On April 16, Decanter reported that Ch. Latour would leave the en primeur system starting with the 2012 vintage. In a letter to Bordeaux negociants on Monday, Latour stated that it would instead sell its wines only after they are bottled and ready to drink. This is great news for consumers and something that I have been talking about for years. In fact, Rooftop Cellars is based on the concept that Bordeaux wines should only be purchased when they are ready to drink.
However, to think that this is a move to support consumers would be a mistake. Hidden underneath this move is a bold statement about removing some of the middle men from the Bordeaux distribution chain. The Bordeaux marketplace has followed the traditional en primeur rules for a long time (for my post on how the en primeur system works go here). In short, wine is sold from the Chateau to courtiers (who make 2%), who sell the wine to negociants (who make 12%-15%), who sell the wine to importers and agents, who then sell the wine to retail stores, monopolies (in the case of Canada), etc., who then sell the wine to consumers. This move would eliminate the first two steps in the distribution chain: courtiers and negociants. In an article by Suzanne Mustacich she notes that one Bordeaux negociant calculated that a loss of about 2 million euros in profit on sales of Ch. Latour alone. Whether these savings make their way through to the pockets of consumers or stay in the pockets of the chateau remains to be seen.
Up until now it has always been smaller Chateau from less famous areas that have tried to leave the “Place” and sell wine directly. In some cases it worked, in other cases it was difficult and the Chateau returned to the “Place” a few years later with a lot of unsold stock. I know this because Rooftop specializes in finding those parcels of unsold old stock and I can think of at least two significant Chateau that this happened to over the last 3-4 years.
I always thought a classified growth would make the move to leave the en primeur system – but I never thought it would be Latour (or any of the other first growths!). I doubt that Latour will have to come back to the marketplace – so this may be the beginning of a paradigm shifting change in the way Bordeaux wines are distributed.