Bordeaux 2018 En Primeur:

5 Great Reasons Why (And 5 Great Reasons Why Not) To Buy...

Bordeaux 2018 En Primeur

The recent Bordeaux En-Primeur tastings were hotly anticipated and, in terms of sheer quality, rightly so.  The wines on show were exceptional.  The product of a wonderful if by no means plain sailing year (see our 2018 Bordeaux vintage report below), they will doubtless find a receptive market when the wines are offered En-Primeur later this month. 

Bordeaux 2018: Quality That’s Worth The Risk?

Given the quality of the wines, quality that extended to the right and left banks, it would be easy to think that this is a must-buy year.  After all, leading authorities such as Jancis Robinson have suggested that this a vintage that combines shades of past glories such as 2010, 2015 and 2016, concluding that it is ‘2016 plus’.  The 2016s we’ve tasted have been superb, and given sufficient time in bottle – anywhere from 2-20 years depending on the wine – they will be outstanding – if not cheap! 

However, as anyone in the trade knows buying En Primeur has become somewhat riskier of late.  I remember talking to a buyer about the very good 2008s where he expressed fears of exchange rate problems and a sudden drop in demand owing to the financial crisis making his substantial purchases worth less than he paid for them – the very opposite of how its supposed to be.  Other years echo this situation; the underrated (yet over-priced at the time) 1997s, the overshadowed 2011s and the almost forgotten 2001s.  Add to this the departure of some high-profile châteaux – most notably Latour – from the system and one starts to wonder if it isn’t wiser to just wait until the wines are in bottle before buying.

All that said there is virtue in these early release wines.  We shall be cautiously entering the market as usual, and if you follow the three golden rules of buying wines En-Primeur then it can make sense.  These rules are:

  • Always buy from a merchant you know, one whose reputation is solid. Sadly, there are a lot of scammers in the En Primeur business  
  • If you’re buying to invest, do bear in mind that nothing is certain and wine prices can down as well as up  
  • Buy to drink – that way if your investment doesn’t work out then you can always enjoy your investment  

So, should you buy 2018s from barrel?  It’s a complicated question and to give you an idea of what think here are MWH Wines’ five great reasons why (and five great reasons why not) to buy Bordeaux En Primeur this time out.  Before that though, let’s take a quick look at the vintage itself. 

Bordeaux 2018 Vintage Report

The start of the vintage was less than auspicious.  A mild winter was followed by a welcome cold snap in February which gave the vines a rest and then rain - and plenty of it, topping out at 443mm – far higher than 2010’s 278mm or 2015’s 353mm.  Come May though, following problems with mildew owing to the damp, mild spring, things started to warm up and the vintage really got into gear.  

Temperatures in the summer reached a whopping 35°.  Between the two French national holidays on the 14th July and 15th August, Météo reported that the average temperature in France was 23.6 °C.  That’s the second highest behind the legendary year of 1947 and the freakish warmth of 2003.  

Bordeaux enjoyed not just a glorious summer, but one that was exceptionally long and one which led to producers being able to choose when they harvested in perfect conditions.  Only the Sauternes producers had a tough time as they waited patiently for botrytis to come.  If there’s to be a weak spot in the 2018 portfolio it is, as in 1985, likely to be the sweet wines as conditions were simply too good.  

So, it’s shaping up to be an exceptional year for wines but it is an exceptional year for En-Primeur?  Let’s consider the pros and cons.  

Five Great Reasons Why To Buy Bordeaux 2018… 

  1. Quality –while the Bordelaise are famously optimistic about most vintages and claims of ‘vintage of the century’ are as common of plates of fois gras in local bars, this does look special. Time will tell, and funny things can happen in barrel, but the omens look good. 
  1. Price –the whole idea of these pre-sells is to give châteaux a source of early income and buyers the chance to purchase at a good rate.In theory then this will be a good time to buy. 
  1. Investment potential –great vintages attract big scores and big scores can attract big, long-term returns for investors. Buy well (top classed growths and Pomerols) and buy early and 2018 could repay handsomely. 
  1. The market – in terms of prices Bordeaux has been on a rollercoaster since 2011, and while Burgundy has stormed ahead so the Bordeaux has softened somewhat. Yes; the great wines from the greatest years still command high prices, but the intensity of trading has cooled somewhat so prices could be relatively keen.  
  1. Flexibility – buying this early puts you in command and if you want magnums or other large formats – which are ideal for collectors – then you can have your wines bottled as you wish and the premiums can be low. A recent phenomenon, one we first saw in 2005, is the ability to buy assortments; mixed collections of bottles of, say, First Growths for example.  For drinkers and investors alike, these can be attractive propositions.  

… And Five Great Reasons Why Not To Buy

  1. Brexit– no, even the sunniest vintage isn’t immune to this black cloud. In terms of En Primeur 2018, the greatest threat comes from a currency slump if things don’t work out – and by the looks of things we won’t know how things will go until after the campaign is over.  Like any futures purchase there is a risk, and this could be a big one. 
  1. Prices – despite the fact that there are lots of amazing wines on the market, both recent successes such as 2015, 2016 and 2010 and barrel load of older wines from glories such as 1996, 1990 and 1989, the prices for 2018 will doubtless be madly high. Only in rare vintages when both the market is flat and the quality indifferent (think 2013) do the prices come out as truly reasonable.  The hype around 2018 is already at a peak so you can expect to pay top Euro for these new wines.  For drinkers and investors its worth taking a look at established, landed wines too. 
  1. 2009 and 2010 –these vintages are, in their different ways, exceptional. Buyers, however, especially in the Far East fell afoul of the fact that with back to back great years hitting a softening market that they ended up with wines that fell in value as they became physical.  With 2015s and 2016s already here, in two years’ time could history repeat itself…? 
  1. Funny things happen in barrels…there’s many a slip between cup and lip as our old sales director used to say, and wines can do funny things in barrels. Look through Parker notes and you’ll see many a glowing barrel score slip when the wines are tasted again in bottle.  It’s far from inevitable and they can improve in cask, but again it’s a risk and given the likely prices for the top wines it could be a big risk. 
  1. Lack of availability –once upon a time you could buy what you liked En-Primeur with relatively little issue over quantities. Yes, if you wanted 10 cases of Petrus you may have to use several sources, but it could be done.  Since 2005 as the market has grown so this no longer the case.  I watched carefully for the release price of 2015 Petrus only to find no one was listing it as what they had was effectively on allocation and the odd single or trio bottle case you did see, the prices were just beyond excessive – I was quoted £2,500 for a single!  With Latour out of the game and châteaux across the board cutting the size of their offerings with a view to releasing wines later at higher prices, the best wines may be hard to find. 

To Buy Or Not To Buy, That Is The Question… 

And it’s a question that isn’t easy to answer.  From a drinker’s perspective these will undoubtedly be great wines one day, but buying them at sky high prices when other great wines are already available for less looks like an odd move.  Similarly, from an investment perspective you are buying wines that aren’t proven and which won’t ship until around 2021 when who knows where the market will be? 

That said, if you got in early on that other famous ‘vintage of the century’ 2005, your returns in the short-term would have been great.  Ausone went from £8,000 on release to a hysterical peak of £22,000 before slipping back to around £12,000 today – still a decent return. 

In essence, there are three things that make En-Primeur work or fail for buyers.  These are:

  • Price on release
  • Ensuing market conditions
  • What happens next… If 2019 turns out to be even better, what then?

No one can predict these things with complete certainty – we’re not even going to try.  We will certainly be dipping our toes in the 2018 waters and if you would like some advice on buying them we’d be happy to help.  One thing that does look certain is that 2018 is going to provide wines that are of exceptional quality at all levels and that we can all look forward to some wonderful wines ahead.

Mike Hall