown and hopefully would take place as things more or less got back to normal.
Unfortunately, they were wrong.
On 2nd April 2021, less than a month before the en primeur campaign was due to begin, President Emmanuel Macron announced the start of a third national lockdown. His announcement threw the UGCB’s strategy into panic. Along with the rest of Europe, France once again battened down its hatches and got ready for another four weeks of restrictions.
At the time of writing, Bordeaux en-primeur week will still happen, starting on the 26th April. We can’t comment on how the event will take place – not to mention how the wines actually taste, or what they will score. Life is what happens when you’re making plans, right?
How En Primeur Works… Or Worked
Unlike buying a pair of shoes or your weekly groceries, buying en primeur means that you don’t actually walk away with your purchase. Called futures in English, the practice carries its name well; you are literally buying the future.
En-primeur wines are tasted by professionals who deliver their verdict early May, 12-18 months prior to the wines bottle release date. The idea is that the chateaux sell the previous year’s harvest after it has fermented and been transferred to its ageing barrels but has not yet completed its initial maturation. The chateaux take an educated gamble on their wine; working on the weather conditions, the skill of the winemaking team and the chateau’s history, they release the wine “en primeur”.
Around 5,000 critics are invited to the tasting week (these events are strictly by invitation only. If your name’s not down, you’re not coming in), flying in from all corners of the globe. Wines are often tested blind; i.e. with no label so critics do not know before tasting if they’re tasting a first or a fifth growth.
Normally, this is a fantastically busy time in Bordeaux. Hotels and restaurants are booked up months in advance, and chateaux do everything in their power to seduce the top critics by inviting them to private tastings, Michelin-starred dinners and exclusive presentations of the wine. If they can eke out an extra tout petit point and get that all important +90 score, then future success is more or less assured.
Once the wine’s scores have been released, negociants (professional wine merchants) can buy their allocated share and add their markup. Only then are the en primeur options ready for sale to you, the investor.
En Primeur During the “New Normal”
Traditionally, Bordeaux has been a region that has resisted change. The fine wine industry as a whole has been reluctant to embrace the digital generation, preferring the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage.
Of course, 2020 threw all that out of the window. France’s first lockdown was announced with little warning, meaning that 2019’s vintage en-primeur campaign was either remote or not at all. This was a “quick and dirty” solution to the unprecedented times and was an excellent (ergo, the only) answer to carry on with en primeur tastings in 2020. However, wines were sent as samples to key players, and as we all know, en primer wine does not travel well. This could be one of the reasons that 2019s vintage was generally 20% lower than 2018s offering and 30% lower than the 2016. 2019s scores were good (scores according to Jane Anson of Decanter.com): Château Rauzan-Ségla 2019 was rated 96/100, Château Canon 2019 rated 98/100, Vieux Château Certan 2019 97/100, Château Château Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse 2019 98/100 and Château Beau-Séjour Bécot 2019, 96/100 points. Not too shabby a year certainly, especially considering the difficult tasting situations.
Digital En Primeur Tastings
2019s en primeur tastings were hastily rearranged to take place virtually throughout June. Starting in Bordeaux with physically distanced tastings for brokers and negociants on the 4th and 5th of June, the campaign snaked its way through Europe and Asia throughout the whole of the month. Private, one-on-one tastings were organised in each destination for key distributors and journalists. Video presentations were created by the estates so they could introduce the vintage. Samples were sent out. Tasting sessions were held via Zoom in limited company. QR links with all the wine’s technical information were created and made available on the UGCB’s website. For an industry that had traditionally eschewed the power of the digital, fine wine certainly knew how to switch it on.
The obvious advantages of digital tasting sessions are more basic: they’re far more cost effective, far less time consuming and easier to manage. Yet they lack the networking and je ne sais quoi of traditional tastings. But is the lack of bonhomie and industry banter made up for by pragmatic reasoning? Certainly, 2020s en primeur tastings will most probably lean towards a more digitalised version, whether this is the future of wine tasting remains to be seen.
How the current lockdown will affect the 2020 en primeur tastings is anyone’s guess. We know that while the event will certainly take place, it won’t be as before. President Macron has favoured a “relaxed” approach to lockdown number three, insisting that many shops and small businesses remain open (unlike in 2020, when the country came to a virtual standstill for seven weeks). People are allowed to gather in small groups of six and although physical distancing is still mandatory, this is already a vast improvement from the previous year’s conditions.
The En Primeur Tasting Dates for 2021
Covid or not, the campaign must go on. In January 2020 the UGCB announced that en primeur week would go ahead, from 26-29th April, a month later than usual. They made the unprecedented move of pinpointed 10 key cities (plus Bordeaux) where physical tastings would take place while organising a virtual campaign in parallel. “We’re preparing to organise the campaign the best we can, using all of the modern technology at our disposal,” says (third growth) Cantenac Brown’s winemaker Jose Sanfins. Watch this space.
The 2020 Wine Vintage
Ironically, the 2020 wine vintage promises to be one of the better years that Bordeaux has seen. The hot summer meant vines grew prolifically, causing many estates to decide to “green prune” their vines, lest the grapes get sunburnt. This controversial process sees the young shoots stripped off the vine, forcing the nutrients to go all the way to the existing fruit, therefore allowing it to ripen beautifully. The practice is not commonplace as it can vastly reduce the yield, yet inversely improves the quality of the wine. It may be worth noting that the vendange verte (to give it its French name) was mandatory in Champagne, which follows a different set of rules from other regions.
The hot summer followed by the light rainfall and cool nights meant harvesting came between 2-4 weeks early in 2020 for all regions (the earliest for 650 years in Burgundy). Therefore en-primeur wines that will be tasted during the tasting week in the end of April will have benefited from almost two extra months of barrel ageing than the norm. How this will play out with scores remains to be seen, but we expect a set of very interesting results.
What can we expect from Vintage 2020? Only time will tell.
Continue reading our full guide to en primeur wine.