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En primeur: rapid campaign to unfold, but no demand

Published:  02 April, 2014

Following the surprising early release price of Pontet-Canet last week at €60-a-bottle - the same as 2012 - sources in Bordeaux say that the campaign will be very short, with many wines releasing prices by next week.

But merchants who tasted and appreciated the quality of Pontet-Canet say that prices for leading estates must fall below 2012 levels to make it worth their while.

"I can see why Pontet Canet came out at that level," said Justin Liddle, director of Stokes Fine Wine in Somerset, after he and other merchants tasted it. "It is a unique brand, but this should not be interpreted as a clear signal for the first growths to come out at 2012 levels."

One explanation offered by the first growths and their equivalents on the Right Bank for at least 2012 prices is the record low quantity available in 2013.

Assembled journalists - very few from China or the US - at the en primeur press dinner at Chateau Pavie heard Union des Grands Crus president Olivier Bernard stress that 2013 was the most difficult vintage in 30 years, with the lowest production of wine since 1991. 

Only 9,000 bottles of Chateau Ausone will be made in 2013: half the average production. At Chateau Margaux, production was down to 22 hectolitres per hectare. At Haut Brion, 28 hectolitres per hectare. And the cost to select and sort out the lesser grapes involved hiring 100 more pickers at Margaux - and the use of expensive optical sorting machines at other estates as well.  

Merchants brush such logic aside. Demand is nearly nil, they say.

"Stop going on and on about how much lower the production levels are because consumers do not care," exclaimed Simon Staples of Berry Brothers while tasting at Chateau Ausone.

Customers "really need" an incentive to buy 2013, echoed Marcus Edwards of Albany Vintners Fine Wines in Cambridge. "I recall when the 2000 was on offer 13 years ago, and the phone would not stop ringing, but I have not received a single call for this vintage," Edwards said.

Compounding the problem are stocks of unsold wine from previous vintages. "You can buy many 2010s, 2011s and 2012s for the same price now as they were as futures or for even less money," said Victoria Bournot, also of Albany Vintners. "As a merchant, we do not have to buy 2013, so if the price is too high, we have other choices," she added.

Although chateau representatives acknowledge a lack of demand, it was not clear that they would release prices at below 2012 levels.

At Chateau Margaux, Thibault Pontallier - Ambassador for Asia - said that if it were up to him he would release Margaux at a "slightly lower price" than in 2012. "For sure China will not buy a lot of en primeur and the US will not either, so I think that a gesture would be appropriate," he said.

Merchants are not hopeful. "En primeur is imploding," said Nick Stephens, managing director of Bordeaux Undiscovered in Gloucestershire. "The English market is fed up with pricing that makes no sense anymore," he added. 

As for the wines, many appreciated the quality of Pontet-Canet, whose spring floral aromas and brambly fruit and rather substantial palate for the vintage led Stokes Fine Wines managing director Tim Parkins to call it "a first growth in all but name." 

Pontet-Canet owner Alfred Tesseron told assembled tasters over lunch on Monday that he had sold "all of his wine" and while some merchants said they would buy some, others - like Stephens - said that they were not buying any.