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The U.K. market and Bordeaux en primeur

After racing around Asia for a few years I was given an additional assignment by my PDG, or President Directeur General at the office in Bordeaux. My mission: the U.K., a slightly more mature and sophisticated market than the back alleys of Taipei.

With some trepidation I made appointments with about 14 of our clients, which included some of the largest national importers/distributors, regional merchants, mail order companies, prestige retailers, monstrous supermarket chains, specialist traders in crus classes, and more. We sold about 20,000 cases a year in England, mostly petits chateaux but also crus classes.

The meetings often followed the same theme. The client’s welcome was not usually quite as gracious as in Japan, shall we say. In Japan I was a wine god. In the UK I was from Bordeaux, and therefore categorically the enemy. There is an immensely strong love/hate affair between the UK trade and the Bordelais.

After being seated, and being sized up by my opponent, the barrage would begin. Why hasn’t your PDG been to see us for 4 years? I suppose you don’t care about the UK market anymore now that you’ve found markets in Asia? Your new prices are ridiculous. Why does order preparation take so long? Why did you tell us we had a 300 case allocation of half bottles and then suddenly say you were out of stock?

And all I wanted to reply was BECAUSE WE’RE FRENCH! You see there is a massive difference in the way the French brain works compared to their anglosaxon counterparts across the channel. And nowhere is this more evident than during the en primeur campaign. It just might go like this.

Monsieur Le PDG sits in his prestigious Grand Cru Classe on a Tuesday having a 2 hour lunch. There is a beautiful 4 course meal served by his staff along with a few vintages of the properties Grand Vin. He lunches with a major negociant, and they discuss the upcoming en primeur campaign. It is very formal, very polite, and very civilized.

The British, who believe they run the world trade in Bordeaux Grands Crus, are firing warning shots at the chateaux through Decanter magazine and social media. They say that if prices don’t come down significantly then they will simply refuse to buy. The Brits draw a line in the sand. The gauntlet is thrown down. Key British critics say that Chile makes just as good quality top wine, and that’s what they will buy from now on – so there. The Brits are bitter, and rightly so, that their 2009 and 2010 wines are worth less than they were at opening, and a ton of their clients are furious. They feel like they’ve been stung by the Bordelais on far too many vintages.

Back at lunch at the Bordeaux chateau there is a brief discussion about what les anglais are saying, and although the message does get across, it is typically not heeded. The negociant, eager for allocations, compliments the chateau owner on this latest vintage, adding that he will be able to sell it. “There are other markets in the world, not just our old friends in England” the negociant says with a wry smile.

For the chateau owner the Tuesday lunch is as good as ever, his wine is far better than in Chile, and the bank account is fully loaded after the 2009 and 2010 campaigns. And so at the end of lunch the chateau owner quietly decides to himself that he will release his wine at a similar price to before, maybe with a small reduction as a token, but not too much of a discount. And as for the Brits, they’ll just have to throw another tantrum.

The fact is that although selling out en primeur is the end goal for the top Bordeaux chateaux they really don’t hurt too badly if they have to stock the wine for some years themselves. It is actually astonishing how much stock they often have of back vintages which they hold on to for their library, and to liquidate if they need a little cash injection.

Fair enough, the 2013 en primeur campaign was a bust for most of the chateaux and they are sitting on large stocks. But at the end of the day they would rather do that than cheapen their brand by discounting too much. The global thirst for the best Bordeaux will slowly eat up their inventories. And sooner or later, there’ll be another vintage of the century! Alors!