Settling the score with Bordeaux en primeur

on 17 April, 2014

There’s been a lot of soul searching about the purpose of Bordeaux en primeur recently. Twitter has been bedevilled with chin-stroking platitudes from merchants and bitchy one-upmanship between wine writers. Debate has raged and disagreement is rife – though miraculously, the world has somehow managed to keep turning.

Nevertheless, the theme of the conversation is an important one, relatively speaking: who is en primeur for? I went along to en primeur week for the first time this year, to get a taste of the wines and the issues. Large parts of both were unfortunately unpalatable.

The argument over en primeur focuses mainly on scores. Some critics have decided not to release their scores before prices are released, to stop chateaux allegedly setting their prices accordingly. The score-führer himself, Robert Parker, didn’t bother going at all. Most others are following the convention of releasing their points as per usual, and leaving it to everyone else to decide how they are used.

For retailers, scores are a way to shift stock. Along with press reviews and competition medals, they are one of the key retail tools. For decades, numbers have provided a shorthand way of supposedly representing a wine’s intrinsic quality. And while there are undoubtedly side effects – point-chasing homogenisation and price inflation, to name the main two – it must be remembered that many wine drinkers love scores.

Even so, there is a growing backlash against the whole concept of scoring wine – but it can’t be un-invented, so points will always be around in one form or another. How you use them, though, is another matter. Anyone can use scores to sell wine – it requires precious little imagination and not much skill either. But it also prioritises the authority and taste of someone else. This goes against two of the fundamental reasons for wanting to sell wine: understanding customers’ tastes and sharing your own enthusiasm.

We all know that wine is incredibly complicated and entirely subjective. In fact, scores prove this perfectly, because any wine that’s been scored highly by one critic is bound to have been slapped with a poor rating by another. This is the TripAdvisor quandary – you can frankly believe anything, or you can make up your own mind.

That’s the duty for every one of us interacting with customers: to know our own minds and to sell wines because we love them – not because someone else does.

Which returns us to Bordeaux 2013. In a vintage such as this, where very poor weather created a huge spectrum of quality, the only generalisation is that nothing can be taken for granted.

Bordeaux continues to hold an enviable level of prestige and fascination, for all manner of consumers, so it remains an essential part of any range. Having tasted a few hundred, I know which are my favourites. but it’s far more important to taste and discover what you want to sell. That way, you truly know the score.


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Is blended Scotch overshadowed by single malt in retailers?

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