The end of en primeur?

Wine writers and members of the wine trade descended on Bordeaux this week for tasting samples of the 2012 vintage, which was a difficult vintage. Even though the malolactic fermentations have barely finished and the final blends are nowhere near completed, the Bordelais pre-sell each vintage (en primeur) two years before it is actually released.

The events set off a clusterschnook on Twitter about whether en primeurs are simply marketing at this point. Guy Woodward, former editor of Decanter, expressed his pleasure at not having to attend the “increasingly futile” and predictable events for the first time in a decade. He described the process thusly: “Critics taste unfinished wines (non-blind) earlier than ever but only one verdict counts; producers feign humility & refuse to discuss price…Don’t doubt most critics’ good intentions, but is now primarily a marketing exercise.”

Howard Goldberg’s tweet sparked the longest and possibly most productive wine thread to ever appear on Twitter: “Britain’s wine-writing Establishment is again plunging headlong into en priemur to play willing handmaiden marketing advisor to chateaus.”

Skepticism warranted? Goldberg again: “Primeur: All that wine, that food and subsidized socializing, that flattery, that don’t-leave-me-out.” Mike Steinberger: “even major figures like Jancis and Tanzer are questioning the value of the whole exercise.”

Are tastings too early? Steinberger: “But don’t you think it’s now mostly a race to be first, to get the scoop on the competition?”

What’s the point? Goldberg: “I bet many barrels are confections. I bet some lower-rank writers feel a need to inflate grades.” Robert Whitley: “I question it too Is it worth the expense and time as US consumers push away from BDX.”

Does anyone’s opinion matter other than Parker’s? Steinberger says no: “For the chateaux–[Parker’s] ratings alone dictate the prices…

Blind tasting? James Molesworth: “I haven’t dined w/ Bordelais all week. Am tasting blind alone. Moueix released prices before scores. Cmon guys.” Tom Matthews: “It’s true that not all chateaux will submit barrel samples for blind tastings. Some we taste, noting “nonblind” in the note.” Mike Steinberger: “If all wines in Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc. tasted truly blind (i.e. not segregated by peer group), top growths would not come out on top nearly as often as they do; it is statistically impossible. Not as much an issue for WS as it is for others who don’t make any effort to taste blind.” He asked Tom Matthews do you “…organize it by peer group–1sts, Super 2nds in one flight, etc?” Matthews didn’t reply.

Guy Woodward offered this forecast as to what would be said: “Producers: ‘A pleasant surprise’ but ‘the market sets the price’. Critics: no 1st growth under 96 (18/20) even those tasted ‘blind.'”

But one question didn’t come up on the thread: will en primeurs collapse post-Parker?

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12 Responses to “The end of en primeur?”

  1. Is there anyone that doesn’t thnk of almost everything that goes on with BDX a scam at this point? Except of course if you make a lot of money off it. Biggest lie in the wine world.

  2. We’ll stick to claret. 😉

  3. For the record, Wine Spectator taste by appellation, not classification. And out of roughly 400 2012 Bordeaiux barrel samples, only a handful were tasted nonblind. Also, all of these samples will be reviewed as finished wines in blind tastings when they are officially released.

    We will stop reviewing barrel samples when consumers are no longer asked to by the wines en primeur. I for one don’t see that happening any time soon.

    Thomas Matthews
    Wine Spectaotr

  4. Anyone that participates in the current system is part of the problem. Yes, even you TM.
    So we are all a little guilty. Some a ton more than others. As it is it benefits the Chateaus the most and the consumers the least. It needs to be turned on it’s head. But BDX seems to be working hard to hasten it’s end. Not the system but the wine. BDX is not dead yet, but the doctor is on his way out and the priest is on his way in.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Tom. Could you clarify about the the in-bottle tastings in New York–are those done blind by peer groups in the classification(s) or by appellation?

  6. Thanks for the new word, Doc: clusterschnook.

  7. Thomas Matthews has this one exactly right. A lot of people, myself included, just don’t care about Bordeaux en primeurs, and never really have. There’s a smaller group of people, including most of the tweeters above, who once cared and are now trying not to.

    But neither group matters. People who do care, matter. People who buy the wines, matter. Parker matters. We can mock that all we want, but until the wine world in its entirety stops playing this game, it just doesn’t matter if a player or two quits.

  8. I used to go to the Bordeaux En Primeur every Spring from 1985 to 2001 except in 1992 when I was moving.
    It meant a lot to me. I met many great people and friends in Bordeaux.
    My last year in 2001, it had already changed and become the Robert Parker Experience. The wines for the most part had become his vision or lack thereof. Many of my past favorites, (Troplong Mondot for instance to be blunt) no longer were. Today I can’t really even read about it and enjoy the thought of the experience anymore. There will always be a new class of nouevo riche wine drinkers who need to capture the experiece. I can’t be a hypocrite and belittle them since I did it 30 years before them. It won’t change until blusterin Bob is no longer there to fuel the orgy.

  9. Tyler,

    Both the barrel samples and the finished wines are tasted by appellation, not classification. Some have argued that even that method succumbs to bias – “Pauillacs will always outscore Blayes!” – but a) we believe some context is necessary to judge typicity and B) if you actually check the reviews, you’ll find it’s not the case.

    To Jack’s assertion, I suggest that many factors are responsible for any change in the style of Bordeaux’s wines, and believe it’s debatable how fundamental and widespread those changes are. I for one give primary agency to winemakers and consumers, and submit,that journalists are more recorders than actors.

    Finally, honest criticism will cut both ways. When wines succeed, good reviews will indeed support rising prices. When reviews are bad, they act as restraints. Our goal is to help the consumer make good decisions about spending their money. The Bordeaux sell their wines en primeur; critics offer the only independent guidance most consumers can get about these unfinished wines. Some consumers take some critics’ judgment into consideration. At Wine Spectator, we work hard to earn their trust. That is our goal in our approach to reviewing Bordeaux en primeur. That approach got a pretty thorough airing out in the Twitter thread you describe, and IMHO, was largely supported by the commenters.

    Thomas Matthews
    Wine Spectaotr

  10. En Premier, I dont buy it anymore, trying to think if I ever did ? maybe once and it was 6 moths in advance I think from a retailer not 2 years so im guessing that isnt true En Premier, either way I buy wine to drink not collect, and I like Bordeaux but im gonna buy the inexpensive stuff I can find at my local store with a touch of age, maybe 5-8years old for under $50 myself

  11. Anecdotal though it may be, on the retail level I just don’t have very many customers coming in seeking classed growths. In the three years I’ve been selling wine at State Line Liquors in north eastern MD, the number of requests I’ve had for the wines I could count on one hand. One of the owners, and the import wine buyer, said he hasn’t done anything with en primeur sales since the 90’s.

    I think what may be more troubling is that I almost never see people around my age (28) come in search of Bordeaux, the interest just isn’t there. We still do rather well with $30 and under Bordeaux, but as for a growing young customer base I just don’t see it. But I’m not too worried about the Bordelais going hungry.

  12. Thomas, have you been tasting Bordeaux as young wines for thirty years? I would agree that in the last 15 or so years, the changes individually have not been widespread, but the 15 years before that they were. Wine Spectator actually had some consideration in pricing Bordeaux at E.P. along with Parker during those first 15 years. That seemed to change when James Suckling went Ga ga over the 95 vintage, especially Pomerol and Parker was surprisingly and correctly, a little more reserved. Since 98 and the recreation of Pavie from the ashes, too many wines have had the formula for Parker points. That is the essence of a separate post (see Figeac) but needless to say, I disagree with your blanket conclusion. Parker is more than a mere recorder. His palate and points represent dollars. What other factors do you belive have contributed to a Bordeaux homogenized recipe? Thanks Jack


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