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Without lavish tastings, Bordeaux sells itself with discounts and Zoom

Millions of euros are at stake as the wine region must reinvent its annual tradition of en primeur. The wines are delicious. Will anyone buy?

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A man tasting wine next to a bottle of hand sanitiser on June 4 during a primeur Bordeaux wine tasting session as France eases lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

AT 9 am, I was sipping a barrel sample of 2019 Château Mouton Rothschild with Baron Philippe Sereys de Rothschild and managing director Philippe Dhalluin. Naturally, this was virtual: They were in Bordeaux; I was in the US. The wine in my glass was real, though, and it was powerful, silky, and lush, "a rugby player in black tie", as Dhalluin has described it.

Barrels of it are sleeping quietly in the first growth château's cellars and won't be bottled and shipped until 2022. But like all top Bordeaux estates, Mouton sells the wine en primeur, as futures, the spring after harvest. Meaning now.

And now, in the face of a pandemic that blocks travel and has squashed commerce, the estates are grappling with how they can continue with the long-standing tradition - and what it will take, without it, for people to buy.

Ordinarily, 5,000 merchants - and many journalists - fly in from around the globe in early April to taste barrel samples of the latest vintage, then decide what to offer to consumers as futures. Châteaux woo them with lavish dinners and elegant lunches, trying to build excitement that will translate into buying momentum. Hotels and restaurants are full and bustling.

Not this year. And maybe not ever again. With the lockdown, the Union des Grands Crus des Bordeaux (UGCB), the trade association of top estates, had to cancel its official tastings in Bordeaux. Other gatherings and appointments at places such as Mouton and Château Lafite, which normally welcome 2,000 visitors, were no longer possible.

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In case you've forgotten how en primeur works: Châteaux sell the wines still in barrel to negociants, or merchants, who add a margin, then sell to importers and retailers, who add a margin and sell to you. You put down money and get the bottled wines two years later. The idea is that you're buying wines at the very lowest price, and that when bottles arrive, they will cost more and you'll have made a savvy investment. And after this year, it will have been accomplished without much pomp and circumstance at all.

Tastings over Zoom

So far, the châteaux are trying to keep the current system in place, though there was plenty of disagreement about how to do it.

Last week, Lafite and Mouton hosted joint 45-minute in-person tastings of the 2019s for 28 UK merchants at Waddesdon Manor in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, which belongs to Lord Jacob Rothschild. There were no more than a couple of people at a time and careful sanitising between tastings. The châteaux' technical directors answered questions virtually, from a big screen.

Ronan Laborde, president of the UGCB, says they have scheduled in-person tastings in seven cities around the world so far, where they'll observe social distancing and take recommended precautions. He also runs Château Clinet in Pomerol, and for the past few months has been working at home.

Many châteaux have been sending samples internationally for the first time, according to Fabrice Bernard of Bordeaux negociant house Millesima. In the past two weeks I've tasted with winemakers remotely via Zoom, Whereby, Webex, and Microsoft Teams. One day I had the wines from Château Cos d'Estournel in front of me, while my screen showed the art-filled tasting room at the Saint-Estèphe second growth with owner Michel Reybier and technical director Dominique Arangoits explaining the vintage. The next day I chatted with Bruno Borie, owner of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, who'd shipped a fancy purple box with 100-millilitre tubes that contained his four wines.

Everyone agrees that the quality of the vintage is very high. Simon Staples, head of private clients at UK merchant Lay & Wheeler emailed that those he'd tried were "rich, gorgeous, with tannins as soft as a kitten's ear".

I totally agree. Château Cos d'Estournel's top wine is spicy and velvety, with a dark, chocolatey note. The Château Ducru Beaucaillou's grand vin is dense and dark-toned, seamless and subtle. Château Smith Haut Lafitte's is savoury and smooth, with warm red fruit.

Slashed prices, intense bidding

Will anyone buy? For Mouton, the answer is decidedly yes but at a lower price than usual. After they released at a price 30.8 per cent cheaper than last year on June 9, the Liv-ex website crashed with all the trades. "In a complicated en primeur campaign like this, the first growths have to give the tone," says Mouton's Dhalluin.

When it comes to selling, Bordeaux was in trouble even before the pandemic. The 25 per cent tariff the US trade representative put on wines from France (and Germany, Spain, and the UK) cut consumer interest stateside.

And Liv-ex points out in its recent Bordeaux 2019 Report, "Political tension in China and Hong Kong has led to faltering Asian demand." That's not to mention the global recession that's hitting people's pocketbooks.

So Bordeaux faces the challenge of building enthusiasm without the grandeur of the normal en primeur tastings - and in the face of worldwide economic headwinds. "Even if there are good deals, though, are people in a good mood?" asks Emmanuel Cruse, co-owner of Château d'Issan in Margaux. "The British need to buy before Brexit, but we don't expect to sell much in the US."

A couple of dozen châteaux have now released their prices, and most are discounting heavily to drum up enthusiasm. Château Pontet-Canet released its wine at 31 per cent lower than the asking price last year for the 2018. Plummy, pure, and subtle, it's US$80 a bottle as a future. Then came Château Cheval Blanc, down almost 30 per cent, and Mouton at about the same. Considering the quality, these are serious bargains, ripe for investment.

Will those deep discounts be enough to pull Bordeaux through this year? As Jean-Guillaume Prats, chief executive officer of Château Lafite Rothschild, says: "Maybe Covid-19 will make us go back to the true and honest things." BLOOMBERG

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