Bordeaux en Primeur 2024: tales from the world’s most important B2B wine event

Bordeaux en Primeur is the mother of all B2B wine events – a week in April during which thousands of salesmen, journalists and importers from all around the world flock to the oldest cradle of fine wine to taste barrel samples of the new vintage.

It’s a tradition that dates back to the 18th century, when Dutch and British merchants would visit the city and the surrounding chateaus to buy entire barrels that they would then load on mercantiles. A portion of this wine would be bottled upon arrival, while the rest was simply sold in bulk.

When most chateaus shifted to the production of bottled wine, the system evolved into a rather unique way of retailing wine. Still to this date, the wines of Bordeaux are the only ones in the world that can be purchased as “futures” up to two years prior to bottling.

The en primeur sale is a win-win system that allows Chateaus to avoid waiting until aging is complete to generate cash flow, negociants who act as intermediaries and final customers to tick off much cheaper prices than those the wines will fetch on the market once they are released. This is also a great opportunity for wine investors: the renowned longevity of the best clarets allows for returns equal if not greater than those of the stock market. If you own a proper storage facility and have the financial means to buy in advance and wait for several years, then you can easily use the best wines of Bordeaux as a reliable financial asset.

Chateau Margaux

The 2024 En Primeur Campaign

The 2024 En Primeur campaign is taking place in a challenging moment of the history of this wine-growing area, and uncertainty about its outcome was palpable during our visits.

First and foremost, the 2023 vintage comes after the much-hyped 2022, which caused a surge in prices, with both negociants and consumers having invested massive amounts of money in 2022 Bordeaux futures.

Meanwhile, 2023 proved a difficult year for the wine industry, amid declining consumption – especially among millennials – and the precarious economic situation at a global level. On our tour of the Chateaus of the Medoc, we repeatedly confronted many international collagues – and in particular a few from Bordeaux-devouring nations such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom – who would have bet on price cuts exceeding 30% on a year-to-year basis. At the time of writing this article, Chateau Batailley, the first Cru Classè to launch its En Primeur sale, has already cut the price by 12 percent. And we are talking about a best-buy wine that hasn’t really witnessed a significant surge in price in recent years.

Adding to the difficult conditions faced by all production areas are the problems related to the Bordeaux system itself, which, although still functioning and imitated worldwide, is beginning to show some cracks. One of the Chateaus’ biggest mistakes has been putting too much faith in the work of large merchants who have always taken care of wine sales and distributions.

“ We have lost the relationships with a whole generation of customers,” explained Jean-Philippe Delmas, the general manager at Chateau Haut Brion, “Today we are beginning to establish links with end buyers again, equipping ourselves with marketing and sales departments that can at least manage these relationships and conduct some research, even if the wine sales to final customers are not managed directly by the chateau. “

The litmus test for all this is the ease with which a collector or a person in the wine trade can book a visit to one of the chateaus: only minimum credentials are needed to gain access and be able to taste the latest vintages.

The other problem with Bordeaux is the image that spearheaded the unrivaled success of its wines between the 1990s and 2000. A bunch of influential critics – most notably Robert Parker – led to the so-called internalization of taste, encouraging producers to produce bigger, bolder and more concentrated wines than ever before to obtain higher scores and sell higher volumes of their wines in key markets. To do so, they often had to resort to invasive enological practices – especially in vintages in which such style was unobtainable through natural means.

In times in which “low intervention” is the new black and the quest for lighter styles is a a widespread trend among consumers in mature markets, Bordeaux producers have to reinvent themselves, and the truth is a silent revolution is already taking place.

Bordeaux’s position as the epicenter of scientific research in the field of viticulture and wine production stems from the challenges that the humid Atlantic climate poses to growers. Farming sustainably seems almost impossible yet classified growths are doing anything they can to tackle the green revolution and make up for their past reputation of tending vineyards heavy-handedly. At Chateau Latour biodynamic agriculture has been practiced for a few years now and in the middle of the vineyard we found horses that have replaced tractors; at Lafite experimentation is under way on part of the property and there is a girl in the team who has just written a graduation thesis on the outcomes of this choice.

At Giscours we have been shown footage of sheep and goats grazing in the vineyard, and we have have seen the same animals from afar while visiting Gruaud Larose‘s certified organic vines; in other cases we have even been told of some chateaus uprooting a few underperforming vineyards to plant other crops and improve biodiversity.

For sure this isn’t an easy transition but the large owners of these estates have the means to experiment and to pursue ambitious projects; they can count on the advice of the world’s greatest experts in the field, and they are also solid enough to take big risks: for instance by introducing experimental solutions such as the famous algae extract invented by the Bordeaux university, which helps to combat downy mildew and oidium. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bordeaux became a hotbed of innovation in the field of sustainable viticulture in the upcoming years!

In the cellar, instead, the surgical approach to winemaking has remained the same: the chais of Bordeaux – especially those of the Medoc Grand Cru Classéss – look similar to NASA laboratories with their state-of-the-art technologies. We are still far from witnessing a shift toward a “less is more” approach but many practices that characterized production at the turn of the 1990s and 2000s have somewhat gone out of fashion: at least on the Left Bank, invasive techniques like micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis are no longer so common. More generally, extractions are lighter than in the past, with less reliance on pumping-over, delestage and other techniques that forced concentration.

The vineyards of Chateau Latour

The 2023 vintage

The 2023 vintages marks a return to a classic style for Bordeaux after the scorching hot 2022 vintage, which yielded big wines with high alcohol and mild acids that will drink well preciociously.

2023 was a rather anomalous because of its combination of above-average temperatures and conspicuous rainfall.Somewhat like in Italy, spring was very grey and wet, with outbreaks of downy mildew that seized a few Merlot vineyards – although producers along the Gironde are accustomed to fight against it, and the outcomes weren’t as dramatic as in other parts of the world. June and July were warmer than average but also considerably rainy.

Producers pointed out two crucial moments in the season: a heat wave between the second and third decade of August that caused an acceleration of ripening; an “Indian summer” with showers in mid-September and during the picking period that caused a wide gap between the harvest of Merlot, which was on the early side, and that of Cabernet Sauvignon, which was picked between late September and early October – in line with pre-global warming vintages.

The result is that Merlot-based wines are either slightly green – and almost hinting at under-ripeness – or rich and powerful: somewhat in the style of other hot vintages in recent years. Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines, instead, are finer, sleeker, with noteworthy acidity and alcohol ranging between 12.9 and 13.7. Generous yields are partially responsible for this style yet I rarely confronted wines lacking concentration during my visits.

To be honest, we didn’t have enough time to delve into Pomerol and Saint Emilion as much as we would have liked: one week is no longer enough time to cover everything, so we decided to focus on the left bank of the Gironde.

Within the context of Medoc, the appellations that have performed best are those where Cabernet Sauvignon has always been dominant – most notably Pauillac and Saint Julien. The best wines from the former are are positively tight and perfumed, anticipating a great performance in the long haul; the wines of Saint Julien, instead, are endowed with more delicacy, finesse, and earlier-drinking appeal.

Closer to the entrance of the Gironde estuary, Saint Estephe always offers a mixed bag of high quality and rather uninteresting wines. The best examples, however, will deliver great pleasure in the medium and long-run without costing an arm and a leg.

In Margaux, the climate is always a bit more extreme: in this specific vintage, September rainfalls were up to five times more conspicuous in some areas of Margaux than in Pauillac. The large dimensions of the appellation further emphasize stylistic and qualitative diversity. Even so, the best cru classès from Margaux boast striking finesse.

Then there is the Pessac-Leognan area: by now is an agricultural enclave in the middle of the Bordeaux metropolitan area, boasting a different climate than any other appellation – a bit warmer than in Medoc in 2023, so the wines are a bit richer and smoother but also fresh enough to be thoroughly enjoyable.

Last but not least, Sauternes deserves a separate discussion and I will write something about it later on.

Tasting through the Grand Cru Classès of Margaux

Highlights from the En Primeur

Evaluating barrels samples often means having to use your imagination: quite frankly, it isn’t always easy to understand what the evolution a wine will be like – unless you have had a few different vintages of it.

In some cases the wines are already evocative of a phenomenal long-term potential: this is the case with the 1er Grand Cru Classé. The whole classification of 1855 was based upon commercial data rather than quality of the vineyards but it seems that excellent terroir was what the merchants were willing to a premium for back then (and that makes sense if you considered that winemaking expertise was pretty low!).

According to many producers, the three first growths in Pauillac and Chateau Margaux fared better than neighbouring estates in 2023: disease pressure was more moderate and they were affected by less intense showers in September. I suppose it’s also a matter of drainage: what you see when you visit these Chateaus is the epitome of the “Graves”, the ultra-pebbly soils of their vineyards allow the water to be absorbed and the vineyards to dig deep into ground. Perhaps there is no other place where this is a evident as at Chateau Latour.

So it comes as no surprise that the 2023 Latour was one of the best wines tasted during the En Primeur week: so youthful and tight yet incredibly long and multifaceted. The paradox with Latour is they don’t sell their wine en Primeur anymore. They actually poured the sample alongside the 2017 Latour, their latest release, and while the latter was way more expressive, I believe the 2023 will be deeper and more persistent once bottled.

Lafite Rothschild is a totally different animal: “ at Lafite we don’t have the same layers of clay beneath the topsoil as at Latour – explained Saskia de Rothschild, the general manager at the estate – so the wines tend to be slimmer and more delicate”. What impressed me is the brightness, raciness and finesse of this first growth: laser-like yet perfectly integrated acids energize the weightless mouthfeel, hinting at the immense long-term potential of this youthfully subdued wine.

The 2023 Mouton Rothschild is decidedly more powerful, with a lot more flesh on the bones than Lafite but no heaviness at all; Haut Brion from the Pessac-Leognan area is super-expressive on the nose yet tightly-wound on the palate, while La Mission Haut Brion – the neighbouring estate – is soft, inviting and airy, and will satisfy those who are into more suave and red-fruited wines. The same could be said about Chateau Margaux – an infant in its making that doesn’t quite show the same aromatic breadth and depth of the other first growths in this phase yet conveys an uncommon sense of elegance and poise.

Pauillac is also home to a few super-seconds. Among them, Pichon Baron and Pichon Comtesse de Lalande are two real stunners: the former more powerful and tannic, while the latter is all about sheer finesse. It’s a claret that would also appeal to Burgundy enthusiasts.

From the estate that pioneered biodynamic agriculture in the Medoc, Pontet-Canet is also a layered and complex wine – if slightly more unyielding in this embryonic stage.

As for the value wines, Grand Puy Lacoste and Batailley still overdeliver for their price point and Pedesclaux is on the rise, with the 2023 being the best effort so far from the new management appointed by billionaire owner Jacky Lorenzetti. Duhart Milon offers a taste of the Lafite style without breaking the bank, and Clerc Milon does the same with Mouton. Some second wines proved solid too : I would buy and drink Les Giffons de Pichon Baron in the medium run, while stocking up a few bottles of Reserve de La Comtesse de Pichon Lalande and Carruades de Lafite.

In Saint Julien, Leoville Barton is tight, racy and built for the long haul, while Branaire Ducru is nuanced and open-knit. Lagrange and Talbot proved solid and classic, and Saint- Pierre is an absolute best-buy. Leoville Poyferrè, instead, is a big and bold blockbuster: estimators of super-spicy and oak-influenced reds will like it more than I did.

In Saint-Estephe, Cos d’Estournel and Montrose are two strong showings: both tannic and powerful yet light on their feet, the former a little more exotic and flamboyant on the nose, while the latter delivers a classic combination of blue fruits, ink, and refreshing balsamic nuances. Chateau De Pez is slightly simpler but also shows lovely emphasis on light extraction and purity of fruit – and it couldn’t be elseways given that the management and ownership is the same as Chateau Pichon Lalande (and Louis Roederer in Champagne).

Last but not least, Palmer is the star in Margaux: an anti-conformist wine by all means, spending the second year of aging in 3000 l casks rather than barrels, the seamless integration between crunchy black fruits, vibrant acidity and edgy tannins makes for a terrifically energetic mouthfeel.

Lascombes has undergone a major revolution: Axel Heinz, the former director at Ornellaia, has trasformed what used to be a dark and obnoxiously brooding wine into an ethereal and airy one that aptly epitomizes the finesse of Margaux. Giscours, Kirwan and Prieurè-Lichine are the other wines from Margaux I would bet on, and I also found La Lagune, which lies right across the border in the Haut Medoc area, to be especially enjoyable, mixing the typical herbal touches of this lesser-known area with enough ripe fruit to achieve great balance.

Tasting older vintages

The En Primeur week also gave me the opportunity to revisit some old vintages and remember one of the main reason top clarets are still worth seeking out – their ability to defy time and drink well for centuries.

For sure top Italian wines age well yet finding some that still focus on fruit and are devoid of any signs of evolution after 15-20 years proves quite challenging. While the best Barolo and Brunello (among others) evolve relatively rapidly and remain on the same drinking plateau for several years, the Cru Classés of the Medoc go through a more gradual path to maturity and manage to please even those who aren’t fond of mature wines for a longer period.

One of the highlights of the week was a bottle of 2001 Chateau Pichon Baron enjoyed over the course of an informal dinner with Corinne Illic and Ana Carvalho, respectively the PR manager and brand ambassador at AXA Millesimes. 2001 is a memorable vintage, and the wine delivered everything you expect from an aged Grand Cru Classè from the Left Bank: a mouthload of black fruits infused with balsam herbs, pencil shavings and the slightest hint of tertiary tobacco notes, ultra-polished tannins, and the right amount of refreshing acidity backing the seamless progression.

It shared some features with the oldest wine I tasted during this trip. Generous patron, Philippe Castèja, who also serves as the president of the Conseil des Grand Cru Classès, poured a few back vintages of Chateau Lynch Moussas and Chateau Batailley alongside one of the best foie gras I have ever had. Among them, the 1989 Batailley was the oldest… and it was firing on all cylinders. An underrated wine in the gilded age of Bordeaux due to its failure to adapt to the aesthetics of the time, the “ferocious tannins” that Robert Parker referred to in a tasting note published in 1993 still add pleasant grippiness to a straggeringly pure and lively mouthfeel, with a rich core of pristine black fruits framed by leathery and mushroomy touches, and a long and suave finish. It reminded me of a 1988 Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva I tasted earlier this year.

Finally, the 2004 Latour poured at the Crus et Domaines de France En Primeur party was more than blissful – even though we had to jostle a lot to grab a glass of it. Incredibly youthful, it displayed an intoxicating mix of super-ripe red fruits, pot-pourri. sandalwood, and pencil shavings. Seamless and remarkably fresh, with only light touches of tertiary evolution echoing on the back of the endless finish, it is absolutely gorgeous right now… but I am quite sure it will outlive most human beings on this planet!