What is En Primeur?
- Alistair Cooper,
Master of Wine & Esteemed Critic
En Primeur is a long-established system in the French wine market. Essentially, it offers customers the opportunity to purchase/invest in a vintage before the wine is bottled. Although historically and most famously associated with Bordeaux, the system has also been replicated in Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, Port, and some other New World regions.
History of En Primeur
The modern-day system as we know it largely came to the fore after the World War II. Many of the Bordeaux châteaus were struggling – financially reeling from the devastating effects of the war. Weakness can often bring opportunity, and that is exactly what the large Bordeaux wine merchants (the likes of Cordier, Cruse and Calvet) saw. They offered to buy the wines from the chateaus before bottling and pay in advance. This allowed for much-needed cashflow for the stricken producers and also increased the power of the merchants, allowing them pretty much to set their own price.
As time passed, the quality of the wines improved, demand rose, and the system became less about financing producers and more about the merchants being able to secure large stocks of sought-after wines. Profits were up, and chateaus started to invest heavily in the vineyard and cellar. The year 1982 was pivotal, with Robert Parker championing the (at the time) unheralded vintage, and thus actively opening up the US market. Spoiler alert – Parker was right! Since then, the system has thrived despite some criticism in recent years.
How En Primeur works
Normally (COVID exceptions have applied), En Primeur week takes place at the end of March or beginning of April. This sees journalists, critics, merchants, retailers, negociants, and others all travel to Bordeaux to taste the unfinished barrel samples from the previous vintage. Everyone forms their opinions of the wines, with critics’ scores potentially affecting prices and demand. Prices are then set in June, and offers are released to consumers all over the world. These buyers are essentially purchasing the wine still in the barrel. It will then be shipped when the wine is finished and bottled, which make take from one to three years.
Why buy En Primeur?
The theory is that purchasing wines in advance allows preferential pricing and guarantees wines that may become scarce. It also 100% guarantees provenance. Generally, current releases should be the cheapest available on the market – but this hasn’t always been the case recently. Although the wines can offer great investment potential, they do not necessarily continue to rise and large fluctuations do occur.
For example, 2008 Château Lafite was released En Primeur in spring 2009 at $3,284 (£1,850) per 12 bottles (under bond – excluding VAT and duty, which is payable upon release of goods). Within a year, it was trading at more than $10,652 (£6,000) per 12 bottles, and within two years of release, it was trading at more than $25,739 (£14,500) per 12 bottles – a whopping 680% increase on the release price.
However, by the end of year three since release, it had dropped to less than $9,763 (£5,500) per 12 bottles, leaving anyone who bought on the way up out of pocket. Today, it trades at just more than $10,652 (£6,000) per dozen – a tidy profit for those who bought it En Primeur, however!
My views on En Primeur and what United Cellars is trying to offer
There are certainly advantages to purchasing En Primeur. For the higher-end wines, you won’t often lose significantly, but you may not gain anything as a return on investment. So, if you are in it for drinking over investing, it’s a pretty safe bet. And that’s exactly where I think there are real benefits for some consumers.
If you are looking to secure some excellent bargains on very high-quality wines (yet not always Cru Classé wines), then En Primeur is a great opportunity. There are many exceptional wines that are Cru Bourgeois classification or even below that you can purchase at a snip of the price of the blue-chip or Cru Classé wines. So, if you’re not a label/trophy hunter and just want some mighty-fine drinking Bordeaux, then watch this space. That’s exactly what I’ll be doing in the coming weeks – tasting the new-release wines that I think can offer excellent bargains for thirsty United Cellars customers.