The sun sets on Bordeaux en primeur 2018

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.

Timing

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.

Pricing

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”.

Desire

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momentum behind them and a particularly loyal following, but most of all they were wines with a specific story that superseded any thought of value relative to prior vintages.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

Volume

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.

Future(s)

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.


Bordeaux 2018 – top 25 red Quality scores

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.


Bordeaux 2018 – early impressions: top dogs and underdogs

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.


Bourgogne Week – Wine Lister’s Burgundy 2017 highlights

Much of the U.K. wine trade gathered last week for the first wine ‘event’ of 2019 – Bourgogne Week. To the Wine Lister team members attending tastings in London, one thing was abundantly clear – the quality across the board is impressive (Wine Lister’s founder, Ella, discussed what a positive surprise the 2017 Burgundy vintage has been in a recent podcast – watch here).

Since there is so much to choose from, and with Burgundy’s popularity continuing to grow (read more in Wine Lister’s Burgundy study here), the Wine Lister team has put together its own list of buys based on tastings attended last week.

The Côte de Nuits has produced many rich examples in 2017. All of Comte Liger-Belair’s wines were stunning, but a particular highlight was his Vosne-Romanée. Both Clos de Vougeots from Faiveley and Jacques Prieur possessed great intensity, while Fourrier’s Gevrey-Chambertin Combe aux Moines was pretty and elegant in style.

The Côte de Beaune has performed wonderfully in 2017. The team settled on a Volnay, a Corton Bressandes and three Pommards, with two particular favourites – Comte Armand’s Clos des Epeneaux and De Montille’s Les Pézerolles.

Finally, the team were impressed by an array of whites from the Mâconnais right up to the premiers crus from the Côte de Beaune. Hubert Lamy’s Saint-Aubin En Remilly was selected unanimously by Wine Lister team members. Bernard Moreau’s Chassagne-Montrachet impressed, while Bret Brothers’ Pouilly-Vinzelles Les Quarts was a great discovery.

See the rest of the wines included in this post here: Bruno Clair Bonnes-MaresDuroché Gevrey-Chambertin Les Jeunes Rois, Ghislaine Barthod Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Clos des Porrets-Saint-Georges, Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier Nuits-Saint-Georges Clos de la Maréchale, Jean Grivot Vosne-Romanée Aux Brûlées, Maison Joseph Drouhin Chambertin Clos de Bèze, Mongeard-Mugneret Vosne-Romanée En Orveaux, Olivier Bernstein Bonnes-Mares, Thibault Liger-Belair Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Saint-Georges, Courcel Pommard Les Croix Noires, Henri Boillot Volnay ChevretsTollot-Beaut Corton Bressandes, Étienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet Les Perrières, Jean-Noël Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet La Boudriotte, Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault Les Tessons, Laroche Chablis Les Blanchots.