The view from Bordeaux – Lafite’s first tranche

Yesterday saw the release of the first tranche of Château Lafite-Rothschild en primeur. It was a surprising move, hinted at late last week, but early for a first growth to release in what is set to be a long campaign. People were momentarily excited – the campaign seemed to be taking off, with a seemingly reasonable price for a first growth that has historically gained in price after release. However, it very quickly became clear that with just half last year’s volume released, and the promise of a second tranche at a higher price, Bordeaux négociants preferred to hold fire and wait it out.

One courtier said, “to my mind it is not a real release of Château Lafite 2016 because [the price of] a part of the volume en primeur is not known.”

The tranche system for Bordeaux en primeur releases was born of two rationales. First, a way of testing the market with an initial, reasonable price on a portion of the volume produced. Second, tranches are a politically adept method for the five Bordeaux first growths to maintain the appearance of releasing at the same price – as has historically been the form – with the possibility thereafter to diverge significantly in price on subsequent tranches.

There are several négociants whose policy is to adhere to the châteaux’s multi-tranche approach, selling on the first at a corresponding price, and the second at a higher price, and so on. However, those négociants had second thoughts yesterday. If they sell the first tranche at the lower price while other négociants await the second tranche and sell at an average price across the two tranches, they will be stuck with a second batch of wine to sell at a higher price than the rest of the market.

That is why the vast majority of négociants yesterday decided not to sell on their Lafite 2016. One négociant explained that the “volume makes it difficult to offer out,” adding “we’re just waiting for the second tranche to offer in one bunch, at an average price.”

So as the entire Place de Bordeaux waits for the second tranche, after which it will sell on the stock at a pro rata price taking into account the price of both tranches, this begs the question: what was the point of separate tranches at all? Had today’s release been on a larger volume, it could have been the touch paper for a sizzling 2016 en primeur campaign. At 50%, unfortunately, it has proved the opposite.

Reports from the Place are that after the Lafite release early yesterday afternoon, not only were there no further releases, but sales on all other wines slowed right down as the local market let Lafite’s move sink in. Not surprising when you consider the importance for a négociant of a first growth’s release in the scheme of an en primeur campaign: it represents a huge sum compared to selling the lesser crus. If yesterday’s events put other châteaux off releasing today, then with the Thursday bank holiday in France, and many bridging to a long weekend, “a whole week of the campaign could be lost,” lamented another négociant (although this is unlikely with another major wine set to release this morning).

Meanwhile, many importers are frustrated by their inability to actually acquire any of the wine and offer it to their customers. One UK merchant concurred, “it’s not a real release,” clarifying, “until the Bordeaux négociants know what their total volumes are – and what their average cost will be – they can’t really offer the wine to the trade so customers are unable to buy it.”

And so we all await the second tranche. One courtier has been led to believe this will be next week, while Château Lafite itself declines to advise on timing.

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