Once a year, in spring, the owners of Bordeaux’s stately châteaux lay themselves bare by doing what few winemakers in the world would do: They offer up their fledgling, just-formed wines from the recent autumn harvest to the scrutiny of international wine critics and buyers. In this unique ritual, unfinished and unbottled wine samples are taken from the oak barrels to be sniffed, swirled, spit out and scored by some of the finest palates in wine, at least one year before they will be released onto the market.
“The primeurs are an institution in Bordeaux,” says Nicolas Mestre, who coordinates the tastings of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC), a federation of 131 of the area’s top wine estates. “That’s the way that has evolved here for the vintage, or millésime, to be assessed by those who want to evaluate or invest in it.” It’s like selling futures: determining the quality of a vintage, picking the best wines, and imagining and gambling on how those wines will develop over time.
Curiously, the en primeur wine samples are presented without price tags. The scores given by a handful of super-influential wine critics — like Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson — the vintage classification and the pull of the international market will determine the starting prices, or prix de sortie, of the wines in the weeks and months after the tastings. The wines are then released by the châteaux in batches, or tranches. The unfinished wines are sold at lower prices than those they will command once they are mature. After bottling, they are cellared, usually in Bordeaux, for months or even years until they are ready to be shipped.
Only the very top châteaux, including Margaux, Lafite, Mouton Rothschild and Latour, are able to play the market by releasing small tranches at ever higher prices. These wines are usually bought as investments or collector’s items. Most of Bordeaux’s legions of winemaking châteaux prefer to bring their wines out with one price for the whole year. The primeurs benefit the estates by providing a quick cash return — important for long-aging agricultural products such as these, which are expensive to produce and cellar.
Increased demand means higher prices
The current trend of vertiginous prices for top wines from top vintages is being driven partly by the rapidly expanding Asian wine market. “In Asia, the most prestigious châteaux are seen as brands just like those of handbags and other luxury items, and are bought as status symbols for gifts, and to impress clients,” explained one of the many Asian buyers present in Bordeaux. “This is despite the fact that some Asians have not yet had time or opportunity to acquire the traditional wine-drinking culture.” Wine is ill-suited, for instance, to the Chinese ritual of toasting, where a full glass is quickly drunk down at each of a series of successive toasts. Delegations of bordeaux wine specialists, Asian and non, are working to change these misconceptions about how fine wine should be drunk, with positive results.
Most châteaux are not set up to sell directly to the public (except in very small quantities). Instead they use the uniquely Bordeaux system of négociants and courtiers. The négociants are wine merchants who handle the sales and distribution of bordeaux wines in France and beyond. Acting as liaison between the châteaux and their négociants are the courtiers, who traditionally were able to move between the aristocratic owners and the merchant classes. The courtiers earn a small percentage of each order they facilitate. This three-way system continues, with favorite courtiers being entrusted to place a château’s wines with one or more négociants.
The critics’ châteaux crawl
For this year’s primeur tastings, 110 wine critics from 21 countries made their way to Bordeaux for the seated tasting sessions organized by the UGC. A further 150 journalists and critics, mostly French, were invited to taste the same wines in less formal, standing, conditions. Not all the top châteaux participate in these group tastings. In the Médoc, for example, the Premier Crus from the 1855 classification, or “first growths,” including Châteaux Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild and Lafite-Rothschild, require that journalists make personal appointments in advance to taste at the estate. (Even so, not all requests are granted). Other châteaux have followed suit, making the task of tasting every wine on offer a logistical teaser. All week, cars full of critics crisscross the countryside as they attempt to join the dots on the Bordeaux wine map.
During the seated UGC tastings, a strict hierarchy is observed: The wines from each appellation are tasted in self-contained groups. You would never be offered a Pauillac wine during a of Saint-Estèphe tasting, though these appellations are only a few kilometers apart. Each tasting session is held in a château within the appellation. This year I discovered the charms of Château de Lamarque, an atmospheric medieval castle where the Gromand d’Evry family resides.
Many other tastings are held along with those sponsored by the UGC. Some are as extensive as the multi-appellation Cercle du Rive Droite at Saint-Émilion, featuring wines from diverse areas of the right bank. Others are grouped together by winemakers (such as Stéphane Derenoncourt’s La Grappe) or philosophy (Biologiques or Anthocyanes). It’s not unusual to taste from 50 to 100 wines per day.
No Bordeaux Primeurs week would be complete without the elaborate dinners laid on for the visitors. The opening night’s journalist dinner is de rigueur, and this year was held at Château Smith Haut Lafitte in the Graves. Other notable meals include the annual Ban des Millésimes dinner, hosted by the Bordeaux Commanderie du Bontemps and held in the spectacular post-industrial CAPC contemporary art gallery, and the dinner de l’Académie du Vin de Bordeaux, which features wines from past decades. At their best, they remind us how majestically bordeaux wines can develop over time, and why it’s a fascinating and useful excercise to taste them when they are barely born.
Top photo: Anonymous samples from the Bordeaux wine zones. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Slideshow credit: Carla Capalbo