Whether it’s due to the new trend among oenophiles to seek wine already fit for consumption or the declining faith among major estates in the en primeur process (which is purchasing wines that are still in the barrel)—or even a bit of both—the fact remains that the en primeur market is in a state of transition. Experts say that the writing has long been on the wall, but the potential for this scenario becoming a reality was never more apparent than in February 2016 when Philippe Sereys de Rothschild (the heir apparent and recently-appointed President of Bordeaux’s Château Mouton Rothschild) declared that his estate will be releasing a smaller number of wines en primeur. He stated that as a result of the growing in-bottle buying market, particularly among Hong Kong-based buyers, his inventory has been depleted and must be rebuilt before large en primeur sales can once again take place.
Photo Credit: Château Mouton Rothschild
de Rothschild took the helm of the renowned Château Mouton Rothschild upon the death of his dynamic predecessor and mother, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild. Philippine, an actress-turned-wine producer with a reputation for glamour and charm as legendary as her estate’s wine, is credited with driving the Rothschild fortune to new heights. Entering the family business in the 1970s and taking charge of three family estates (Château Mouton Rothschild, Château d'Armailhac and Château Clerc Milon) after the 1988 death of her father, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, she was instrumental in doubling her family’s wine production—not to mention its profits—in a mere decade.
While his announcement sent a minor shockwave through the wine world, de Rothschild denies that the en primeur process is obsolete or that his château has abandoned the process. Instead, he insists that his faith in the system is strong, but that pricing must be reasonable. One might argue that his position is a pragmatic reaction to the age of information: today’s consumers have easy access to current market statistics, driving the need for competitive prices.
Photo Credit: Château d'Armailhac
Amid speculation of en primeur’s dim future, Mouton’s 2015 vintage has earned encouraging kudos. de Rothschild is optimistic, stating that Mouton’s winemaker, Philippe Dhalluin, grows happier each week over the quality of that year’s offerings. Nonetheless, while the estate’s new president praised the vintage as recently as December 2015 when he tested its grand vin, he remains somewhat reticent, preferring to embrace a wait-and-see approach regarding the young wine. Being in charge, however, presents its own unique set of challenges and he has yet to follow his mother’s lead by putting his own personal spin on the estate’s image and reputation. Recognizing the competitive character of the industry, he acknowledges that keeping a brand fresh is critical, but rejects moving the business towards anything but family-owned and operated.
Ironically, the newly-established leadership of Philippe Sereys de Rothschild runs parallel to the en primeur market he is currently influencing: both are still in their early stages, and will require time and patience to prove their mettle. But if history is a reliable marker, de Rothschild and his wines are equally poised for a successful run.
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