As is usually the case with French wine, there is a long and detailed explanation. But let’s try to sum it up.
Each March, winemakers in Bordeaux hold tastings with wine merchants, journalists, wine buyers, and other experts called “en primeur,” essentially a sneak peek at how the vintage is shaping up. It’s the major Bordeaux houses marketing their wines in advance. This year, with gnashing of teeth, it was delayed until June.
Selling a great portion of the wine while it’s still in barrel gives merchants a chance to hedge their costs, and wine lovers a chance to obtain some of that precious juice (which won’t arrive for three years) before prices climb even higher. Over the years you’ve likely seen these offerings— “Bordeaux futures”—at your better local wine shops.
This year, though, en primeur generated an unusual amount of excitement and attention. Because of, well, everything—COVID-19 and worldwide economic worries, layered over with the ongoing specter of U.S. tariffs—the wine world has been plenty unsettled. Collectively, Bordeaux responded in some interesting ways.
The sometimes exuberant, sometimes cautious, assessment for 2019 is that the vintage is looking like a stunner—the latest, in these dark times, in a string of outstanding years.
Besides that good news, the more important development this year had to do with pricing. After years of sky-high Bordeaux prices, many houses, including the big-boy first growths, cut prices anywhere from 20-40%, hoping to drive heavy buys in the midst of all the uncertainty.
Barrel tasting is not an exact science, but the experts who taste and provide ratings are the bellwethers for who buys and how much. Those who bet on the en primeur can profit in their portfolios and in the glass. Based on past vintages where the experts have been right, and with prices down from their astronomical heights, this might be the year to reserve that case of Lafite-Rothschild you’ve always wanted.
If you’re not willing to take the risk, currently at your local wine shop the 2016 vintage (a star in its own debut) is getting rave reviews as one of the best vintages since 2010, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon, with some highly rated wines across the board. (Wine Enthusiast called it “classic” and possibly a perfect vintage.)
For detailed coverage of Bordeaux en primeur wines, ratings, prices and trends, we recommend Decanter, an English wine publication with deep knowledge in the area and some investment advice as well.