Strolling through the vineyards of Pauillac and St-Emilion in Bordeaux, it seems inconceivable that such a tradition-bound region could willingly embrace change. The great estates have continued to blend and market – their wines throughout the pandemic, having made a concerted effort to keep the cogs of the global fine wine market turning.
Dig a little deeper into this business, though, and there's ample evidence of a cultural shift a necessity bourne out of selling wine at a distance. After years of suspicion and reluctance, Bordeaux's châteaux have been forced to recognise the value of the digital space, finally catching up with other industries. En primeur 2019 was carried out under this new normal, with samples sent to global press and tastings conducted via zoom. Will En primeur 2020 follow the same model, and is this a more pragmatic way of organising such an important event in Bordeaux's calendar?
New date for en primeur
At the current time of writing, en primeur 2020 will take place during the last week of April (26-29) 2021. This was confirmed by the the Union de Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) in 2020. Yet some châteaux are unsure if a physical campaign will be feasible this year, in European-wide lockdowns continue.
“Being optimistic, we expect that European nations will emerge from lockdown in the following months – fingers crossed for a physical event in 2021,” said Matthieu Bordes, Directeur Général, Chateau Lagrange.
“But I'm also worried, as I'm not sure that many people will be willing to travel to Bordeaux in four months, if we have another lockdown in January. This is a real possibility.”
Bordes added that Bordeaux was prepared to organise a distanced, online campaign in 2021, using sampling services and zoom tastings.
Pro and Cons of a digital campaign
“A digital campaign is better than no campaign at all, although there are major disadvantages. We sent samples across the world in 2020, but I don't like this as en primeur samples do not travel well,” he said.
Nevertheless, some of his colleagues recognise the value of organising another digital en primeur. It is far more cost effective, for one thing, and requires a modest investment in time and infrastructure. But could it represent a viable, or alternative future?
“Surveying the current situation, it’s very likely the 2020 Primeur campaign will take place remotely, at least at the start. We’re preparing to organize the campaign the best we can, using all of the modern technology at our disposal,” says Cantenac Brown's winemaker Jose Sanfins. The estate, located at the heart of the prestigious Margaux appellation, recognises that a digital campaign does offer some advantages.
“Sending samples around the world was quite easy to manage, since we have done it in the past when some importers or distributors could not travel to Bordeaux for previous campaigns,” adds Sanfins. “However, the downside for the 2019 campaign was the lack of human contact and friendly discussions around our product. So we have therefore developed virtual tastings in order to recreate this link and get closer to consumers and buyers to convey our enthusiasm for the 2019 vintage.”
New sample shipping format
Companies such as Tubes, a small formats manufacturer based in Holland, are helping Bordeaux's châteaux to make this shift to distanced communication and selling. Tubes will open a new factory in Bordeaux in late 2021 – the premises will manufacture 50/100ml glass and plastic tubes, ideal for shipping wine samples across the world. According to the owner, several properties have already expressed an interest in utilising this service.
“We anticipate that our business will grow significantly in 2021; almost all exhibitions are cancelled, postponed, or going virtual,” says Tubes owner Glen Ritzen. “In terms of En primeur; yes we received already some requests, but I expect this will grow and grow once to estates return to work.”
Of course, many of the leading Cru Classe estates are still keen to welcome visitors. They argue that there is no substitute for a face-to-face campaign – some remain confident that a physical en primeur will take place this year.
“We will firmly hold an en primeur campaign in the coming six months. We would not be surprised if it’s slightly later than last year, perhaps by a few weeks, but we like the idea of showcasing our wines in June,” explains Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) CEO Jean-Guillaume Prats.
“By then, the world should be in much better shape and hopefully many people will be able to come to Bordeaux. And isn’t late spring the best time to visit the Médoc, after all?”