How Was It For You? 2016 Primeur, Part One

Now that the Châteaux have released their 2016s upon thirsty wine-lovers—so long as they can wait two years to quench their parched throats—it is an opportune moment to look back upon a campaign that appropriately enough ran concurrent with the U.K. election. You could argue that they were made for each other: criticized for their moments of sluggishness and opportunism, outbreaks of riotous applause, all parties claiming some kind of victory at the end. Of course, the major difference is that en primeur takes place every 12 months whereas U.K. elections are more frequent. Of course, nobody knows the exact release price when reviewing the embryonic samples in springtime, not that it should influence a review one iota if you are aware of it. I actually like it that way, without imaginations of price or affordability.

The first part of this piece reflects upon the campaign itself and in the second part I re-examine my notes, select those I would consider buying and the reasons why.

The details of the en primeur campaign are analyzed daily, release by release, by merchants busy selling on the front line, armed with telephone, calculator and the patience of a saint. Nowadays there is another industry that uses the latest Commodore 64 to crunch the numbers and chew the data. I confess, it is somewhat strange witnessing your scores wallpapered across merchants’ homepages and social media, occasionally snippets of my review, glimpses into my mindset at a particular moment. Those not privy to the entire unexpurgated primeur report might assume that its author views wines as a ream of numbers, one long DNA helix that defines the character of the vintage. On the contrary, I look back at these embryonic 2016s as a collection of winemakers’ stories and anecdotes. I remember holding the fruit on the vine and inspecting the berries, the same berries that a few months later have magically turned into wine. I think of their sensory pleasure and the emotions that they ignite. Objectiveness does not preclude feelings of elation whenever you find a potentially brilliant wine or an undiscovered gem. The score? It is my objective appreciation of the wine and its potential, a lingua franca so that everyone knows where I am coming from, allowing anyone to compare and contrast at will, anytime or anywhere. 

As I predicted back in my original report, the campaign would be drawn out until next week’s Vinexpo. No surprise there, although by mid-May the campaign seemed to hit the doldrums, a dearth of releases that exasperated many merchants. You could picture the purchase departments; phones silent, fingers drumming impatiently on the desk. 

How long were these Châteaux going to stand on the edge of the diving board? 
When would they take the plunge? 

The days when a good vintage predicated every release selling like hotcakes finished with the 2009s. There have always been wines that fly out of the door, easy-sells that represent a flood of genuine purchases, that is to say when the final consumer says “I’ll have some of that,” and agrees to invest their hard-earned cash in an unfinished wine and not when it languishes in a Bordeaux merchant’s warehouse awaiting a home. That’s more a relocation of debt.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the campaign came early on when Cos d’Estournel released at €120 per bottle just a week before the Wine Advocate’s report was published. Of course, when I tasted the wine at the Château, I maintained my poker face (as an aside, winemakers tell me that the more disinterested and bored my expression, the more I actually like the wine). Therefore I am sure Mon. Reybier and his team at Cos d’Estournel were doing the conga around the vat-room when they saw my 98-100 point score and sprinkling of superlatives. I thought that was a pretty decent price given the quality, likewise Montrose who also produced an outstanding 2016. 

Subsequently the wines seemed to dribble out at around 10% higher prices than in 2015, which is what I expected. In Bordeaux the sentiment was that 2016 is a better vintage and therefore that position must be affirmed via their release price. Of course, exchange rates meant that this 10% could be double or more once converted into sterling, though one important aspect is that the effect on the dollar was exaggerated (although bare in mind that transactions are often spread over the next few months rather than a single upfront payment). Prudent merchants bought currency in advance and asked Châteaux to take the effect of exchange rates into consideration. The customer giving their yes or no will simply be looking at how much money will be debited from their bank account. One or two estate managers pleaded with their respective proprietors to keep their ego in check and show some restraint.

It’s probably a good idea to remember the three fundamentals that determine demand: 

First—and most obvious—is the cost of the wine, but you have to look beyond that actual figure. Demand is driven by consumers’ emotive reaction to that price. It is a sliding scale that goes something like:
That’s a bargain.
Is that fair?
Is that price increase reasonable, given improvements at the property?
I’m being fleeced.
Do you think I’m stupid?

Secondly, reviewer scores were vital. Taking merchants’ word and not mine, this publication remains hugely influential. A cursory glance at primeur price lists indicates that those 2016s that scored favorably or more accurately, above expectations, was enough to convince consumers to open their wallets. Good examples of this in 2016 include Lynch Bages, Canon and Denis Durantou’s entry-level Right Banks such as La Chenade and Les Cruzelles, amongst others. That does not imply that other wines will never sell, rather there is less incentive to buy at this early juncture. You might as well wait until it is physically available and the wines are reassessed in their finished form.

Thirdly, are you a First Growth? Truth is that First Growths operate in a different financial realm to everything else. They follow their own economic laws. They have the cache of being within the top tier and therefore demand is fuel-injected by investment potential. To put it bluntly, who cares if a First Growth is ridiculously priced if you can still flip it for a grand or two profit in a couple of years. Ergo, even though the First Growths were some of the most expensive releases, most coming out at €420 per bottle ex-negoçiant, merchants were still pleading for larger allocations, even for those that released most of their production. Does that mean that they were under-priced? Well, don’t be too hasty. It is wise to remember that consumers still need to see that upswing in value as a reward for their risk. They need to feel that they are getting their cut of profit just like the merchants, courtiers and Châteaux. I would say given the sentiment, €420 was probably about right without getting into an argument about how an unfinished wine can cost that much. 

Another point to make is that properties can choose to release whatever proportion of the total production they desire, in as many tranches they want. For example, Château Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild were applauded for releasing nearly all their crop, which generates goodwill down the chain because merchants are not besieged by fulminating clients, demanding to know why they cannot obtain their requested 300 cases of each First Growth, preferably hand-delivered by the proprietors. Essentially it allows those down the line to put a penny on their pocket. There is no question that with respect to the most popular wines, merchants could easily have bought more cases to satisfy demand. Some properties pursue a policy of withholding a large percentage for their own stock and sometimes, depending on financial clout, the négoçiant likewise. This pays dividends if it rises in value, but mutates into a big problem if ultimately released to an indifferent customer base whose interest has since moved on to other things, such as next year’s vintage of the century. Who knows what happens between now and then? Nothing damages reputation when stock languishes unsold or is downgraded into discount fodder. I wish properties would be explicit in declaring the amount of stock they are releasing onto the market and not just the price. Consumers should be party to that information because demand is stoked by the notion of finite supply. Whilst I would not suggest that Château willfully deceive consumers, on occasion, this opacity allows them to exaggerate what can be inferred as a manipulated shortfall.

As the campaign continued, particularly from the last week of May, price increases began to edge upwards to 15%, 20% and even 30%. The 8th June seemed to be a 20% day according to several releases, including some clearly wishing to reposition their brand. The following day witnessed Pontet-Canet released at 44% higher than the 2015, which according to Liv-Ex equated to 72% higher when converted to sterling. Naturally there is going to be consumers that will weigh this up and choose whether to accept this price inflation or not, according to their emotive response outlined earlier. There are simply other wines to choose from and loyalty is not what it once was. There is tacit coercion for estates to reposition themselves within the hierarchy so that they land on a perch and preen their feathers with Châteaux against whom they wish to be compared. This stretches the patience of consumers, asks them to open their wallets wider than they might be willing or able. The problem is that even if the quality of wine has improved dramatically, consumer perception and the cache attributed to a name tend to lag behind. The exception is when a wine receives unanimous acclaim but even then, it does not necessarily have the desired affect because there are still back vintages on the market.

Like every year, I receive feedback from Châteaux and for the most part, it is thanking me for a decent score or appreciating the quality of the report. Of course, you always receive one or two complaints, and I would not be doing my job if I didn’t. Even in a vintage as fecund as 2016, only one or two hackles were raised. Most disappointing is when it is clearly a knee-jerk reaction to the score, ignoring any of the commentary and perversely, complements showered upon the wine. What can you do? Alternatively they were miffed about a “competitor” receiving a higher score. Alas, Bordeaux is riven by envy. My reply is blunt. Châteaux should look at their own vineyard and not others. They should look at their own journey. They should proud of what they have achieved—otherwise you will never be happy. 

To sum up, the 2016 seems to have been a generally successful campaign, although it is subject to price and quality per Château. Although every estate claims that all bottles sold out within the blink of an eye, the real litmus test of success are the sales between négoçiants and merchants/consumers. Overall—despite protestations and hand wringing about en primeur that has almost become tradition—the 2016 campaign seems to have gone down well and with a few exceptions, the wines found homes and one hopes, appreciative palates.

Tomorrow I will reveal those wines that I consider to be sound purchases now that I know their release prices.

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