Wine Lister spent a week in Bordeaux tasting the 2018 vintage in April, and has dedicated the last two months to covering en primeur releases for its Pro Subscribers. After what has been an unpredictable and puzzling Bordeaux en primeur campaign, we have conducted more than 20 interviews with our Pro Subscribers and Founding Members to find out how it went for them.
Below you will find our conclusions on the Bordeaux 2018 en primeur campaign, which combine our own intimate knowledge of the campaign and its peculiarities with invaluable insights from the trade.
The campaign lasted 62 days compared to 59 last year (from the date of the first major release to the last standard-channel releases). One clear improvement, thanks to a concerted effort by courtiers, was the spacing out of releases more evenly over the period. However, this did not address the more acute concern around the overall length of the campaign, with the wine trade expected to concentrate on the new Bordeaux vintage for two whole months of the year.
A more major frustration was pricing. Over 80% of Wine Lister Pro Subscribers / Founding Members surveyed said prices were too high. On average, prices were up 13% on 2017 and 2% on 2016 release prices. This only made sense where 2016s had gone up in the market since release – not often enough the case. As a result, 2018s came onto the market on average 1% above the current market price of 2016, despite the latter – one of the vintages of the century – being physically available.
Needless to say, many wines stalled upon release due to over-ambitious pricing. When we asked the trade which wines sold the worst, more than once the reply was, “too many to mention”.
However, one of the more unfathomable motifs of the campaign was that in several instances, this highly ambitious pricing was accepted by the market, and the wines sold through. These were wines with good momentum behind them and a particularly loyal following, but most of all they were wines with a specific story that superseded any thought of value relative to prior vintages.
Examples of this phenomenon are Domaine de Chevalier and Palmer. Both were released into the market above every recent back vintage, and yet both met with demand thanks to the stories behind each wine. Domaine de Chevalier’s owner, Olivier Bernard, started sowing the seed several months before the campaign saying his 2018 was the best wine he’d ever made, a statement reiterated by the rest of his family and gradually absorbed through the fine wine chain. Unable to use conventional sprays, Palmer lost two-thirds of its crop to mildew, and made a striking, unusual wine that Managing Director Thomas Duroux said would “go down in history”.
“The market is very smart and only follows brands that it’s imperative to buy en primeur,” states Laurent Bonnet, Export Director of négociant L.D. Vins.
It was a campaign that favoured top names, not value wines. Wines below €50 were largely unsuccessful (with a few exceptions such as Laroque, Capbern, and Potensac – the three most affordable Bordeaux 2018 Wine Lister MUST BUYs).
David Suire, Managing Director of Château Laroque – a Bordeaux 2018 WL MUST BUY
After pricing, the most cited frustration was reduced volumes. On average, leading properties released around 20% less wine than last year. “The number one cause of reduced volumes is lower production in 2018 compared to previous years,” said Mathieu Chadronnier, Managing Director of négociant CVBG, who, like other participants in the campaign would have liked to have more volume to sell of certain wines. “It is a frustration, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” he concluded.
Certainly several properties produced less wine due to mildew and a very dry summer. Others made a commercial decision to keep back more wine – a continuation of the gradual trend for Bordeaux châteaux to release less wine en primeur, whether to create an impression of rarity, and / or to partake in the future upside by selling the bottled wine later once it has – they hope – increased in value.
Bonnet underlines the irony of having less and less stock of the wines that sell well, and too much of those that don’t: “The ‘not enough of in-demand wines / too many wines to hold as stock’ equation is difficult for négociants to resolve,” says Bonnet, cautioning that, “the financial stakes are high.”
Good news stories
While Asian buyers were reported to be less present than in previous years, other geographies remained strong – the US, continental Europe, and especially the UK.
The 10 greatest success stories of the campaign included six Wine Lister MUST BUYs: Calon Ségur, Canon, Carmes Haut-Brion, Rauzan-Ségla, Léoville Las Cases, Mouton Rothschild, and Lynch-Bages.
Revenues were up on 2017 across the board, in many cases very significantly. The majority of respondents reported en primeur revenues the same as or above 2015 levels, with only a couple of exceptions. However, very few managed to equal 2016 revenues.
On the one hand, it seems obvious that the 2018 Bordeaux en primeur campaign could have been more of a roaring success with more astute pricing and in some cases a bit more volume to go around. On the other, many of our Pro Subscribers and Founding Members have been pleasantly surprised by the outcome, and will conclude their campaigns with better revenues than they expected.
This leaves many convinced of the merits of en primeur, if frustrated that it’s not reaching its full potential. “We could have done £35m,” said Max Lalondrelle, Fine Wine Buying Director of UK merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd, which in fact made c.£22m in revenues on the 2018 Bordeaux en primeur campaign.
Meanwhile other members of the trade have ceased their Bordeaux en primeur activity altogether over recent years, and some are questioning its future viability. For the time being, the sun has set on this year’s campaign, but it will rise again next year on the utterly unique global marketing and distribution tool that is en primeur.
Read more about our new MUST BUY tool in our recent blog here.
The Bordeaux 2018 en primeur campaign is over. While the quality of wines available is, for the most part, unquestionably good, release prices have been on the high side to say the least, making the benefit of buying en primeur less obvious than in previous years.
Wine Lister’s brand-new website feature, WL MUST BUY, was launched this week*, especially for Bordeaux 2018 wines, to give valuable guidance as to which wines really are worth snapping up now.
Our ground-breaking MUST BUY recommendations are data-driven, with an intelligence-based, human overlay. The algorithm takes into account a wine’s quality and value within its vintage and appellation, as well as the latest industry intelligence from key players in the global fine wine trade. The Wine Lister team have scoured these results to identify must-buy wines based on our own tastings of Bordeaux 2018s, and insider market knowledge.
Given the dominance of reds in the top Bordeaux 2018 Quality scores, it is no surprise that all of these WL MUST BUYs are red.
Saint-Emilion ranks as our most recommended appellation, with six WL MUST BUYs, including the indomitable Canon, and value successes Le Prieuré, Quinault l’Enclos, and Laroque. These three achieve WL MUST BUY status by first passing the quality filter of Wine Lister’s MUST BUY algorithm (they exceed their collective Quality score average by 192 points in 2018). Their respective prices relative to similar quality 2018s from Saint-Emilion push them through the algorithm’s second step – the value filter. Finally, they have been identified by the fine wine trade and/or the Wine Lister team as wines to watch: Quinault l’Enclos is made by the elite winemaking team of Cheval Blanc, and their best yet, while Laroque has been taken to new heights by winemaker David Suire (who cut his teeth at Larcis-Ducasse).
Pauillac houses four of the “top end” Bordeaux 2018 MUST BUYs – Mouton (released at £426 per bottle in bond), both powerhouse super-seconds, Pichon Baron and Pichon Comtesse, and Buzz Brand Lynch Bages.
Sharing three picks apiece are further left bank appellations Saint-Julien, Saint-Estèphe, and Pessac-Léognan. Capbern, Meyney, and Latour-Martillac are testament to the value proposition available in Saint-Estèphe and Pessac-Léognan respectively. Saint-Julien MUST BUYs are represented by two fourth-growth staples, Branaire-Ducru and Beychevelle, and the second wine of Léoville Las Cases, Le Petit Lion.
Margaux earns two MUST BUYs – Rauzan-Ségla, and biodynamic Durfort Vivens (who made a huge step up in quality this year, and whose 2018 yield was less than a quarter of its usual volume). Pomerol equals this number with Lafleur and Hosanna.
Other wines featured in Wine Lister’s Bordeaux 2018 MUST BUYs list are: Beau-Séjour Bécot, Calon Ségur, Domaine de Chevalier Rouge, La Gaffelière, Les Carmes Haut-Brion, and Potensac.
*Wine Lister launched its MUST BUY tool on Monday at a Telegraph event entitled “Wine for Pleasure or Profit?”, where founder & CEO Ella Lister spoke about going “Back to Bordeaux” for both. You can see slides from the presentation relevant to Bordeaux 2018 MUST BUYs here: Telegraph Back to Bordeaux
In Bordeaux, 2018 was a winemakers’ vintage. That much is clear from conversations the Wine Lister team had throughout en primeur tasting week, explained further in Bordeaux 2018 en primeur part I : the vintage. Though quality across the board was good in 2018, the greats stand out all the more for being the result of key technical decisions, rather than just terroir.
Below we look at the top 25 Bordeaux 2018 red Quality scores, based on the recently-released ratings of Wine Lister partner critics Bettane+Desseauve, Julia Harding for Jancis Robinson, Antonio Galloni for Vinous, and Jeannie Cho Lee. The average Quality score of these top 25 is 975, 25 points higher than the equivalent top red panel in 2017.
Right bank super-appellation, Pomerol earns the highest number of places in the top 25 red Quality scores (6), and includes the first- and second-best wines of the vintage, Petrus and Lafleur. They earn Quality scores of 992 and 991 respectively, and the former is awarded 97-100 points by Wine Lister partner critic, Antonio Galloni, who comments, “From the very first taste, the 2018 Petrus is simply magical”.
Proving the potential for high quality across both banks in Bordeaux 2018, the next highest appellations are Pauillac and Saint-Émilion with 5 wines appearing in the top 25 apiece. Pauillac wins out overall, with an average score of 976 (vs. 974 in Saint-Émilion). Cheval Blanc (990) and Canon (963) show impressive Quality improvements on 2017, moving 22 and 31 places up the rankings respectively.
Pauillac’s top quality wines are made up, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the three Pauillacais first growths, Lafite (986), Latour (985), and Mouton (983), and super-seconds Pichon Baron and Pichon Comtesse. This last is holds the appellation’s most-improved ranking, moving up 21 places from its 2017 position. Julia Harding of JancisRobinson.com writes of Pichon Comtesse 2018, “A gentle and surprisingly subtle beauty”.
Elsewhere on the left bank, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estèphe earn three wines each in the top 25 for Quality. The best of these, Léoville Las Cases, earns a Quality score of 987. The three Saint-Estèphe wines follow consecutively, with front-runner and rising star Calon-Ségur moving up 37 places from its 2017 ranking – the largest improvement of all the top 25 Quality scorers in 2018.
Margaux and Pessac-Léognan appear just thrice between them in the top 25 for Quality, with Margaux (980), tiny-production Palmer (973), and Haut-Brion (981).
Other wines featuring in the top 25 Bordeaux 2018 Quality scores are: Figeac, Vieux Château Certan, Montrose, Ausone, Le Pin, Cos d’Estournel, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville-Poyferré, Angélus, Trotanoy, and La Conseillante.
The campaign in 2018 “won’t be a record breaker,” thinks Mathieu Chadronnier, MD of négociant CVBG, “but everything is there for it to work well.” There are also some potential pitfalls. In this article we consider the role that volume, pricing, and timing will play in the success of the 2018 en primeur campaign – already well underway.
In 2018, yields were often slightly below 2017 levels. Last year, frost damage provided a cover for releasing less volume into the market. Will mildew serve the same purpose in 2018? There were some extreme mildew casualties across the two banks, mainly for organic and biodynamic properties such as Palmer, which produced just 11 hl/ha. In Pomerol, L’Evangile made 20 hl/ha, less than half what it would have produced under conventional agriculture. In Pauillac, Pontet-Canet made just 10 hl/ha in 2018 – one third of its usual production, losing 15 hl/ha to mildew and another 5hl/ha due to dried out grapes.
The cellar at biodynamic estate, Château Palmer, emptier than usual due to tiny production in 2018 following severe attacks of mildew.
François-Xavier Borie, owner of Grand-Puy-Lacoste, believes that the real burning issue for en primeur is the volume released onto the market – or not. Some châteaux release nearly all their production, and others as little as 30%, keeping the rest back to create an artificial rarity in hope of selling the rest at a higher price later. Borie believes the right amount to release en primeur is “at least 80 percent,” cautioning that “releasing 30 percent and pretending it’s a real price is dangerous.”
Nicolas Ballarin of courtier Blanchy et de Lestapis agrees: “The problem of Bordeaux’s distribution is not in the price but in the fact that we don’t put enough wine into the market en primeur,” he states. “The real paradox is that knowing there’s none left at the château makes it more valued,” explains Ballarin, adding, “the négoce know they won’t get more.” He concludes that “prices only go up if there’s no more wine at the château.”
And after all, every producer’s objective is for their prices to go up. Many try to force this through their en primeur release price, while others let the market do the work. More than ever in 2018, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to bringing them onto the market.
As we saw in part I of our en primeur blog, 2018 was a vintage where producers’ decisions counted for a lot. In the words of Nicolas Glumineau, Managing Director of Pichon Comtesse, it is “a year with very important personal choices.” He was talking about the winemaking, but could just as easily be referring to the sale of the wine. “There won’t be any blanket tendencies,” says Frédéric Faye, Managing Director of Figeac, underlining that, “each château has to decide for itself and not look at its neighbours.”
The only golden rule that the trade seem to agree on is that the 2018s should not be priced higher than the 2016s were upon release. “It would be a massive mistake for prices to be above those of 2016,” declared George Wilmoth, Head of Sales at UK merchant Justerini & Brooks. In Bordeaux, Edouard Moueix, Managing Director of Etablissements Jean-Pierre Moueix (producer and négociant), agrees, saying 2018 prices, “cannot be higher than 2016, it’s impossible.”
The exception to this rule of course, is where the 2016s have increased significantly since their release. Stephen Browett, Chairman of UK merchant Farr Vintners, reminds us that, “the vast majority of 2016 Bordeaux wines that customers bought en primeur are still available at delivery time at the same price as they paid two years ago, and in some cases less,” but there are exceptions, such as Lafleur, whose 2016 has increased 109% since release. When it released this morning, the château could therefore up its 2016 release price by 12% and still offer a 2018 that remains significantly cheaper than the current market price of the 2016.
An excerpt from Wine Lister’s Bordeaux Study part I, showing the 10 2016 Bordeaux whose prices have increased the most since their release two years ago.
“At the end of the day the châteaux will charge what they can get,” states Mathieu Chadronnier, MD of négociant CVBG. The allocation system in Bordeaux means this is often more than what they should arguably be charging, because négociants don’t want to risk losing share to competitors in future years. However, some did refuse allocations in last year’s campaign, and this could happen again – and maybe on a larger scale – if prices are too ambitious.So far there have only been small instances of this.
The campaign is a precocious one, with Angélus releasing on 16th April, and a few dozen releases since, including well-known names Branaire-Ducru, Langoa-Barton, and Labégorce. However, it doesn’t really seem to have got going. Some of the Wine Lister team is just back from two days in Bordeaux speaking with négociants and courtiers on the Place, and there is a distinct lack of energy so far.
However, after yesterday’s bank holiday in France, and a handful of releases today, things are set to pick up pace in earnest next week. We expect a series of releases from châteaux that have historically judged their en primeur prices well, and this could breathe some life into the campaign. On the other hand, these are the very same châteaux who can actually conceive of increasing their prices, given their market value has risen sufficiently.
Some fear this will set the wrong precedent for their neighbours, which is why it is more important than ever for each property to consider its pricing strategy in the context of its own performance, and not what its neighbours are doing. Châteaux need to “make sure that their en primeur price to the consumer is lower than that of older vintages,” says Browett. In part I of our recent Bordeaux study, we looked at a case study of a hot property in Bordeaux that did just that in last year’s campaign.
A masterclass in en primeur release pricing – the chart above shows Carmes Haut Brion’s 2017 release prices versus previous vintages on its day of release last year. Today the market price of 2017 is £65 (16% above release), and the 2016, £133 (109% above release).
Let’s hope that more and more châteaux follow this formula as the campaign continues to unfold next week. The week after that is Vinexpo in Bordeaux, and most big-name releases will begin in earnest from 20th May.
Watch this space for the release of Wine Lister’s Bordeaux Study, Part II, before then.
In June 2018, the idea that Bordeaux had a very good vintage on its hands was laughable. The first half of the year had seen incessant rain in the region. Mildew was rife and vignerons were fighting it all day long, including at weekends (if they could afford to). At Château Corbin, owner Anabelle Cruse cancelled her trip to Vinexpo Hong Kong to be on site to manage treatments. “We couldn’t afford any mistakes after losing nearly all of the 2017 vintage [to frost],” she said.
But then on 18th June, the weather turned, and barely another drop of rain fell until September. 2018 was a year of extremes for Bordeaux. “It started hellish, and finished in ecstasy,” said Sara Lecompte Cuvelier, Managing Director at Léoville-Poyferré. “It started a nightmare and finished a dream,” echoed Guillaume Pouthier, Director at Carmes Haut-Brion.
Against all odds, some truly extraordinary wines were made. “Technically, it’s the most accomplished wine we have made since I joined,” said Nicolas Glumineau, Managing Director of Pichon Comtesse since 2012. Adrien Bernard declared, “the 2018 [red] is the greatest wine my dad has made” – the Bernard family bought Domaine de Chevalier in 1983. But 2018 was not a great vintage across the board like 1982, 1989, or 2010. It wasn’t a vintage where you could make a great wine with your eyes closed. On the contrary, 2018 is a vintage where human choices really mattered, and at the top level, happily, these choices were usually the right ones.
Happy with their 2018s: Guillaume Pouthier, Pierre-Olivier Clouet, and Nicolas Glumineau
Concentration in the 2018s is at unprecedented levels: grapes were lost to mildew in the spring, and then the summer drought left remaining berries very small, without much juice. Picking dates were key: the temptation to leave the grapes hanging in the Indian summer was strong, but success in 2018 was all about retaining freshness to counter the high levels of alcohol and tannin.
Even those who picked early were still facing unknown territory. Many producers recounted the topsy turvy ratio of marc to juice in the vats (more skins and pips than liquid). As a result, tannin levels were off the scale, with IPTs (Indice de Polyphénols Totaux) at their highest ever recorded for many producers. At Lynch-Bages, Technical Director Nicolas Labenne explained that, “a normal IPT would be 70, a good year is 80, and we’re at 95 in 2018.”
“But it’s the quality of the tannins that’s important,” Pouthier reminded us. This colossal potential needed taming by the winemakers if they were to make gentle giants, and not monsters in 2018. “This was a year where you couldn’t go into the cellar and say, ‘well every year I do it like this so I’ll do the same’,” said Lillian Barton. “You had to be careful with the extraction,” she explained.
During our tastings last week, producers of the best wines explained their use of more gentle, less frequent extraction, and vinification at lower temperatures than normal. At Petrus, winemaker Olivier Berrouet explained that, “In a hot vintage it’s tempting to go further, but we wanted to keep delicacy; we let the wine infuse like tea.” He was not the only one to talk about “infusion”, some châteaux foregoing altogether the use of extraction techniques such as pumping over and punching down. This allowed subtler winemakers to achieve silky, creamy tannins that melt in the mouth, while retaining all the generous flavours from the uniquely concentrated grapes.
The 2018 vintage really is one of a kind. “It’s impossible to compare it to another vintage other than to say 2016 plus plus,” offered Pierre Graffeuille, Managing Director at Léoville Las Cases, because it has “more of everything.” More alcohol, more tannin, more flavour, but also in the best examples (and there are many), more freshness and more silkiness (some of which have been highlighted in Wine Lister’s 2018 tasting favourites). So if you believe that more is more, this is a vintage for you. Just beware that some wines have all the beast and none of the beauty.
In part II of this en primeur round-up we will look at production volumes before considering the upcoming campaign – its context, as well as likely timing and pricing. Watch this space.
Part I of our annual Bordeaux study is available here, and part II will be released to subscribers in May. Follow us on Twitter for the 2018 Bordeaux en primeur release updates, or for real-time analysis enquire here about subscription to Wine Lister Pro.
Last week, members of the Wine Lister team were in Bordeaux tasting hundreds of Bordeaux 2018s en primeur. Our full report of the 2018 vintage (similar to last year’s article on 2017) will be out soon, and in the meantime we examine below some 2018 tasting highlights.
Quality across the wines we tasted is extremely high. We have selected 42 highlights, including 10 underdogs – those wines we felt surpassed our quality expectations.
The Wine Lister team found beautiful wines in all the left bank appellations. Margaux and Pessac-Léognan appeared the most consistent for high quality, earning seven and six highlights respectively. These two appellations are home to five of Wine Lister’s 10 underdogs of 2018 en primeur tastings.
The former includes its first-growth namesake, Château Margaux, which was precise, addictive, and harmonious. Pavillon Rouge de Margaux also made the cut thanks to its intriguing and soft fruit character. Brane-Cantenac is becoming a Wine Lister staple after appearing in both 2016 and 2009 tasting highlights. Its 2018 was pure, fresh, and a perfect balance between power and finesse.
In Pessac-Léognan, Domaine de Chevalier had piercing intensity balanced with a floral softness, while Haut-Bailly impressed with a playful fruit character and velvet texture.
Elsewhere on the left bank, Branas Grand Poujeaux surprised with its classy, energetic, dark fruit. Pauillac produced examples of intense fruit handled with a delicate touch (Grand-Puy-Lacoste and Pichon Comtesse). Saint-Estèphe presented beguiling wines with great freshness and elegance (Cos d’Estournel). Saint-Julien showed depth of flavour and complexity in equal measure (Langoa Barton, Ducru-Beaucaillou).
The right bank was just as impressive, with an equal proportion of highlights for Wine Lister as the left (in each case, 19% of wines tasted made the cut). These include one underdog (and new discovery for Wine Lister) from Lalande de Pomerol, five stand-outs from Pomerol, and four from Saint-Émilion.
In Pomerol, Petrus was alluring, generous, and floral, while Trotanoy had delicate strength and never-ending energy. Saint-Émilion produced favourites of varying styles, including Cheval Blanc – a magical, mesmerising boudoir-style wine, and Canon – dancing, racy, and fresh.
Readers should note that these 42 wines are some of the team’s favourites from last week’s tastings, but that we will be releasing official Wine Lister Buys throughout the campaign as prices become known. WL Buys take into account a wine’s quality (based on our partner critics’ scores, which we look forward to adding as soon as they are released), and value within the vintage and appellation, as well as Wine Lister’s personal opinion based on our own tastings and market insights.
Trade members wishing to gain full access to Wine Lister’s en primeur campaign coverage will need to subscribe to Wine Lister Pro. Register your interest here.