What is en primeur and how has it changed over the years?
En primeur, or “wine futures”, is a traditional annual campaign organized by Bordeaux wine producers to sell their wines from previous year’s harvest to negociants (French wine merchants). The campaign usually takes place in April, during when wine producers will invite negociants, international merchants and media to gather and taste what would be unfinished wines that have yet to complete the entire maturation cycle. The professionals are to use their past experience and expertise to project the full potential of the completed wine.
As the physical campaign draws to a close, the producers will release prices for the en primeur wines, often just right after the announcement of key critic scores. Prices are often released in “tranches” – first tranche often comes with the lowest price at a limited allocation, intending to help the producers test the waters. For top quality vintage, there can be as many as 4 tranches. Upon receiving price and allocation information of all tranches, negociants and international merchants will then assess overall cost and size of their allocation and construct offers to their respective clientele.
The en primeur system format can be traced back to thousands of years ago. The current Bordeaux model, however, gained momentum since the end of Second World War. Illiquid and war-stricken, Bordeaux wine producers needed cash to finance their operations. Merchants used this situation to their advantages to secure preferred prices to secure wines from producers. The world has since changed – accumulation of wealth means that wine producers no longer rely on en primeur for cash relief on one hand, and on the other hand, global demand for top-end Bordeaux outstrip that of supply.
By mid-2000s, en primeur system has changed form. Once an efficient and guaranteed way to buy quality Bordeaux wines at affordable prices, en primeur system has evolved into an intricate, luxury-inspired network where leading producers set top-dollar prices for their wines, with some cementing solid demand at those prices by further reducing supply through expanding their library of back vintage wines. Over 60 years of time, the world has seen a notable shift of power from wine merchants to producers when it comes to en primeur campaign dynamics. To make things a tad more complex, majority of established negociants are also chateau owners. Bordeaux presents the world with an intriguing interplay of commercial prowess and winemaking excellence.
The best way to navigate this world-famous wine region and its en primeur system? Quality, quality, quality. After all, at the end of the day, top wine quality can stand the test of time.
How is the quality and size of vintage 2020 output?
Vintage 2020’s yield is among one of the three lowest yielding vintages in this decade. The other two vintages that yield a small crop are the hail-struck vintage 2013 and frost-struck vintage 2017. Vintage 2020’s reduced yield comes as a result of heat. General observations suggest that Left Bank Bordeaux has a much smaller crop. Quality-wise, vintage 2020 is a winemaker’s vintage – quality is heterogenous and require buyers to scrutinize each appellation by each appellation. Overall, vintage 2020 is considered an early vintage – dry whites and Merlots, which were harvested earlier, generally perform better than Cabernets.
Excellent. Despite July’s drought-like conditions, most whites retain refreshing acidity and hit the right note on concentration and alcohol.
Outstanding. Earlier-ripening Merlots benefit from ideal harvest conditions and achieve optimal ripeness.
Very good with some variables. Harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon happened in cool, wet conditions in end of September. Overall, July’s drought-like conditions promise concentrated flavours. The very last to be harvested plots will need some labour-intensive sorting efforts to discard of the part of harvest that did not get to ripen optimally.
Good – depending on harvest timings. Botrytis cinerea development was challenged by early September’s dry weather and late September rains. Conditions improve in mid-October, rewarding those whom have waited to harvest fully bortrytised berries that were fortunately unaffected by late September rains and early October storm.
Up close with vintage 2020 growing season
In a nutshell, vintage 2020 came with a mild winter, wet spring, exceptionally dry, hot summer and early autumn – rain brought mildew pressure and summer heat did pose some challenge to younger vines. Vintage 2020 is considered an early vintage i.e. early budbreak, flowering and veraison. Overall wine style, as Chateau de Fieuzal puts it, is that vintage 2020 delivers “brightness, elegance and delicacy” in wines.
Early budbreak, minor frost damage, some mildew pressure
Vintage 2020 made an early start as mild winter herald early budbreak in late March, which is roughly two to three weeks earlier than usual. Frost did wreak some havoc yet was not a major issue like that in vintage 2017 and vintage 2021. A rather wet Spring created mildew pressure and heavy rains falling in April and first half of May fuel vegetative growth, which was eventually slowed down in a surprisingly cool, stormy June. That brought mildew issues to certain vineyards in Bordeaux, which saw their yields slashed significantly by that point.
Drought-like July brings water stress to younger vines and varied veraison timings
An exceptionally hot and dry July helped turn things around, extended drought-like conditions linger on till mid-August. Younger vines showed signs of water stress, resulting in uneven veraison timings; whilst older vines fare much better as they fed on water retained from earlier wet months. The arrival of mid-September rains adds variability to the harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon, which seals the fate making vintage 2020 a better year for Right Bank Merlot-driven wines.
Overall a sunny vintage especially in critical months like July, August and September. May, June and October fell short of average, adding variability to flowering and veraison.
A relatively wet vintage especially during the months of March to June and October. Humid conditions during budbreak to flowering adds mildew pressure whilst alleviate water stress pressure for mature vines during drought-like July. Considerable rainfall in October poses harvesting challenge on Sauternes producers.
2020 was almost twice as warmer than average at night in January and February. Mild winter with smaller day-night temperature range brings budbreak timings forward, heralding an early vintage. Extended very warm days during July and August help promote ripening, which was retarded partly by July drought-like conditions. Cooler nights during July and August benefits acidity retention.
What’s going to influence the prices of vintage 2020 en primeur?
Promising vintage quality and low yield likely push prices up
Quality of vintage 2020 matches those of lauded vintages like vintage 2016, 2018 and 2019. No doubt wine producers face the challenge of a wet Spring, an extremely dry, hot July and for some, harvest rains — technological advances, winemaking mastery and for top chateaux, extreme sorting efforts help counter the challenges posed by Mother Nature. Final yield of vintage 2020 from Bordeaux stands at 4.4 million hectoliters, 10% less than vintage 2019. It also qualifies as one of the lowest yield vintages from 2010 to 2020. Reduced supply will likely drive up prices.
2021 April frost adds pressure to producer to raise vintage 2020 en primeur prices
The recent frost happening early April 2021 across major European wine regions added financial pressure for majority en primeur players (perhaps, with the exception of top-of-the-league, cash-rich producers). 2021 early April frost affected 80% of French wine regions including Bordeaux, with an estimated total agricultural loss amounting to €3bn per French farming union FNSEA. Regardless of the vintage conditions for the rest of 2021, it is now certain that 2021 will come with heavily reduced yield as a result of April 2021’s frost. Will 2021 spring frost affect vintage 2020 en primeur prices? The answer is a very likely yes. Looking back, 2017 frost in Bordeaux has also affected vintage 2016 en primeur prices.
A more positive outlook of global market conditions
Whilst COVID-19 has yet to show any signs of relenting, the world as a whole somewhat face less uncertainties than it did last year. The impact of Brexit on the performance of British pound has somehow set in – a look back at GBP:HKD exchange rate since Brexit on January 31st, 2020, except for a mid-March plunge, the British pounds has managed to hold its value and in fact demonstrates steady room of appreciation since September 2020.
The announcement of another 4-month suspension of 25% wine import tariffs on French, German and Spanish wines levied by US administration came in March 2021. Whilst no one knows how the tariff situation will be when vintage 2020 wines become ready to ship to US in year 2022, the en primeur campaign itself can at least be carried out with its US buyers garnering more enthusiasm. Asia has also seen more robust financial market movements since 2021, hinting at at least some faint signs of recovery from the troughs of year 2020.
Critics’ scores will play a part considering heterogenous quality of vintage 2020
Here is a list of influential Bordeaux wine critics to follow: internationally, Wine Advocate (Lisa Perrotti Brown), Antonio Galloni and Neal Martin. Jancis Robinson and Decanter (Jane Anson) carve a niche in UK markets whilst James Suckling exerts increasing influence in Asia markets. For a heterogenous vintage like 2020, critics can play an instrumental role in enhancing consumers’ ending on what to expect, what the good surprises and hidden gems are and sometimes where the disappointments lie. Vintage 2020 en primeur campaign is now the second year in the run where the en primeur campaign is to be held virtually. Not ideal as most producers still firmly believe – after all, sending wine samples around the world involves complex logistics and customs clearance work. Plus, it also deprives the producers of the opportunity to check sample conditions when they are being tasted. A remarkable aspect of two consecutive virtual en primeur campaigns is that it enhances access and transparency of the campaign to general consumers. Resources such as producers’ commentary videos, social media live reporting and posts from critics, dedicated site like Vintage by UGCB filled with multimedia contents on en primeur campaign are made widely available. These will all assist in fueling attention on en primeur trading.
Vintage 2020 en primeur prices – will it rise, hold or be reduced?
These all culminate into a general belief that prices will rise by around 10-20% in euros.
Although some chateaux like Angelus and Tertre Roteboeuf have stated that they will not increase prices. For mid-range Bordeaux, the pressure to raise prices is likely a lot more imminent as they have to do so to counteract the financial pressure brought by 2021 April frosts. For top-end Bordeaux, considering the heterogenous quality of vintage 2020, critics’ scores might play a key part in determining the rhythm of the campaign. Uniformly high scores from key critics, together with competitive prices, will likely guarantee a sell-out – a perfect example from last year’s campaign would be Pontet Canet 2020, which sold out 100% of its en primeur offering at first tranche price €58 within 3 hours! Overall, one can smell cautious enthusiasm. Whilst, it is worth noting and clear to both wine producers and professional sellers that wines from recent past vintages are widely available at a discount of their initial en primeur release prices.
Vintage 2020 en primeur strategy: Pay heed to critics’ scores and notes to get a quick sense of individual wine quality and performance, benchmark individual wine’s en primeur pricing for past few vintages to gauge whether this year’s pricing is sensible.
What’s available and top critic scores selection