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The Primeurs System in Bordeaux – A Personal View

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Chateau Latour’s recently announced decision to quit the en primeur system as from next year has naturally stimulated quite a lot of debate, and the subject merits reflection.

There has been talk of the consequences of this decision, suggesting that it might be the beginning of the end of selling Bordeaux en primeurs, and some debate as whether this would be a good or bad thing.

I do not think myself that it is the beginning of the end of the current system. Latour is Latour, and is in a position to do more or less as its owners wish. The same is true probably of the other Premier Crus, but it is by no means certain that they will wish to follow suit. Time will give us the answer to that, and in the meantime it is just pure speculation to talk about it. However, since the question has been raised about the advantages or otherwise of the current system, I think it is perfectly valid to discuss this aspect of the question.

Like any system that works, it has its advantages and disadvantages. I think the positive aspects outweigh any negative ones, both from the point of view of the chateau and of the consumer. So here’s how it works, from my viewpoint at Château Pichon-Longueville Baron.

The system depends on the existence in Bordeaux of the numerous negociants who make up the Place de Bordeaux. There are over four hundred of them, but a property like Château Pichon-Longueville Baron will typically work with between forty and eighty of them. Any more and it begins to be difficult to know them all well. The reason for working with so many is that they have different strengths and specificities, many having strong distribution in different parts of the world, some being particularly strong in one particular part of the market etc etc.. By selecting a number of negociants with different strengths, the chateau can make sure of a good global distribution of its wines, reaching every part of the market that it wishes to reach. The existence of these negociants, managed by knowledgable wine professionals who travel the world promoting the wines they sell and ensuring a global distribution for the wines of Bordeaux, is a major asset for Bordeaux producers. But I also believe that it is good for consumers. There being so many first rate negociants in existence, competition between them is intense, and their margins relatively small. This ensures that the wines achieve their global distribution at a relatively low cost.

When a property like Château Pichon-Longueville Baron declares the price of its Grand Vin during a Primeurs campaign, it will communicate the price to its negociant partners via the courtiers. This might happen for example at 11.30 in the morning. If all is well, within an hour or so all the negociants will confirm that they are taking their allocations. They in turn will offer the wine to their partners around the world, and if the price is right they will in turn confirm that they will take their allocations. In a good year this can happen the same afternoon, meaning that by the end of the day the chateau has sold its crop (or as much of it as it decides to put on the market) and within a few hours achieved a global distribution for its wines. The advantage of this to the chateau is clear.

From the point of view of the customer, the wine lover who wants to buy some Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, I believe that the system is a very efficient way of getting the wine to them, wherever they may be. If the chateau tried to achieve this distribution on their own without working with the negoce it would be more expensive and less efficient, as it would not be possible to ensure the remarkable capillary distribution that the various negociants are able to achieve.

Supposing that we accept that this unique system is a good way to get the wines to the consumer, that still leaves the question of when is the best time to sell the wines. At the moment, En Primeur sales happen in the spring or early summer of the year following the harvest. So the 2011s have just begun to be offered to the market. The wine is of course still in barrel, and will be bottled next year and despatched to the customers.

It is perfectly valid to question whether this is the best time to offer the wine for sale. A good argument can be made that the campaign should take place a year or so later, after the wines are in bottle. However, I think it highly unlikely that the system is going to change in that way.

The temptation for a Grand Cru property is more likely to be to keep its wines for longer, in the hope of selling them for a higher price by choosing the moment at which the Chateau puts them on the market. Seen from the point of view of the chateau owner, it can sometimes be a little frustrating to see the price of the wine rise by a significant percentage after the sale en primeur. Obviously, if you are a wine producer and you see the price of your wine double on the market within a few years of releasing it, the tempting thought is likely to cross your mind that if only you had held the wine back for a while, you could have sold it for that higher price yourself! There is nothing particularly wicked in thinking this way. Imagine you were the owner of the chateau yourself: you might well have similar thoughts.

However this is to ignore the enormous value for a Bordeaux chateau of the remarkable world-wine chain of distribution that exists, and which thrives on the possibility that wine bought en primeur may gain significantly in value. This can of course be advantageous for the distributor if they keep back some stocks themselves, but above all it is highly motivating for the final customer, the person who buys the wine to drink themselves.

Of course, for all this to work, the prices en primeur have to be right. But it is up to the market, made up as it ultimately is of individual buyers, to make the judgement of whether a chateau has offered its wine en primeurs at the right price. If the price is too high, then the wine will not sell well, and the market price is likely to come down. Any chateau that makes this mistake will be punished by the market in future years by a weaker demand for its wine and by a strong demand for a downward adjustment of future prices. That is part of the mechanism of en primeurs. But it is usually possible for a consumer by buying wisely to buy the wines en primeurs at significantly lower prices than the wine will trade for in the near future. All recent vintages of Château Pichon-Longueville Baron are trading today at significant premiums to their en primeur prices, some of them twice as high, some of them more than this. It has been a good idea to buy Château Pichon-Longueville Baron en primeurs over the past decade. I think it will be over the next decade as well and we will do our best to make sure that it is so. Would it be wiser for us to keep the wine back and sell it later, keeping this extra profit for ourselves? I do not think so, although it is only human to have such thoughts. An important part of the dynamic of the demand for Grand Cru Bordeaux is precisely the possibility for distributors to make a fair margin when selling our wines around the world, and for the final customer, who is the most important person of all, to feel that he or she has bought the wine at a good price en primeurs, far cheaper than it would be were they to try to buy the wine at a later date.

The traditional advice given by wine merchants to their customers was to buy twice as much as they wanted of their chosen wine, wait till the price had risen, then sell half and drink the rest for free, or at a significantly reduced price, subsidised by the profit on the wine sold. It is still perfectly good advice, provided you have the means to do it and you choose your chateau well. But even if you never intend to sell a bottle, (and my favourite customers are those who would never resell a single bottle of Château Pichon-Longueville Baron­ I certainly wouldn¹t: what would you buy with the money that you are going to enjoy more? ) it is always a source of satisfaction to open a bottle that cost you much less than its value today. That is part of the fun of the en primeur system, and an element that I do not think we should forget: it is a game which is fun to play, and which attracts the interest and enthusiasm of wine drinkers all over the world. This excitement is an important motor of the Bordeaux wine business, and I think we would be unwise to lose it.

Château Pichon-Longueville Baron
Château Pichon-Longueville Baron

About alcohol levels in wine: A great red Bordeaux should be fresh, balanced, fine, delicate and aromatic.

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I am often asked to comment on the issue of alcohol levels in wine, and so I thought I would take the opportunity to put down some thoughts on this question. I can only really comment in the context of the vineyards that I look after, and it seems to me that the issue is relevant to two regions in particular: Bordeaux and the Douro Valley.

To take first the subject in the context of Bordeaux, it is true that in properties like Château Pichon-Longueville Baron and Château Petit-Village, average natural alcohol levels are higher than they used to be. I would stress that higher acohol levels are never our aim, but rather the logical consequence of the way we work in the vineyards today, which has evolved considerably compared to how it was twenty or more years ago.

Some of the more vociferous objections to the levels of alcohol in Bordeaux wines today tend to come from older generation wine experts, whether writers or in the trade, often from the UK. The general argument seems to be that Bordeaux has somehow lost its soul in the pursuit of ripeness, and that “true Claret” should be more like the wines of yesteryear, with lower alcohol levels, wines of the kind that were often unapproachable for years, even decades, only to reveal their true greatness after a very long period. This is something of a caricature, but it is still a point of view one hears, though increasingly rarely.

I think it is important to realise how much the way that we work in the vineyards has changed in Bordeaux. In former times yields per hectare were far higher: twice as much as today, and sometimes more. Selection today is much stricter, both in the vineyard, and when the grapes arrive in the chai. Selection is also far stricter in the blending room, when it comes to selecting the lots of wine for the Grand Vin. The aim of all this endeavour, which amounts to being strict with oneself, and limiting production, is to achieve higher quality. It goes without saying that the elimination of less than perfect grapes before vinification, leads to greater precision and more finesse in the wines – you only have to look at the end of the day at what has been rejected at the sorting table to realize that it is better that this matter was not included in the wine.

But above all, the acceptance of lower yields – within reason –enables us to achieve far more regularly phenological ripeness of the grapes, with the result that today it is relatively rare to taste young red Bordeaux of Grand Cru quality with the green unripe hard tannins that could in the past be a characteristic of cooler years. Such wines are lamented only by a few, and the vast majority of wine drinkers appreciate the fact that high quality can be achieved in most years today. An example in point is the 2007 vintage, which in former times would have probably produced under-ripe grapes, but which in fact produced some lovely wines, very approachable today. This has been achieved at the cost of a lot of hard work in the vineyards and the sacrifice of quantity.

A side effect of this trend however, has inevitably been that average alcohol levels have risen somewhat. At Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, our wines have regularly been at 13 degrees for some years, and at Petit Village, where there is obviously more Merlot, we sometimes rise to 14. I can only stress that these slightly higher alcohol levels are not the aim, they are the consequence of the unrelenting pursuit of higher quality. Above all, the central point seems to me to be that the wines should taste balanced and harmonious. If one notices the alcohol then that indeed is regrettable, but if the wines are as they should be, then all one notices is the wine itself, which is what we are aiming for.

It is important to understand that the effect of achieving more regularly greater phenolic ripeness is not just to achieve higher sugar levels and so higher potential alcohol levels, but also, crucially, riper and finer tannins. We choose the date of picking based on our tasting of the grapes, but also on our analyses of polyphenols and IPTs which usually indicate the optimum phenolic ripeness a couple of days after the desired sugar levels. Sugar levels are not the only measure in other words. The result of picking at the optimum moment – and it is equally important both to wait for the right moment, and also not too wait too long, as over-ripeness must be avoided – is to achieve tannins that are full round, ripe and silky, and it is this, together with the natural acidity in the grape, that balances out the alcohol level, and ensures that the overall impression is one of equilibrium and harmony.

I am a wholehearted subscriber to the idea that great red Bordeaux should be fresh, balanced, fine, delicate, aromatic, the kind of wine of which one can drink with pleasure a few glasses with food, and arise from the table feeling refreshed and clear headed. I think the best wines of recent years triumphantly achieve exactly this, even if their natural alcohol levels may be a degree or so higher than in years gone by.

If one takes the specific example of Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, the quantity of Grand Vin produced in recent years has been half the amount produced previously. But quite obviously the purpose of this radical reduction in the quantity of wine produced is to make the most beautiful Château Pichon-Longueville Baron possible, and a slightly higher average alcohol level is just a consequence of what we are doing, and not the aim.

The second place where the issue arises, and where the situation is rather different, is the Douro Valley. One of the most exciting developments of recent years in the Douro has been the appearance of high quality red wines vinified usually from the noble Port wine varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, or Francesa, Tinto Cao, Tinta Roriz etc.. At Noval we have now been making high quality red wines since 2004, and I am so enthused by the potential for these wines that with a group of private investors we acquired the historic vineyard of Quinta da Romaneira a little further uo the valley with the primary purpose of making Douro red wines, although we also make small amounts of high quality Port wines, both Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage and aged tawnies.

Of course the Douro has much more sunshine than Bordeaux, and grapes can often attain high sugar levels, which translate into high alcohol levels in the wine. With Port, this is not so much of a problem: if you are going to fortify the wine during fermentation, it is not much of an issue whether the potential alcohol of harvested grapes is 14 or 15 degrees. With red wine the situation is clearly different, and we have certainly produced wines of 14.5 and sometimes a little higher.

Again, I think that the most important thing is how the wine tastes: if you notice the alcohol level when you taste the wine, then that is undesirable. But usually, if you have a powerful spicy aromatic Douro red, with great fruit and all its elements in balance, my experience is that you do not notice the alcohol when tasting the wine, at least not as a negative element. Naturally the drinking experience is slightly different than for a classic Bordeaux wine: the simple answer is just to drink a little less if the alcohol level is high. However, having said that, we have noticed that Touriga Franca or Francesa very rarely, even in Douro conditions, rises above 12.5 degrees potential alcohol, and so we are blending more of this grape variety in our Quinta do Noval blend than previously, and one of the principal reasons is this variety’s ability to lower the average alcohol level in the final blend. It also happens that its fine aromatic qualities marry very well with the Touriga Nacional to make a great wine, so the outcome is successful in every way. In recent years we have been both planting and grafting more Touriga Franca/Francesa in the Douro for these reasons.

In conclusion, I don’t think higher alcohol levels in wine desirable, and we try to avoid them, but sometimes they inevitably come about, whether it is from a policy of lower yields and stricter selection in Bordeaux, or because of higher levels of sunshine as in the Douro. I believe that the important thing is that when you do have wines with higher alcohol levels there is no perception of this on the taste: as long as the wine is harmonious and balanced then I do not see it as a problem. Naturally if one sees a high alcohol level on the label of a bottle you need to adjust the amount you might decide to drink accordingly, but that is just common sense. I cannot say it is something that I worry about very much in my personal drinking: what matters to me is how the wine tastes: if you have a great glass of wine in front of you at 13 or 14 degrees, and that level is the result of all the complex factors that went into making the wine what it is, I think you just have to accept that, and enjoy the wine, which is the sole purpose of everything that we do.