In our interview with Bordeaux heavyweight François Thienpont, he shares his thoughts on 2018 En Primeur, the damaging US tariffs on EU wines, and the rise of good value Bordeaux wines.

Bordeaux wine had seen better days, but lately it’s hit with a double whammy.

Prospects for Bordeaux wines are dimmed as the number of En Primeur buyers shrink, compounded by the additional tariffs slapped on French wines destined for its lucrative US market, says Bordeaux heavyweight François Thienpont who admits that vintners now “have to work twice as hard to maintain figures”.

Thienpont is the third-generation member of the Thienpont family in Bordeaux that owns storied Vieux Château Certan and Le Pin in Pomerol as well as a few other estates in Bordeaux, in addition to a négociant house Wings.

Asked about this year’s En Primeur campaign, the bespectacled and sartorially dressed vintner replies, “year after year, it seems like the campaign is shrinking a bit,” when interviewed by at local importer Links Concept’s office.

“We are dealing with fewer and fewer buyers as well,” he adds, after a flurry of what he considers to be great Bordeaux vintages in a row including 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and what seems to be 2019. “So the consumers would say I bought already  ’15 and ’16,” he explains.

Meanwhile, starting from October 18 the Trump administration slapped an additional 25% tariff on French, German and Spanish wines that have alcohol levels below 14% ABV, sparing however Champagne, Italian, Hungarian wines.

When asked about the punitive tariff, he heaved and replied in disappointment, “Don’t tell me about it,” and says he still has one container on the sea heading to the states at the time of the interview on October 25.

The impacts, as he analysed would be more on Left Bank wines than on Right Bank wines, thanks to the fact that the dominant grape used in Right Bank wines, Merlot, tends to have higher alcohol contents due to its naturally higher sugar contents.

“Actually, for us, our family wines, the Right Bank wine has higher alcohol than Left Bank, because of Merlot’s higher alcohol and sugar compared with Cabernet, so VCC would be above 14% when Ducru Beaucaillou and Margaux would be 13%,” he explains.

Still, the punitive tariff has prompted customers in the US to ask Chateaux to delay shipments of wines below the cut-off 14% ABV, he says.

“Now they are asking to hold En Primeur ’17 and all the wines below 14% and ship only wines above 14% so that makes things complicated and the taxes have to be paid in cash when they arrive the US,” he admits, “You have Brexit, taxes in the US, Hong Kong protests, China-US trade war. We have to work twice as hard to maintain the figures.”

What he fears is that wines from lesser vintages with less alcohol content will end up become more expensive than certain top vintages simply “because the alcohol will be above 14%,” he laments.

But he hopes the situation will be resolved in the coming months, with negotiations underway with Boeing aircraft, which promoted the US’ retaliatory move in the first place.

“It’s too soon to say,” he cautions, reluctant to say for certain if the taxes would change his family’s long-term export strategy.

Still, he’s adamant there’s room for growth for good value Bordeaux. That’s where his wines bottled and sold through his family négociant house would come in strong.

His Francois Thienpont wines boast an expansive portfolio of Saint Emilion Grand Cru, Cotes de Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur including L’Etoile in Lalande de Pomerol, Château Manoir de Gravoux and Roques De Jean Lice etc.

He sources grapes from quality vineyards and oversees viticulture and winemaking process to ensure quality. Earlier this year, wines from his family’s Cru Bourgeois estate Château Croix du Trale in Haut- Médoc near Saint-Estèphe just became available in Hong Kong through its importer Links Concept.

Bordeaux can produce the best value for the quality in the world if it’s well made, but because the image of high-end wines and people might think Bordeaux is expensive, so we have to fight against that,” he states.

“In the US, for instance, it would take four times of the price to find the same quality level,” he compares.

In China, he confessed his experiences had been different from elsewhere and growth comes with a lot of promotion and time. Recalling his past experiences, one of which just two years ago, he said he dealt with importers who would make one order and disappear.

“Now they really taste the wine and keen to have good quality wines and are ready to pay for that, but it takes a lot of time, takes a lot of tasting and promotion,” he says.  

“Economy in China is slowing and one thing we can see is that little players are out of business,” he observes, as over 2,000 bottled wine importers in China went bust in the first five months of the year.

In Hong Kong, he describes the market as being “more mature” with zero wine taxes, “It’s good for us,” he says despite monthslong protests.

His F. Thienpont collection and Château Croix du Trale are particularly competitive on trade through by the glass program, he believes.

The wines are available in Hong Kong and Macau through Links Concept.

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