Read our 2023 Bordeaux En Primeur Vintage Report

Bordeaux, 2023, En Primeur, Fine Wine

The Bordeaux en Primeur campaign is underway, and has started in quick form this year. I was still slurping my way through a range of samples at a negociant’s offices in Bordeaux when the first releases were made. Making it a snappier, quicker campaign will be welcomed by the entire trade.

Another welcome sign has been the reductions in price over last year. In recent years, Bordeaux pricing has escalated to such a level that it is invariably more expensive to buy en Primeur than it is to pick up a back vintage from a merchant’s list. You might recall my first write up on Bordeaux this year, where I commented that the aim of en Primeur is to provide beneficial cash flow for the châteaux, a margin for both the negociants and their wine merchant clients, and an appealing price to the end consumer. This doesn’t always transpire, and often wines are priced right on the cusp of fair value, or just over. Invariably, when prices are dropped, the accompanying volume is often restrained by the Châteaux, who hold it back to release at a higher price once it is bottled. This allows the masses of journalists to write about headline price reductions but doesn’t ‘cost’ that much. Fortunately, this year, the volumes released seem to be reasonably good, so the economic backdrop is shaping decisions.  We have seen estates like Léoville-Las Cases reduce their price by 47% over the 2022, for example. But as one contact of mine put it, you need to have increased your price fairly dramatically over a period of years to countenance such a move. That said, reductions of 20-40% have been welcomed and at least have generated some interest from consumers, who perhaps were feeling like they were on a treadmill of ever-increasing prices. Obviously, Châteaux that are already more moderately priced, or those that hadn’t pushed hard to elevate their prices, will not have the same scope to cut by 40%, but some of the bigger players have. It has been commented in the wine press that Bordeaux is at some form of crossroads; the appeal of en Primeur doesn’t entirely resonate with a younger audience and there is a lot of wine ‘stuck’ in the system, whether it be burgeoning stock levels with merchants or with negociants. The wine market in general needs to draw in younger consumers, and the traditional approach of en Primeur – buying early and storing for a decade or more even when the price is not necessarily advantageous – doesn’t have a lot to offer as an attraction. Acknowledging this backdrop, Bordeaux could have done more this vintage to make it a complete success, but perhaps lessons are learned in phases rather than in one rather sobering hit.

As ever, much has been written about the new vintage. Reading through and comparing the write-ups of different critics has been particularly interesting this year as they are more divergent on the merits of individual wines than we have noted in a while. One may be championing the qualities of a specific wine, while another’s words suggest they were relatively non-plussed, or are, at least, nowhere near as effusive. I think this speaks to the nature of the 2023 vintage; to my mind there is a raft of good to very good wines, wines with which it is difficult to find obvious fault, but where it is equally tricky to focus on outstanding qualities. That is not to do this vintage down, as I found many appealing wines, but I do not believe that it is an homogenous success nor do I believe it has delivered many epic or potentially legendary wines outside of 10-12 significant successes. I don’t score wines, but I would expect a good number to fall in the 93-96 category on anyone’s 100 points scale.

So, should you buy? We have dealt with the issue of fair value already, but in terms of the qualities of the vintage, the conditions in 2023 have delivered fresh, well-balanced wines with lower alcohol levels than we have witnessed in many recent ‘solar’ Bordeaux vintages. They have a supple appeal; my notes are littered with words like ‘fluidity’, ‘lithe’, ‘mineral drive’, ‘streamlined’, ‘agile’, ‘graceful’ and ‘supple’. This isn’t a vintage that has delivered bold, concentrated wines with a tight block of fruit that will need 15 years to unfurl. It lends itself to being broached earlier than most recent vintages, yet the best of the wines, and the majority, aren’t diffuse either. Despite the well-documented heat in 2023, it was not a solar vintage – that is a handy way to categorise it; it was not a year of continuous blazing sunshine. In recent years we have grown accustomed to hot, dry Bordeaux vintages where the vines suffer to a lesser or greater extent from hydric stress – think 2022, 2020, 2018 for example. We have had very few vintages in the last decade where the growing season has been punctuated by periods of regular rain. Invariably the model has been that winter should replenish the groundwater levels sufficiently to equip the vine with the ability to survive a hot, dry summer. 2023 was different. Equally, when needed, 2023 provided periods when the temperature spiked, which served to build greater ripeness and concentration. These could not be considered heatwaves, as they were not that prolonged, but they served to accelerate the berries towards full phenolic ripeness, giving the resultant wines a touch more density than you might expect in a ‘fluid’ vintage. I talked to a lot of winemakers about crop and berry size; yields were higher than the norm on account both of more berries, due to a very homogenous, efficient flowering, and of greater berry size, meaning more juice in each berry, on account of the more readily available moisture. A couple of commentators have talked about acidity, and yet I do not find the acidities in 2023 to be notably elevated above the levels encountered last year, though they are not offset by the same density of fruit. In many instances, the pHs in 2023 are almost identical to those of 2022. The key point of difference, and the one that has shaped the vintage and reduced the alcohol levels, is dilution. This word need not be pejorative; in many wine regions that I visit the question of yield is being debated. In a bygone age when sunny, hot vintages did not dominate, leaf plucking (exposing the fruit to the sun) and green harvest (reducing the crop so the vine focuses on ripening a lower volume) were de rigueur. Now, with markedly different conditions, there is a broader recognition that higher yields and a higher juice to skin ratio ease the density of the wine, can lead to lower alcohol and allow the winemaker to achieve balance in the wine more easily. The skins today are so rich in phenolics and fruit compounds that the presence of more juice allows you to extend the period of maceration (some winemakers cited this in the 2023 approach). This does not mean that diffuse wines result. If you had a much lower level of ripeness, with thinner skins, then dilution would be an issue in a negative sense and weedy wines would result. In 2023, there is more wine, yields are more generous and that attribute that I looked to describe with a whole host of synonyms in my tasting notes is key to the vintage.

Many merchants and critics have commented on the ‘transparency’ of the vintage. That is a fair comment, but it once more relates to the point on dilution. When you have a densely ripe wine like a number of the 2022s, the signatures of an individual vineyard’s terroir are very often masked in its youth. Terroir then starts to assert as the puppy fat falls away with maturity. Think 1989 or 2009 – both these years showed less evident sense of terroir in their youth and, in fact, many 2009s still have some way to go in their evolution before these signatures start to appear more clearly. In contrast, a vintage like 2014 had this clarity at an early stage. Such vintages were easier to taste young; the fruit was less copious and the vineyard character traits were more easy to read from one wine to the next. I think 2023 is far more successful than 2014, as the latter has a perkier acidity that may take some time to tame, and certainly that vintage did not benefit from the same boost to density that was brought about by the heat spikes in the run up to the 2023 harvest. Comparing such a vintage to previous years is really a mug’s game. I am not trying to argue that 2023 is like this vintage or that, but do believe it is worth highlighting that it has traits of cooler years, even though it was by no means a cool year, and traits of bolder vintages without being bold. All of this, coupled with that supple accent, render it a very appealing vintage and one which should chime with the canny buyer, who simply buys for future consumption as opposed to investment. Of course, speculators will be drawn to several outstanding wines that register as notable high points in this vintage and whose qualities can readily be compared to outstanding young vintages of the past, but I see 2023 as a vintage for the drinker, and I do not believe that the usual patience will be required to quite the same extent before the charms of the 2023 vintage can be enjoyed from bottle.

As ever, the trade is keen to make this vintage work. It is completely understandable given that the fine wine market has lacked direction for this last 12 months. It has been a quiet period for the market on the back of high interest rates and the general global economic backdrop. This has given rise to the usual hyperbole and we have seen some bizarre comments and scores. My advice to anyone interested in buying Bordeaux 2023 is simple: cut through the nonsense, consider whether the style of the vintage that I have described is one that appeals, and do not hesitate to ask us any questions about specific wines that catch your eye. I do think there are a number of bargains to be had this year if you are looking for Bordeaux that you could drink earlier and that represent more of a classically-balanced style, even if the conditions that brought that style about are markedly different. The trade will no doubt debate the reductions witnessed on various wines, and whether the reductions are enough to bring about easy sales and to add some form of a draw to the slightly flagging en Primeur market. We will see how these things play out. In the meantime, at Atlas, we will continue to highlight wines that impressed us and where we believe the price is favourable.  The decision is yours, but we remain on hand to advise as and when you need it.

I opened by saying that the 2023 Bordeaux en Primeur campaign started quickly. It is now taking a pause for French May Bank Holidays and will resume in earnest next week with the goal of releasing most wines before Bordeaux decamps to Hong Kong for Vinexpo Asia from 28th to 30th May.

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