EN PRIMEURS 2005
By John Salvi
One more year! One more year of “en primeurs” – the buying of “Futures”.
A system, which was introduced some 15 years after World War Two, when
the world was still famished for wine and particularly for fine wine.
It really got under way after the horrible fiasco of selling “sur souche”.
Selling “sur souche” or “on the vine” meant selling before the wine was
made. Unfortunately for the growers they did this in 1961 and sold the
wine at the same price as the mediocre 1960 vintage. As we know the crop
then turned out to be just about 1/3rd of an average sized vintage, so
that they had not only sold it at a lousy price but had sold far more
than they produced. This put an immediate end to the practice.
The En Primeur system then grew and grew and became immensely popular
and an “incontournable” event in the Bordeaux wine calendar. Also a fundamental
part of Bordeaux’s marketing strategy. Buyers lined up in droves, often
far too early for the wine to be really ready to judge, to taste, assess
and buy. From a vogue it passed to a rage. The famous names had larger
queues than the Stade Bordelaise. Prices soared, then soared higher and
soared again. Latour carelessly revealed that the profit margins were
greater than any they had ever known in their long history. Buyers haggled
with each other to swap exchange and even rebuy in order to try and get
their desired quantities of the wine in question. Much of it was already
committed to their regular customers. The better names were on strict
quotas. The “En Primeurs” tastings became the pride and joy of Bordeaux.
Unfortunately the wine of many of those sought after names became a commodity
for trading at ever higher prices regardless of the tasting note that
they might have obtained. The advent and rise of the great Robert Parker
exacerbated the furore.
Then, more recently, things started to slow down. Buyers began to feel
that prices were outrageous, especially when Bordeaux made the mistake
of increasing the prices in a year which was less good than the previous
one. They also found that they could get great wines cheaper in Burgundy.
The warmth went out of the campaign and buyers started to accuse those
Bordeaux wine proprietors of being both greedy and arrogant. A comment,
made by a leading light of the Union des Grands Crus and very much a leading
Chateau owner, is given here in a verbatim translation – “Si nous allons
dans le mur autant aller les poches pleines” – “ if we are heading for
a crisis at least let us go into it with our pocket full”. The list of
the sought after wines at the En Primeur tastings slowly dwindled. Today
there is hardly a single Bourgeois wine left on that list and VERY few
Chateaux that are not 1st, 2nd or 3rd growths.
At the same time Bordeaux began to suffer from the increasing and infinitely
more efficient and aggressive marketing from other countries who France
dismissively termed the “New World”. Australia was bidding fair to overtake
France on the UK market – something that it ultimately succeeded in doing!
France itself was drinking hugely less wine and at the same time exchange
rates were moving against them. Brussels kept promulgating more and more
ridiculous, bureaucratic and restrictive rules and the famous LOI EVIN
made advertising, and therefore publicity, extremely difficult. The polarity
increased between the small growers, many of whom started to go bankrupt,
and the Great Chateaux who continued to live on caviar and Krug 1988!
Bordeaux had lost many of its friends due to its excessive greed and unfortunately
the small growers of good reasonably priced wine suffered more than the
greedy ones. In England buyers were heard to say “As soon as I can manage
without Bordeaux I will”. What is more they found that they could. Bordeaux
had entered a period of serious crisis.
It is truly very hard to sympathise. We, in the English wine trade, have
been warning them that this would happen for all of 15 years. They were
like ostriches, burying their heads in the sand so as not to hear the
warnings. “Bordeaux is the greatest wine in the world” they said, “you
have to drink it, the consumer cannot do without it, only idiots and those
with no taste do not drink Bordeaux”. Alas, the world is full of intelligent
wine lovers and drinkers, with excellent palates, who find plenty of wines
to give them pleasure and satisfaction elsewhere. The premise was false
as almost 1000 growers, who “went to the wall” in 2004, bear testimony
and know to their cost.
Are the Great Chateaux secure and above the crisis? This is not sure!
The list of wines, which sold well “En Primeur” in 2005 was down to around
20, although the number of tastings, which were organised on the back
of the Union des Grands Crus tastings, numbered over 30 – I was invited
to 34. Far too many! The Union des Grands Crus tastings remain the benchmark
and the great event of the week. They are superbly organised in the different
Chateaux. As far as the effect of the crisis on the Great Chateaux is
concerned, they are surely above any crisis for quite a while, but this
crisis is not just cyclical and will be with us for a long time. It is
entirely possible that nobody will be immune. Also, Professor Guimberteau,
professor of oenology at Bordeaux University, recently wrote “there is
no point in buying En Primeur if you can get the same wine two or more
years later at a cheaper price. En Primeur only applies to the rare and
dear”. Things are certainly moving that way.
Before we actually review the 2005 vintage, which is what this article
is all about, I must unload a heavy burden of frustration and irritation,
which concerns the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. How is it possible
that somebody who is a member of our Circle of Wine Writers, co–editor
of a glossy three–monthly wine review dedicated entirely and exclusively
to Bordeaux, a committee member and treasurer of the Association Française
de Journalistes et Ecrivains de Vins and a member of the Association de
la Presse du Vin, as well as writing freelance for other Wine Reviews
and wine Websites, should not be considered worthy of an invitation to
the Press tastings of the Union des Grands Crus? Not considered by them
as a journalist or a wine writer but as some sort of Négociant,
which this person has never been. It is an unfortunate fact that a few
of those invited by the Union do not write a single word on their return.
Would it not be a good idea to look with care at their list of invitees
and sort some grain from some chaff? Reasons given for not inviting this
person are that the spouse is already invited (what about our good friends
Serena and David Peppercorn?). Also that the person lives in Bordeaux
and the tastings are for the International and not the Bordeaux Press
( what about our close friend and colleague James Lawther? and anyway
the reviews for which the person both edits and writes are all non French
and strictly international). I find this attitude quite astoundingly arrogant,
insulting and at the same time pathetic, ridiculous and small minded.
Also could Bordeaux please STOP treating us all like young and rather
stupid schoolchildren, recalcitrant to boot if not blithering idiots.
They must realise, somebody must, that we are tired of being told, every
single vintage, how truly fantastically, wonderfully, superbly marvellous
it is, even if it is the worst vintage that God has allowed to happen.
What is all this talk about transparency? Could they not introduce an
element of honesty and of self criticism? It would not go amiss and might
almost be appreciated! I deeply admire the ingenuity with which they inevitably
find their reasons why it is so good. One year it is winds that concentrate
the grape juice (OK!), the next it is lack of wind which allows a plentiful
crop. Then it is rain that gives needed volume, followed by lack of rain
which allows concentration. Soon it will be lightning that fries the grapes
to the perfect state of cooked fruit for Michel Rolland style wines and
thunder whose booming sound causes the pips to roll over in ecstasy, scratch
their backs and turn brown! “N’importe quoi!” as the French say. Please
Bordeaux, credit us with some element of primary intelligence and discernment
– or if that is too much to ask then at least pretend that we have some!
OUF! And all the above from a man who has lived in Bordeaux for 35 years
and loves it deeply. A man steeped in Bordeaux up to his eyeballs and
for forty years a fanatical supporter of REAL BORDEAUX WINE.
The 2005 is not overall a great vintage. It was an extremely difficult
vintage for the vigneron, due to a decided climatic rollercoaster. First
and foremost 2004 had to cope with the knock–on effects of the 2003 life–threatening
summer heat. Like us, the vine has an advanced sense and mechanism of
self–preservation. It felt severely threatened and felt that it had to
preserve its species at all costs. Its immediate response was to produce
a vast extra abundance of pips in 2004. Pips mean grapes and more pips,
which can grow into grapevines. This in turn means survival and the continuance
of the species. In 2004 control of yield was absolutely vital and the
first key to success. Most fine 2004s come from vines that were green–harvested
not once, but twice and even three times. Even then the crops were heavy
and Bordeaux produced almost 7 million hectolitres, one of its largest
ever crops, for a market which can absorb 4 ½ million or at the
very maximum 5 million. Over 1 Million hectolitres, 100 million litres,
11 million cases of wine are being sent to the distilleries. Can this
possibly be healthy? Suppose Bordeaux uproots some 30,000 hectares of
vines, would this re–establish a balance? Some say yes and some say no.
The Government is offering money to compensate growers who uproot and
the CIVB is more than doubling this offer. Nevertheless the sum is still
a derisory compensation, and then what? What would they plant on the land
instead? Most of it is entirely unsuitable for other crops! And now the
Government think it will be a solution to let AOC Bordeaux areas produce
Vine De Pays. This is more likely to make matters worse than better since
the permitted yield for Vin de Pays is considerably greater than that
It must also be born in mind that green harvesting, deleafing etc. are
luxuries. Luxuries that many lesser wines cannot afford. Green harvesting
costs as much as vintaging and requires greater skill. Lack of that skill
can prove a total disaster. For those who cannot afford it therefore,
the yields remained too high and the must weights remained too low. Such
financial restrictions do not affect many of the properties of the Union
des Grands Crus of course, but they do affect the majority of all Bordeaux
vignerons. The Union is a “closed clique of top brass” as a senior official
of the Ministry of Agriculture recently described it. Give the Union its
due, I am not sure this was entirely accurate.
Thus a great many of the 2004s were weak, coming from too many not very
ripe grapes. Sometimes they were “aqueux” or “watery”. Often the tannins
were harsh, raw, green or bitter because, under the circumstances, growers
did not want to wait for phenolic ripeness. It is rare than perfect phenolic
ripeness goes hand in hand with perfect acidity, perfect sugar content
and perfect must weight. However tannin ripeness is today recognised as
vitally important. Colour, on the other hand, was wonderful this year
and came out of the grapes both generously and vividly, usually without
any need for cold soaking. The problem of course is that you cannot taste
and drink the colour! Acidities on the whole were perfectly correct, without
all the ridiculous AND unnecessary fol–de–rol about acidification experienced
This year showed an admirable and increasing restraint in the excessive
use of oak in the new wine. This is a very welcome improvement indeed.
Bordeaux wine is reverting to being Bordeaux wine and not a copy of new
The result of all the above was that few growers got everything right
and picked their way unerringly through the meteorological minefields.
But those who did – WOW!! These few could be great wines in every sense
of the word, possibly truly GREAT wines. Classical, pure, gracious, elegant,
deep–fruited, supple and “fin”. Sad indeed that a number of these, Bordeaux’s
greatest winemakers, have quit the Union – Palmer, Léoville Lascases
and others, and of course the First Growths of the Médoc have never
been members. Cheval Blanc and d’Yquem are at least honorary members!
Whatever we may think of the wines of 2004, and that remains 100% subjective
and entirely one’s own personal opinion, as does and should opinions about
all wines, and apart from not knowing whom to invite and whom not to invite,
the UGC did a magnificent job of organisation. The Press were divided
into small groups on the age old principal of “ne’er the twain shall meet.
I personally was tasting at Domaine de Chevalier, La Tour Blanche, Marquis
de Terme and Phélan Segur. I missed the Saint Emilion tasting since
none of the organisers of the great wine tasting competitions seem to
consult each other on dates or keep a wine diary. The UGC tastings overlapped
with tastings at Vinitaly, the Mondial in Brussels, and the Finger Lake
Camp Good Days competition. Domaine de Chevalier, as usual, were the most
wonderful of hosts and our little collation between tastings included
1986 Domaine de Chevalier White, 1985 Latour, Margaux, Lafite and Haut
Brion and the 1945 Domaine de Chevalier Red. “Vaut le voyage” as the French
say. If you judge by the above the Press are exceedingly well treated,
but I found it rather petty and irritating that we, who live in Bordeaux,
were penalised by being refused lodging in the Chateaux like the others,
and made to drive some 200 kilometres per day to get to the tastings and
back. There are very few of us indeed. Surely somebody could have found
us a bed?
The UGC had organised the closing lunch at Branaire Ducru. This of course
is the property of M. Maroteau, President of the Union. In fact, since
he was ineligible for re-election after two stints as President, the Union
changed their statutes at their end-of-June meeting to enable his re–election
for a further 3 years. This because of some back–biting with regard to
a possible candidate from the Graves. The lunch was a monumental gathering
of the wine world. Fine wine, amusing food and for once Bordeaux threw
off its mantle of doom and gloom and their protective cover of pomposity
and arrogance. The speech was thoroughly banal, but the hospitality was
warm and wonderful. It was there that I learned the sad news however that
the owner of Du Tertre, and almost of Giscours, was recently paralysed
for life through a fall on his yacht.
So we are left with some very great wines in a medium or mediocre vintage.
Please buy on tested, tasted and tried quality and not on name. Select
sparingly and make sure they are wines which will increase and not decrease
Thank you UGC for another wonderful series of tastings and for your fine
hospitality, but please consider looking carefully at your invitation
list (you may decide that you don’t want to invite me in future!), taking
a rather broader viewpoint, looking the modern wine world more squarely
in the face and occasionally listening to what people try to say to you.
One active, nay hyperactive, Bordeaux writer and supporter must surely
be of more value to Bordeaux than two foreign ones who “passent le En
Primeurs sous silence”.