Inside La Place de Bordeaux – Episode Two

What’s The Matter With En Primeur?

Inside La Place de Bordeaux Podcast – Episode Two: What’s The Matter With En Primeur?

How old is the modern-day En Primeur system? What does an En-Primeur campaign look like? How is it organised? The on-going campaign is supposed to be a crucial one for the survival of the whole system. How much of that is true? What would la Place be without En Primeur?

We had so many questions to ask in this episode that we needed a bit more than an hour podcast to answer them. Get ready for an in-depth exploration, bringing in diverse and layered opinionsfrom Jane Anson, Ronan Laborde, James Miles, Max Lalondrelle, Thomas Parker MW, Valentin Lillet, Axel Heinz,  Jeremy Stockman and Mathieu Chadronnier.

With them, we examine the fundamentals of the modern-day En Primeur system, analyse its strengths and weaknesses and its capacity to continue in the near future.

In Conversation with Ronan Laborde

Ronan Laborde is President of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, an association of 132 top châteaux. He spoke with Areni Global about how the association works, along with insights into En Primeur and La Place.

Areni Global:

Can you tell us about your role?

Ronan Laborde:

I started roughly 20 years ago. In 2003, I entered Château Clinet as a general manager, and since then I have become the co-owner with my sister. I ‘m still running the estate, which is a tiny property located on the Right Bank of Bordeaux in Pomerol. Château Clinet is a member of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB), an association that’s currently gathering 132 wine producers from the Left Bank, the south of Bordeaux, and also the Right Bank: St Emilion and Pomerol. In 2019, I became the President of the UGCB, and represent all the members of the Union.

As the representative, your role is to speak in the name of all the members and also you set the policy in coordination with the board of members, and follow the day-to-day affairs with the team. Our role is to make the promotion of all the Grands Crus, especially for our members.

Tell us more about the UGCB. When was it created? What were the main reasons for its creation?

The UGCB was created in 1973. There was a global economic crisis around the oil prices that created inflation and unemployment. More locally, in Bordeaux, there was a high level of production that was difficult to sell. In the previous year, 1972, there also had been the change in the 1855 Classification that promoted Château Mouton Rothschild as a First Growth. In our small region, that created waves. Around that situation, a few members decided to gather and do a business trip in Japan. People from the Left Bank, from the Right Bank, from the south, different parts of Bordeaux, decided together to do a collective promotion of the wines, to make Bordeaux strong.

Japan was a deliberate choice, because it was not London or Switzerland or even Paris. It was very, very far away. And at the time Japan had no real market and no culture regarding the wines and not even fine wines. So it was very challenging and it’s really, it’s still part of the DNA of the UGCB to go to places as a pioneer.

Who are the members of the Union de Grand Crus? Do you have to be an 1855 classified growth to be eligible?

It helps to be a member of that classification, but in the status of the association, you have to be a classified growth or assimilated to a classified growth, what we call a “cru classé assimilé”, because there are some appellations where you don’t have any classifications system. Our members come from 14 appellations: you got the big ones of the Medoc, Graves and Pessac Leognan, Sauternes and Barsac, and also Saint Emilion and Pomerol. When there is no classification in place,  it’s according to the judgment of the members to invite a new member.

So if you are an 1855 classified growth, you’re accepted from the beginning. But if you’re not within the 1855 classification, then you need to be invited by other members to actually be able to join. Is that a unanimous process? There’s someone to nominate you and then there’s a vote?

Yeah, there’s a whole process with a visit to the property tasting the wines. We look at the history and there’s a criteria, which is very important. An important criterion is the collective spirit. So if your personality doesn’t match with that, it’s not a hundred percent sure that you’ll become a member of the Union des Grands Crus.

An important criterion is the collective spirit. So if your personality doesn’t match with that, it’s not a hundred percent sure that you’ll become a member of the Union des Grands Crus.

Ronan Laborde, Président, Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux

We also look at how the château communicates and we have to see that before the château enters into the association.

What would get you kicked out? Is that not turning up to events?

It is not written, so it’s on your behaviour. Of course, I would say if you subscribe, but if you don’t come too often, for example, it would not be appreciated by the other members. It’s not in the collective spirit.

And how many of the 1855 are you missing?

A few. Some of the First Growths, some of the Second Growths. I would say the UGC would gather 80% of the classified and assimilated classified growth in Bordeaux.

Would you say that the UGC is a member of La Place de Bordeaux?

Yes. The Place de Bordeaux is composed of wine growers, brokers and Bordeaux wine merchants. The UGCB represents a great number of properties, plus some other collective representations—appellation syndicates, for example. So we are definitely part of the Place.

We all work for two reasons: promotions and sales. And our association is an important one because we have a lot of members and we do a lot of events and other things like trainings for the wine merchants, for the brokers, for the sommelier. The name “Union” has not been chosen by chance: we want it to be strong. I mean the members are part of an association, but it’s more than that. It’s a union in spirit, in vision and mindset. We attend events together and we all follow the written or non-written advice and rules of the collective. That’s why it is so powerful.

The name “Union” has not been chosen by chance: we want it to be strong. I mean the members are part of an association, but it’s more than that. It’s a union in spirit, in vision and mindset.

Ronan Laborde, Président, Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux

It’s financed by the members, like a club.

Can you define En Primeur?

It’s a promotional system and a sales system. We invite people to come to Bordeaux for a short moment in time to taste the last vintage produced, and we discuss, of course, business. I would say the presentation will be the second part of April, and the sales campaign will be in May and June.

What happens during those two weeks?

We discuss about the macroeconomic situations, the personal situation for one label and depending on the talks, on the improvements in the quality of the wines. All these aspects help both parties to agree on the price. The contract is not signed during the En Primeur. It’s a discussion, and we need time after to think about it and to decide when will the release be. Once a wine is released, the wine merchants have the possibility to buy and then also resell within the same day or on a longer time to their own customers.

Do you have some idea of the price before En Primeur starts?

The price is set according to the story, the prices of the property and also according to the perceived quality of the vintage, the feedbacks we got from the professional wine critics, and the quality observed by the wine merchants. A mix of all that will help us setting the position of the vintage promoted. Another factor is the macroeconomic situation. If there’s a booming macroeconomic situation, of course it’ll push the demand high and the prices higher.

Do you now use software or something to help develop price or is it still based on discussion?

I mean the data are very important to see the evolution of former prices. We have a lot of information for that. So we can rely on this to set the price. But of course there are discussions, and data are key points of information, but it’s also important to hear the feeling, the feedback of our wine merchants.

What are the sort of organizational steps that you have to go through to make sure all of this happens smoothly?

The first thing is to make the wine. So this will be the main subject, the 2023 vintage and the evolution. There will be also some châteaux that will introduce new people running or working in the company. So we have to prepare that communication. The wines have to be ready to be shown during the En Primeur weeks. I would say we receive demand for visits and meetings a long time in advance. The firsts come in December. Some people also ask for information on the vintage, on the climate. So we prepare that. In the following months, we will prepare the wine of course, so it can shine during the official week. And also we’ll prepare our communications, technical sheets, movies, interviews. So there’s a whole month of preparation for these two to three weeks of meetings.

Do you adjust the wines so they will show better?

At Château Clinet we age our wines in barrels. So we have hundreds of barrels and you cannot take from different barrels. If you do that for two or three weeks, some barrels will get oxidized. So we take a blend from different barrels and we put it in a tank, and in this tank we monitor the oxygen so that the wine does not get altered during the En Primeur presentations, and we bottle new samples every day from that tank.

You prepare the kind of blend that you would do for the bottling, but then you put it in a special tank that you can monitor, so it doesn’t affect the rest of the production.

That’s the way we do it at Château Clinet, but other château will work differently.

Once En Primeur is over, what happens next?

We have a few days or weeks to think, and then, according to the data we have, we will prepare the sales. We set a release date and generally we advise the Bordeaux wine merchants, the brokers, some of our top customers. And on the day of release, we say, ‘This is the price, this is the quantity we’ll offer to every of our one merchants’. And then that’s their job to sell the wine and to confirm their orders to us. And generally it’s very quick for the Bordeaux wine machine to confirm, and I hope it’s very quick for them to sell the wines.

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But who decides on the release dates? Is there an established order?

There’s no order. That’s a conversation between the brokers and the producers, to set the right date so that there are not too many releases at the same date.

The brokers centralise all the information from the different producers because they work with hundreds of producers. And according to the wish of everybody, they’ll advise the producers to set a date that will be good for the whole system.

Are wine critics still essential to the process or are they becoming less important?

Critics are not essential, but they’re important. We need external judgment. The wine critics are supposed to be objective, even if part of the tasting will always remain subjective. What is good nowadays is that there are many professional wine critics and so you take all these judgment to see whether you are in a good position or not. And it’s good also that the people around the world, the Bordeaux wine merchants, the merchants and the end consumers have a selection of advice to make their own opinions.

Critics are not essential, but they’re important. We need external judgment.

Ronan Laborde, Président, Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux

What are the weaknesses of En Primeur? The strengths?

There are a few weaknesses. En Primeur is an investment in the mid to long-term. You buy in advance a product that you’ll receive two years later and probably drink in 10 years. It’s a bit old school. It’s a very specific system not used by any other wine region in the world. You have to order in advance. But there are many strengths: it’s cultural, it’s exciting.

Do you think the system will continue this way into the future?

I hope En Primeur continues, but we remain very humble regarding the changes. The En Primeur has not been there forever. There were different ways to sell the wines a hundred years ago. Before the En Primeur, some of the Bordeaux merchants were buying the wines before they were harvested. But in the last three decades there has been a concentration of the En Primeur at a certain date of calendar. It’s quite regulated, while in the past it was not regulated in the same way. Some people were selling wines En Primeur in December, for example, or in February. Some were selling when the wines were ready in barrels or in bottles. For the future, I don’t know. History has shown that we can adapt in Bordeaux.

I hope En Primeur continues, but we remain very humble regarding the changes. […] History has shown that we can adapt in Bordeaux.

Ronan Laborde, Président, Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux

One of the biggest criticism is that too many wines do not increase in value.

Valorisation [increase in value] is one side of the interest of buying En Primeur. There are lot of châteaux that only sell En Primeur: it’s our case at Château Clinet for example. It’s a small sized production and En Primeur is our only distribution system. So if you don’t buy Château Clinet En Primeur, I would say you don’t get it or you cannot get a certain quantity. It’s harder to find. And generally, and as much as possible, it’s the best price in the wine’s life.

But En Primeur is also important for some distributors. Some of the distribution systems like buying En Primeur because they have to forecast their stock needs far in advance.

How do you make sure as an estate that there will always be more demand than offer for your wine?

Well, it’s to set the price at a level which will increase, so not too high at the beginning, and then to select the distributors that will be the most suited to valorise your products. So we have to select them carefully and to select a lot so that there will be competition and much more demand than offer, hence an increase in price.

[When it comes to choosing a price or a strategy], you do not start from scratch every year, each château has a track record and we follow the sales thanks to our Bordeaux merchants. The other element is the production itself. It’s very clear that sometimes there is a much more demand for certain vintages because the vintage has a tremendous promotion which is spread by the word of foreign critics, the press in general, the wine merchants. So you set the price according to all these criteria.

La Place attracts a lot of interest from wines outside of Bordeaux. How do those wines from Italy, California, everywhere, create opportunities and challenges for you?

They increase the portfolios of our customers or exclusive customers who are the Bordeaux wine merchants. The fear, as president of the UGCB, is that there used to be a few and now there are far more wines from outside Bordeaux that are coming into the system, close to 200 if I’m not wrong.

So that’s a lot of other wines from Bordeaux to take care of. It takes the attention from Bordeaux to other wine producers outside of Bordeaux. But what makes Bordeaux wine merchants special is not the fact that they are located in Bordeaux but that they are very close – not just geographically- to the producers in Bordeaux. So they have a certain know-how and they can advise wine merchants all over the world on the Bordeaux climate, and they know the wines extremely well. So if they have less time and bandwidth to pay attention to what’s going on in Bordeaux, the risk is that the become less connected with the production in Bordeaux. The risk is to see négociants become just another fine wine merchants.

The risk is to see négociants become just another fine wine merchants.

Ronan Laborde, Président, Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux

But as always, there are advantages and weaknesses. I do not fear worldwide competition at Clinet, but there are other châteaux that have relied on the traditional Bordeaux system exclusively for a very long time. And if it changes, if the négociants are not fully here for them, this shift will be difficult. So of course we have to be careful, we have to work hard and we have to be more professional than ever.

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