Accessing aged, top end Bordeaux by the bottle, direct from the châteaux cellars at competitive market prices – Bibendum’s new Bordeaux Project solves many age-old problems for the on-trade, particularly around cash flow. For the châteaux it means a more direct relationship with the end consumer and increased listings in top restaurants. Mike Turner talks to Bordeaux-based negociant Pierre-Antoine Mairet from Compagnie Medocaine, Bibendum’s head of fine wine, Omar Raafat, and its head of Bordeaux sales Robert Mathias to discover how the project works.
“It’s not about making massive margins, this is about getting wines back on restaurant lists and making the top Bordeaux wines more visible to the wine drinkers of the UK.”
The market for higher end Bordeaux wines is undoubtedly more complicated than it needs to be, especially for bars and restaurants. The Primeur system of purchasing the top wines of Bordeaux is so ingrained in the way we trade those wines, it is arguably far to relied upon, especially as it structurally fails the hospitality trade in being able to offer such fabulous wines on their lists. This has seen some of Bordeaux’s premium wines less represented as the years have gone by.
This is a problem that Bibendum hopes to tackle with its Bordeaux Project, offering out some of the finest wines of Bordeaux to its hospitality trade customers by the bottle.
The Bordeaux fine wine market
Each year, the fine wine world stares with bated breath at the Primeur release prices from Bordeaux châteaux. A slew of emails from sales teams to their well-heeled customers follows, professing the huge discounts available in the Primeur market that, in truth, rarely exist these days for the majority of producers. Excluding the Covid-affected 2019 vintage, most Primeur prices are often, near-as-damn-it, the same as on release since the price bubble of the halcyon vintages of 2009 and 2010.
What you have got with the Primeur market, however, is access to the stock. That’s what you’re paying your money up to two years in advance for. If you’re a private client that has the money and can sit and wait on an investment, then the system is not a problem for you. If, however, you’re a bar or restaurant, no matter how high end, cash flow is not always your friend. The idea of tying up hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, in your wine stock, then knowing you can’t touch it for 2 years, then having to wait for it to hit the maturity that suits your palate… well, you can see the problem.
You could try and buy fine wines on the secondary market. But for the sake of one or two bottles, where do you go? And what is the provenance? And how has the wine been stored? Again, you have a problem.
This set of problems were glaringly obvious for Michael Saunders, CEO of Bibendum, and Georges Haushalter of Compagnie Medocaine, a Bordeaux-based negociant.
“We believe this project will revolutionise how top Bordeaux is sold in the on-trade,” says Saunders, “With the majority of Bordeaux Cru Classe wines bought en primeur, we really wanted to facilitate better working relationships between the châteaux and the restaurants their wines are sold in. Having the wines come direct from the cellars at competitive market prices is a first. This is just the start, and we plan to broaden this range of wines with ongoing availability across the year.”
Bibendum’s head of fine wine sales, Omar Raafat, spoke bluntly that the obvious problem also showed an obvious solution. “Four or five years ago, very few restaurants in the UK were still selling Grand Cru Classé wines. The Primeurs system works, but on its own it created a distance between the châteaux and their end customers, there was no direct relationship.”
The Bordeaux Project was thus born, and offers hospitality clients access to some of the finest wines of Bordeaux, direct form the châteaux cellars, in a range of vintages, and available to add to their normal Bibendum order by the bottle if they so wish.
Price is key
Fundamentally the Bordeaux Project only works if the prices are, if not modest, at least in line with the market for these wines. Of course, you’ll expect to pay a premium from what is quoted on the fine wine exchanges, but that’s the price you pay for dealing in occasional bottles instead of cases of 12, and for the optionality it gives your cash flow. But it’s impressive how modest the prices are.
Let’s take one of the wines on offer (granted a bit of a favourite of mine); Château Pichon Baron 2010. A second growth Pauillac estate, from one of the finest vintages in living memory. The cheapest I can see that on the exchanges online is £138 per bottle in bond as part of a case of 12. I hope Bibendum won’t mind me revealing that their DPD on a single bottle is…£138!
“To begin with, the châteaux were suspicious of the margins,” says Compagnie Medocaine’s Pierre-Antoine Mairet. “They have long standing relationships with many negociants and clients and it was important to be respectful, to be very transparent, and stick to market rate. But we’re also showing that we’re doing something different. It’s not about making massive margins, this is about getting wines back on restaurant lists and making the top Bordeaux wines more visible to the wine drinkers of the UK.”
Mairet continued that, since the end of lockdown, the Bordeaux Project had produced over 150 new accounts for them within one month of restaurants reopening.
A pandemic-beating start
Bibendum launched its Bordeaux Project in 2020 in the week that saw the start of the first lockdown. Given that prospective clients for the Project were shut, you’d have expected a slow star but initial results, even in the middle of a pandemic, were hugely encouraging. “Between August and December 2020, sales from the Bordeaux Project doubled every month,” continued Omar. “Our feedback from sommeliers is that average spending is increasing, and the presence of wines of this quality and fame on their lists is a key driver.”
This trade tasting in October 2021 could have felt like a relaunch, but the Bibendum team behind the Project are already looking to the next steps and building on existing success. Head buyer for Bordeaux, Robert Mathias, sees the future for the Project in adding to the Grand Cru Classés with more top producers, interesting vintages, progressive Vin de France rarities, and increasingly retelling the story of Bordeaux to hospitality staff in the UK. “We would eventually like to start getting more sommeliers out to Bordeaux so they can fall for the wine and culture for themselves.”
There are some fabulous producers signed up to this from across the famous appellations of both the Left and Right Bank and all those in between. The Project boasts some impressive names already including the aforementioned Château Pichon Baron (Pauillac), Cos D’Estournel (St Estèphe), and Château d’Issan (Margaux) as some of the original members now being joined in the second year by the likes of Château Lynch Bages (Pauillac), Château Troplong Mondot (Saint Émilion), and Château Phelan Segur (St Estèphe).
Mairet expects more to follow sooner rather than later. “The news is out there. When my colleagues go to meetings with the châteaux they are increasingly asked how our Bibendum Project is going. It’s gone from suspicion to genuine interest, especially as they know it is meant to complement the current system, not replace it.”
Simple wins for most
In theory the Bordeaux Project should work incredibly well. The hospitality sector gets access to a handful of the best bottles of Bordeaux that are ready for drinking and not priced at inflated margins. They are also well looked after. “We are sourcing these wines directly from the Châteaux cellars,” Mathias points out. “There is 100% guaranteed provenance, and the relationship is such that if there are any issues, such as with corked bottles, then the châteaux themselves are the ones that will send the replacement. That more direct relationship is very important.”
The producers get more of their wines in more bars and restaurants across the UK, increasing brand awareness with even more satisfied customers.
And, last but not least, the simplest of wins is for us, the customers, who get to drink them.
For more information on Bibendum’s Bordeaux Project head on over to their website by clicking here.
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