For a week every year, thousands of wine connoisseurs descend on France's famous Bordeaux region to taste the new vintage, not yet bottled, and reserve stock in an oenological futures system.
This year, however, due to the coronavirus outbreak, the usual noisy bustle of importers, restauranteurs, merchants and sommeliers sniffing, gargling and spitting Bordeaux's best was replaced with a small, sedate gathering of trade experts.
In groups of ten to a room, and respecting the mandated personal space of at least a metre (three feet) between them, some 500 brokers, traders and wine journalists converged in Bordeaux's luxury Grand Hotel for two days last week to taste 130 brand-new 2019 wines.
With none of the usual cacophony, they sat for solitary tastings, many with a face mask dangling from one ear to free their nose and mouth for the important task at hand -- a bottle of hand sanitiser within reach.
There were waiters to pour the wine at individual stations, but no producers to extoll the virtues of the produce.
"The feedback has been very enthusiastic... Brokers and traders told us it was 'fabulous, there is no interference. It is just us and the wine'," Ronan Laborde, president of the Union of Grand Crus of Bordeaux (UGCB) told AFP of this year's watered-down event.
"It may result in us repeating this type of format in future."
- Price drop -
The Bordeaux En Primeur (Futures) week gives professionals an opportunity to reserve wines at preferential prices while still in the barrel.
It normally attracts between 5,000 and 6,000 potential clients -- half of them from abroad -- to the fabled wine region in southwest France, preceded by a limited tasting reserved for trade professionals and wine writers.
This year, with many countries still in coronavirus lockdown and travel restrictions widely in place, it was decided to limit En Primeur to two days purely for trade French professionals.
Besides the Grand Hotel, a handful of Bordeaux wineries and regional merchants -- far fewer than in other years -- also opened their doors for tastings.
Similar, limited, events will be hosted for Bordeaux tastings in Hong Kong, Zurich, Brussels, Paris, Tokyo, Frankfurt and Shanghai for trade professionals later in June, the UGCB said.
But for the United States and United Kingdom, both still battling COVID-19 pandemics, wine samples have been sent to the main distributors to taste on their own.
Even before global lockdown measures to battle COVID-19 battered the world economy, the French wine industry suffered two major setbacks with the United States imposing a 25 percent tax on wine imports in a dispute over airplane subsidies, and Britain, another major consumer, withdrawing from the tariff-free European Union.
With about 20 Bordeaux estates having announced prices for the 2019 vintage, observers have noted a 20-30 percent drop from last year.
This could be good news for buyers in a futures system, which allows them to reserve stock of top-notch wines that may be difficult to find in the market later, or at a much higher price.
- 'Elegant and fruity' -
Julien Viaud of an expert wine laboratory in the Pomerol region of Bordeaux, said the 2019 vintage was a good one, "with complexity".
"The 2019 is elegant and fruity... For the Merlot, we have notes of dark cherry, and blackcurrant aromas for the Cabernet," said the oenologist.
"It will be pleasant to drink after five years..." he predicted. "There is nothing that jars, no aggressive tannins", the substance from the skin of a grape that gives red wine much of its taste.
Fabrice Bernard, head of the Millesima trading house, said he enjoyed this year's more intimate experience at the Grand Hotel.
"We could taste everything in a single sitting" at a central venue, he said, "a lot easier" than shuttling from farm to farm.
The 2019 vintage will go to the market in 18 to 24 months.
Besides the Grand Hotel, a handful of Bordeaux wineries and regional merchants opened their doors for professional tastings for this year's limited 'En Primeur' event
There were waiters to pour the wine at individual stations, but no producers to extoll the virtues of the produce
Similar events will be hosted for Bordeaux tastings in Hong Kong, Zurich, Brussels, Paris, Tokyo, Frankfurt and Shanghai for trade professionals later in June