2016 En Primeur

Just in case you only read the spirits side of our blogging, I've been editing and posting articles at On the Trail this week from our Bordeaux team currently traveling the region and tasting barrel samples from the 2016 vintage at the annual en primeur festivites. From everything I'm reading thus far from the critics (and from our top guys like Clyde Beffa and Jeff Garneau), it looks the vintage is not only better than expected; it's downright sensational. After finally experiencing the hoopla for myself last year (this time around I was tasked to go to Burgundy), I have to say I'm really a fan of the way the Bordelais release their wine. It's dramatic, exciting, and it's always a show! If you're not up to speed with how the annual Bordeaux soap opera works, I'll give you a short primer:

- The châteaux harvest the grapes and make the wines in the Fall, then the following Spring top critics and retailers fly out to taste them (even though they're not quite finished).

- The symbiotic relationship between the critics and the Bordelais winemakers works as such: the press writers generally give their opinions right away so as to be first to break the story, while the châteaux then use those reactions to determine a price. The cost of the wines is always a mystery each year. Where will they come out at? Who will launch first? Will they come out too high and crash? Or will they come out too low and sell it all too quickly? The bigger the hype, the higher we can expect the pricing. In the case of Bordeaux, the price is never fixed. It's 100% determined on how badly they think people will want it.

- Allocations are parceled out to top negotiants (consider them the distributors of Bordeaux) from whom everyone else buys the wines. Those prices will also differ depending on the size and the prowess of the company. Sometimes we can buy the wine directly from the château as well.

- Once the pricing is decided, the retailers (like us) start scrambling to get allocations of what we think we can sell and we start racing to launch quickly with what we think our pricing should be. Note that we start selling the wine (taking pre-orders) years before the wines will actually be here. This is called the "Bordeaux futures" system, or pre-arrival. There's a general understanding that the advance pricing will be significantly cheaper than the in-stock price, so there's a financial incentive to order early. That way the châteaux can start making their money while the wines are still being matured in cask (whiskey makers should maybe start doing something like this, eh?).

- How do you know if the wine you're buying is good? You don't. That's how professionals like us make our reputation. We give you our feedback (as do the critics) and we hope that our advice aligns with your desires. Of course, you won't really know for another decade or so anyway because no one is going to open these wines when they arrive! They're going to sit in your cellar for at least another eight to ten years, if not longer! That's why a general understanding of the house style is recommended before you start buying futures. You have to try a few bottles of the back vintages then see what you like and hope the reviews and scores released by the press and trade match up with your expectations.

- Years later, once the wines are finally bottled, they are released as normal in-stock items and go into our stores, but by this point the prices may have doubled and/or many of the top wines might have already sold through. Or just the opposite! If the harvest is a bust, it's also possible that the in-stock pricing will be lower due to lack of demand. That's the worst case scenario for the châteaux, which is why it's in their best interest to find the right équilibre of price to quality right away.

Much like with whiskey here at K&L, we're always very sensitive to pricing. I'm sure Clyde has said to every château owner so far this week: "And the prices are going to be reasonable, right?" There's nothing more exciting than a good Bordeaux vintage with decent pricing to match, which is why it's up to us to apply the pressure. We need them to know that everyone stands to win with reasonable costs!

Normally I'm not a fan of professional wine writing because it's generally just tasting notes and scores these days, but I have to say that The Wine Advocate's Neil Martin (he's taken over for Robert Parker) wrote something this week that made me laugh out loud. I'd link it here, but you have to pay for access to their site so I'll paraphrase. He wrote that rushing to be the first critic to release your Bordeaux en primeur scores "is like bragging to your wife that you can come really quickly. And it's just as unsatisfying." You want to get it right, not do it as fast as possible!

Maybe I do have a future as a wine writer if they're willing to publish such crassness these days :)

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll