What is ‘en primeur’?

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The fanfare accompanying the an­nual ritual of Bordeaux 'en primeur' depends very much on the perceived quality of the wine which emerges in the spring following the previous year’s harvest. So, this year, the attention is on the 2011 vintage. The wine, which has not even been bottled, is available for enthusiasts to buy, for delivery in a year or more. This marketing and sale of the wine grew up out of a system whereby ne­gociants in Bordeaux used to acquire barrels of wine early, ageing the wine themselves before later shipping to their clients around the world either in barrel or bottled. It was effectively a system of futures which paid the chateaux in good time for their wine, although only the higher ranking chateaux were able to do this. This has changed over the years so that the chateaux themselves now take responsibility for the rearing (élevage) and bottling of their wines leaving the negociants to work exclusively on the marketing and distribution. All cha­teaux from the Bordeaux region now participate in the 'en primeur' in what has become the wine world’s largest marketing opera­tion. They benefit from the many buyers, journalists, and overseas visitors who come to Bordeaux each year where a vast array of events and tastings take place for their benefit.

By the time you contact a merchant to buy the wine you’ll have had every chance to assess the wines and prices offered in rela­tion to the perceived quality of the vintage as a whole. Whether you are someone who is likely to fork out for a wine which may only be delivered to you in 2013 or later, won’t be ready to drink for at least 5-10 years, and is, obviously, a wine that you may never have tasted before, will only be known to you. If you’re unsure whether you’re that kind of person or not, then you might ask a few pertinent questions such as: why buy ‘en primeur’?

Bordeaux is the largest wine produc­ing region in the world and produces many of the great wines sought after by collectors and enthusiasts. This celebrity and popularity is one reason. Statistics produced by the FEVS (Fédération des Exportateurs de Vins & Spiritueux France) showed how the 2005 Bordeaux vintage, which was so sought after at the time, helped Bordeaux retain its premium position with regard to export sales of €1.68 billion (an increase of nearly 22%) for 2008, almost three times higher than any other region in France. People have traditionally bought their wines in this way in order to be sure of ob­taining the wines they wanted, at the best possible prices – because prices have climbed steeply for some of the top vintages after release.

Of course, no one would buy the wine if they didn’t believe it was any good and withstand the test of time.

That’s where the ‘en primeur’ tast­ings come in. Journalists and wine merchants from around the world come to Bordeaux during the first week in April. Of course, these are not the final wines. They have had no élevage, they are not the final blend, they are very young and will likely have been knocked around a bit to bottle them in time for the tastings. The professionals believe that they can tell a good wine when they see one (and a bad one) and the disadvan­tages inherent in the system are far outweighed by the opportunities to try so many wines in such a short space of time.

Mistakes are made, of course, and some years heralded as show-stop­pers have turned out to be rather less magnificent and rather more ready for drinking early. Some vintages are reassessed later and surprise with their quality and yet there may have been little interest in them when their own ‘primeurs’ campaign was run. Whilst it is always an asset to be able to taste many wines under one roof – to detect subtle differences in quality, establish a style for the vintage, the time saved in touring chateaux to taste their production – some chateaux prefer that you visit them on appointment and taste their wines there.

Nowadays the domains make more effort to render their samples more palatable, which is understandable. Whilst it may be possible to conceal faults and problems with parcels of grapes which will otherwise enter into the final blend, the truth is that most people accept the honourable intentions of the winemakers whose lives could be destroyed, indeed, for faults which may not even have been of their making.

However, if someone were to prac­tice such a hoax one year, it is very unlikely that he or she would succeed in future years.

For consumers the decision about whether or not to participate in the ‘en primeur’ is simple. Just answer a few questions:
(1) Do I like Bordeaux wines?
(2) Have I got somewhere to store them?
(3) Is this a vintage which has made good wines?
(4) Will this be the best opportunity for me to acquire the wines I want at the best price?
(5) Could I buy wines from another vintage at cheaper prices?
(6) Do I know a reputable merchant to buy them from?
(7) Do I want to buy large formats of the wine?
(8) Do I have any money left after all the cost-cutting measures ?

Question (8) is the one which will probably cause you and others more pause for thought: half of you probably already know the answer, and the other half are about to find out.

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