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Senior wine critics call for en primeur "sham" to be overhauled

Published:  04 April, 2014

Two of wine's most-respected wine critics have called for urgent reform of Bordeaux's en primeur system, describing it, in turn, as a "con" a "sham" and a system that the trade and investors have "lost faith in".

Both Tim Atkin MW and Guy Woodward, former Decanter editor, have written hard hitting columns in today's Harpers Wine & Spirit and setting out their serious misgivings about how the current en primeur system is working, with Woodward going as far as describing some of the behaviour of the Bordeaux chateaux as a "con".

They are agreed that serious reforms need to be made to restore the confidence of not only wine critics like themselves in the system, but the trade and most importantly wine buyers and investors. They question when the wines are being tasted and suggest it would be better for some wines to be tasted later when more realistic assessments of the wines can be made.

Woodward, who covered the en primeurs extensively for the 10 years up to his departure from Decanter last year, said the en primeur system was a "con and a "sham".

In his column Atkin questions the role of wine critics and when they announce their scores.

Atkin expressed his dismay that critics are unwittingly co-erced into helping sell the wines via the scores they publish, before prices have been set. "I am surely not the only wine writer who is uncomfortable with the current process, whereby critics are effectively a component of a Bordeaux château's sales pitch?"

"We are also, inadvertently, partly responsible for high prices in vintages like 2009 and 2010, something that acts against the interests of the very people we are supposed to represent - wine consumers."

He confirmed yesterday on Twitter that he will wait until after the prices are released this year before he publishes his scores. 

Woodward, writing in the April issue of Harpers, questions the validity of the wines being tasted at en primeur compared to those that appear in bottle. He said: "My problem is not that tasters only sample the best wine; it is that they may not be sampling the actual wine that will be sold to consumers two years later. And that is a con."

Woodward called for the tastings to be delayed by two years, since it is "ludicrous" that consumers should be expected to pay a deposit for wines that don't yet exist, thereby boosting the coffers of already wealthy chateaux, while their "investment" often loses value by the time it is released.

He called for reform of the en primeur system, which he says penalises both consumers and less elite chateaux. But he said that merchants and negociants were afraid to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of reprisals including reduced allocations. 

Atkin said it would be more sensible to taste the wines in the autumn, once they have had a year in barrel. He said the system needed urgent reform, given "almost everyone has lost faith in its ability to service the market efficiently and fairly, from consumers to investors, journalists to the trade".

To read the columns from Atkin and Woodward, you must be a Harpers subscriber and they can be found in the Opinion section of and in the April issue of Harpers that is published today.