In France, spring is synonymous with special wine events in supermarkets that allow shoppers to fill up on bargains before the summer, but it's also the season when the region of Bordeaux organizes an event that is only open to wine professionals, but that has a significant impact on what regular wine consumers will soon be drinking: the 'en primeur' sales campaign. Scheduled from April 24 to 27, this event consists in bringing together experts to judge last harvest's young, still maturing wines from the Grands Crus Classés. Despite being a longstanding tradition, this event remains somewhat of a mystery to the world outside of wine merchants and critics. Which is why we decided to get a look at what goes on behind the scenes with the editor of the Revue du Vin de France, Jérôme Baudouin, who will be attending to get a preview of what awaits wine connoisseurs.
Q. In the past, the "en primeur" wine campaign took place earlier, in early April. Why does the Bordeaux region now hold this ritual at the end of the month?
Jérôme Baudouin: Following the first [Covid] lockdown, there was a significant delay. In 2020, the en primeur campaign took place at the beginning of June. And then in 2021, it was held at the end of April. The estates realized that with this extra three weeks, the wines benefited from a slightly longer maturation period. By organizing the en primeur sales when spring has arrived, the wines have opened up more for the tasting.
Q. Can you tell us how the tastings unfold?
There's a route drawn up. There is no logic that indicates starting with one appellation or another, but each day is devoted to a terroir. You can start with Sauternes, then the next day taste the wines of the left bank, with Médoc. You then continue with Graves and finish with Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. Some 400 to 500 journalists from all over the world make the trip. But it's not just journalists who attend. There are also tastings led by distributors, merchants, sommeliers ... Thousands of wine professionals converge on Bordeaux. The estates that are "crus classés" take turns hosting the tastings of a terroir. Everything is centralized. The Grands Crus Classés and the like are presented during a collective tasting. Either you taste blind or you taste the discovery vintage. Guests are offered about 50 samples.
Q. What's the atmosphere like during the tastings? And do you keep your impressions to yourself or is it more a shared experience?
There's not that much discussion. The conversation, if there is any, stays rather general, addressing the quality of a vintage in a general sense. When someone has a favorite, it's mostly kept private. The wine professionals are in a different area than the journalists, and they meet in a large room. The atmosphere there is completely different. It's remarkable for being buzzing and noisy. That said, they don't share what they've identified as gems. It is the quality of each person's expertise that makes it possible to "bet on the right horse" or not.
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Q. As a taster, what are your expectations for the 2022 vintage?
It's already established that it's a great wine year. I already have some reference points: last year, it was the drought that was notable. We know which areas suffered from it, like the domains whose vines are cultivated on sand or gravel. Keep in mind that at this event we're tasting wines in the process of maturing, which means that they are in a transitional period. I've already had the experience of being surprised by the quality of a sample and then ultimately being disappointed after bottling.
Q. When will consumers be able to judge the quality of this vintage for themselves?
The principle of the "en primeur" sales is that the purchase of bottles is made on the basis of the notes that are published. So the market for selling and buying takes place from May/June. At this time, the estates start to publish their prices, and we judge whether they are rising or falling. Individuals then also have the opportunity to consider a purchase, ie, to reserve a vintage. Cash flow from this phase of sales will allow the estates to finance, in part, the next harvest. The 2022 wines will be bottled around June 2024 and some of them will be available during the retail wine promotions in September 2024. Buyers who made reservations will receive their cases at that time. That way we avoid shipping the wines during the hottest weather.
Q. Does this Bordeaux tradition continue to resonate with the general public today?
In Bordeaux, it is still a well-oiled machine. But in the eyes of consumers, it's true that the en primeur sales have lost some of their charm, notably because the reputation of Bordeaux wines has deteriorated somewhat. That said, it's a pity because wine lovers end up missing out on good wines, especially as their prices have not gone up that much. Some of them are much cheaper than a Burgundy wine.
This interview has been translated from French.