Bordeaux winemakers determined to provide en primeur campaign

Bordeaux winemakers are pulling out all the stops in a bid to present the trade with an en primeur campaign amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

They considered scrapping the popular event altogether, but instead they are trying to display creativity in order to showcase the 2019 vintage to buyers and reviewers.

France has now moved into the deconfinement stage of its coronavirus response after the curve of new infections flattened. The southwest of the country was identified as a green zone, as it had fewer cases than the national average, so life it has benefited from a quicker return to a semblance of normality. The wine industry is now planning to welcome small groups of negociants, buyers and journalists in early June, before taking the show on the road.

“The Bordeaux wine merchants who have not yet had access to the 2019 vintage need to taste it first,” says Allan Sichel, vice president of the Bordeaux Wine Council. “That is going to be organised in early June, in very small groups. Nothing like what used to be done in previous vintages, where a hundred wines would be presented to 300 people in the same room, over the same day. Now it’s going to be cut up to small units, where only 10 people at a time will be able to taste simultaneously, and it will be spread over several days.

“Then we have to make the tastings accessible to main buyers and journalists and critics in all the major markets. We are establishing a list of major importers, critics and journalists who want to have access, and it will be carefully planned, with timeslots for people to come to the venue and taste. We will do this in 12 cities across the world – Paris, Brussels, Geneva, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, and a few others.”

Producers of wines and spirits have had to pivot towards online tasting events and sending samples to buyers around the world during this age of contagion. Bordeaux would normally welcome up to 5,000 wine professionals during en primeur week, and it needs to find ways of targeting that group.

“We won’t be able to send out that many samples to 5,000 different people across the world, but major importers and major reviewers will be able to have samples shipped to them,” says Sichel. “The main issue is being able to taste the wines very quickly, because these samples are very fragile. There is very sharp timing and we need to ensure that the wines are cared for and that they are tasting well.”

He says that the plan is “being carefully unfolded” and he praised the collaborative approach taken by various groups, such as the Syndicat Cru Classés, the Union des Grands Cru, the Cru Classés de Saint Emilion.

Bordeaux bathed in fabulous sunshine during the summer of 2019 and vignerons enjoyed ideal harvesting conditions. However, the region witnessed a damp spring, which had an impact upon flowering, so it will be important for buyers to taste the wines extensively and gain an appreciation of the effects from one terroir to the next.

More than half of the wines produced in the region are consumed in France, and of that volume, the on-trade represents 43%. Bars and restaurants were closed down while French authorities wrestled with the coronavirus outbreak, so the industry has faced significant sales declines so far this year.

“The on-trade has been completely closed, so that has had a very strong impact,” says Sichel. “Wine is non-perishable, so we can hold stocks and hope to sell them on in future months and years. This is part of the normal selling pattern for grand cru, but grand cru classé is only 3% of volume produced [in Bordeaux], and the vast majority are small growers, who need their cash. They need to sell their crop and bring their cash in so that they can tend to their vines for next season.”

He praised the government’s response to the crisis, which saw it support growers by guaranteeing loans. Yet the CIVB is keenly aware that sales need to rebound reasonably quickly in order to sustain the region’s health in the medium-term.

“In the short-term the whole area is very severely impacted,” he says. “We hope that restaurants will be able to open in the not too distant future. People are talking about the beginning of June, but nothing has been set and nothing is guaranteed, so we will have to see. In the lockdown we have seen an increase in [wine] sales in supermarkets, online and pickups, but the increased volume has been in the lower end of the market, a lot of bag in box wines, and that is not beneficial to Bordeaux.”

China, the USA and the UK are the top export markets for Bordeaux wines, and they are three of the worst affected countries during the coronavirus outbreak. “There were very few shipments in March and even fewer in April,” says Sichel. “Things have really slowed down. China closed down before Chinese New Year. That was a big cause for concern.

“Now it seems that very slowly and very progressively things are gradually picking up in China, so we’re resuming shipping well. It is at a slow rate, but there are signs of things improving. We’re still a long way off at the present stage. China is the number one export market. It’s considerable.

“Wine is not a product of first necessity, so other goods get priority and there is more focus on that. Things will gradually come back to normal levels, but I don’t actually foresee it until September.”

In the meantime, the Bordeaux wine industry is continuing to tend to vineyards, which have benefitted from warm, sunny weather over the past couple of months. Many vineyard workers arrive from overseas on a temporary basis, and fears of a staff shortage abounded, but the CIVB says producers have found solutions.

The industry is also working on marketing plans. “We need to make plans,” says Sichel. “We can’t wait for the situation to be resolved before we start planning things.”

In January, Bordeaux producers visited 1,500 points of sale across France, taking in supermarkets, off-licences and restaurants and waxing lyrical about the benefits of championing the region’s wines. The plan is to replicate that in the UK soon. It is also planning a big trade tasting in London later this year, with September 9 mooted as a potential date.

“We want our growers and winemakers and merchants to bring that human face to the UK market,” says Sichel. “It’s much easier to do in the French market, but we feel it’s important for them to travel to the UK, talk with their distributors, be seen and show their wines. We need to show a commitment to the UK market, and if we have to postpone it we will postpone it. If we can’t make it on September 9, maybe it will be in November, or moved to next year.”

Sichel remains generally upbeat about the region’s chances of riding out the coronavirus storm and emerging relatively unscathed. “I am not actually expecting massive loss of business and people going out of business,” he says. “The wine industry in the past has shown enormous resilience when facing very difficult circumstances.

“I remember 10 years ago, when it got desperate, prices were low and wines were not selling, we put in place a programme of helping growers grub up vines and convert to other things, but it didn’t actually lead to much. People preferred to hang onto their land and work it out. It was quite difficult for a couple of years, and that’s exactly what happened.

“We want to reinforce that resilience – to Covid-19, to weather change, to changing economic conditions, the downturn in China, the impact of the 25% Trump tax in the States – and it’s about facing all these crises and finding ways to adjust.”

He has no doubt that the on-trade will eventually recover, despite suffering significant damage over the next 12 months, but the region is also bolstering its efforts in alternative channels.

“Other models will emerge,” says Sichel. “Online has grown a lot. People have been initiated into it in the present conditions, found that it works really well, and might be tempted to continue. Covid-19 might be an accelerator to online sales. That could take off-trade distribution more than on-trade distribution. Yet eating in restaurants is still something we are fundamentally attached to globally. Drinking wine in the on-trade will continue.”