A Decade of Change in Bordeaux Leads to 2018 En Primeur

The last ten years have seen more radical change in Bordeaux than anybody could have anticipated.  A decade ago the 2008s were released at very sharp prices following two difficult vintages and a major economic downturn.  Seeing these low prices, the market decided it was time to strike and pricing has never been the same.  This price trend was then again encouraged by the singular 2009 vintage, a vintage that Robert Parker heralded as the best since 1982.  While many scoffed at ’09 En Primeur pricing, it now looks like one of the great value vintages where the most triumphant wines were those that overperformed their modest sub-$100 price point.  If the 2009s were about value and immediacy, the 2010s were about the high-end wines and a long-term view.  There are few, if any, vintages that are such brilliant counterpoints of one another.

Although the next string of vintages were charming (2011, 2012) or underwhelming (2013), they also worked in parallel with some very paradigm-shifting changes in the marketplace.  Unprecedented transparency of pricing was promoted by the internet’s access of information through sites like Wine-Searcher and CellarTracker.  Latour decided they wanted out of the En Primeur game, an almost unthinkable decision that has now resulted in six entire vintages still sitting in Latour’s cellars. 

Then Robert Parker retired, an event that had two major ramifications for Bordeaux (and the wine world) going forward.  First was a shift in the critical landscape, where it went from one major voice to an incredibly fragmented environment where it was hard to know what voice to follow.  The second was a return to a more “classic” or “traditional” style that many found to be a counterpoint to Parker’s “modern” pallet.  In a seven-year span, both the style of most wines and the voice that drives the market has transformed in a huge way.  For an industry that had been thriving in some form for centuries, the speed to which Bordeaux is changing nowadays is mind-boggling.

So where does that leave us today?  Fortunately, we’re in the middle of a string of good-to-great vintages, with enough time having passed to give us a good perspective on where all these shifts have brought us…

2018 is upon us.  The K&L team is leaving for Bordeaux tomorrow, and we hope to provide updates as the trip goes along.  The general consensus is that the wines are very structured and deep, that they will require patience, but the overall quality is very high.  The expectation is that it will be a compelling and ageworthy year, but upcoming tastings and pricing will be the big determining factor on the success of the early campaign.

2017 was an incredibly variable vintage where some producers lost their crop to hail, and others persevered through mid-season rain to produce charming and approachable wines.  The verdict is still out and it will be interesting to see how they taste in bottle next year.

2016 in Bordeaux seems like it will be a reference-point for the region going forward.  While the wines were released on the higher side of the spectrum price-wise, the character, purity, and depth that they offer will make them classics for a long time to come.  Some early releases and pre-arrivals have landed, but the market will provide plenty of opportunities for the next few years at more-than rewarding prices.

2015s are starting to thin out on the market as first-tranche quantity has come and gone.  They were released at solid prices, and like the 2009 and 2010 tandem, the former vintage wins out for volume and accessibility.  Still, unlike that aforementioned tandem, the wines are tuned down a degree and show a touch more elegance and refinement.

Looking back on the beginning of this game-changing run, it is amazing to think that we’re already ten years past the vintage on the 2009s.  The wines today are showing brilliantly in tastings and the early indications of them being easily accessible and very rewarding are largely fulfilled.  One of the truly amazing aspects of the vintage is how many of the wines overperformed their modest station, and that still holds true to this day.  They are compelling wines that bridge the gap between Old and New World, and although they might not be everybody’s cup of tea, they are certainly fulfilling their early promise for those who enjoy the style.  But then again, that’s the brilliance of seeing such an accelerated sophistication of a region that produces in such a scale – there’s always something for everyone as each vintage presents its own story along the evolutionary path, and the wines remain available to this day.

One thing that has remained constant, however, is that there is compelling value in Bordeaux.  Take Pontet-Canet for example.  Many think it is tragically over-priced in 2016, especially considering the pittance it was selling for a decade ago (exactly half of today’s retail for the 2008 on release).  That said, looking at today’s reality, I’ll still put the 2016 Pontet-Canet up against any example of Napa that you can find for the same price.  And on the more affordable side of the spectrum the same holds true.  Imagine a 96-point Cab blend for under $50 from a top vintage from anywhere else?  It would sell out instantly.  But the 2016 vintage has a handful that are still readily available (Gloria and Prieure-Lichine, just to start).  Sure, this same wine might need to receive multiple 96-point scores from contemporary reviewers to match the influence of Parker (even at a point or two less).  But I’ll argue that it makes for a much more consumer-friendly market when wines with acclaim don’t instantly disappear or become more expensive right away.

It will be fascinating to see what 2018 is looking like when we taste our first samples next week.  Last year, when we were on the ground at en primeur, we waded through one of the wettest springs on record.  Some hail in late May caused havoc in highly localized areas, but mostly in satellite regions.  The moisture also did some damage to Biodynamic properties that can’t easily remedy mildew.  Early rains, however, yielded to a long, gorgeous summer and a harvest season that was hot and dry.  The vines had plenty of reserves from the early season rain to handle the heat, leading to a clean and generous harvest.  As I mentioned before, early indications are positive, and the wines are trending towards being very structured, with higher alcohols than previous vintages, but the depth of fruit to support it.  If it ends up as highly-regarded as we expect, it’ll be part of an unprecedented qualitative run in Bordeaux.  And if the wines are priced right, all the more exciting.

Check back On The Trail this upcoming week for updates from the ground on 2018 Bordeaux, and keep plugged in with the vintage here and on our website.  It is yet to be determined where these wines will place in the hierarchy of Bordeaux’s modern era, but it is certainly a vintage that deserves any serious collector’s attention as the campaign starts to take shape.

Ryan Moses