What would a Martian make of en primeur?


3 September 2018 Some comments on the Bordeaux Place's moves towards diversification have been added. 

1 September 2018 A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

Two of the best wines I tasted in the last few months were over a century old. Ch Lafite 1917 at the château and a superlative Ch Montrose 1917 at a well-laden Sussex dinner table happened to share both vintage and region. Bordeaux, as this pair proves, makes some of the longest-lasting wines in the world. 

So it is perhaps strange that Bordeaux sells its wares earlier than virtually any other wine region. Each year, only a few months after hastily fermented Beaujolais Nouveau is put on the market, the Bordeaux wine establishment offers its latest vintage for sale. Every spring, thousands of wine merchants and a few hundred wine commentators descend on Bordeaux solemnly to taste samples of wines less than seven months old that will continue to mature in barrels for another year or so before being bottled – and may not be drunk for decades. A Martian would think it very odd.

En primeur is the name of this precipitate business of turning embryonic liquid into income. Americans sometimes call it futures. Such an annual ritual has the en primeur season become, with its accompanying lunches and dinners in the wine châteaux and the elegant homes of Bordeaux négociants and brokers, that many of those new to it must think it is a centuries-old tradition. They’d be wrong.

Selling bordeaux en primeur, when it’s a baby, is actually a relatively recent phenomenon, begun with the 1975 vintage. The Bordeaux trade, both châteaux owners and the négociants or merchants, desperately needed cash after the collapse of the market due to a fatal combination of the oil crisis, weak wines and a re-labelling scandal involving one of the most prominent families. Dumping was widespread.

Initially cask samples of the infant, inky 1975s were shipped over to London to be shown to the UK trade, who needed something to sell after the succession of poor quality, sometimes overpriced vintages that succeeded the solid 1970. (The Bordeaux market is certainly cyclical.)

Showing off the samples shifted to Bordeaux, along with increasing numbers of potential buyers from all over the world, to become the circus it is today – with many attendees there for the gossip and the dinners rather than having any serious intention to buy.

One British wine merchant who objected to this new, accelerated sales programme was Simon Loftus, then running Adnams of Southwold with particular aplomb. Now, decades on, he remembers, ‘I used regularly to fulminate against the opportunist greed of the proprietors, and the craven meekness of the merchants – terrified of losing future allocations if they failed to pay extortionate prices for the latest, often mediocre vintage. All in vain.’

It was in vain. There will be many younger members of Bordeaux’s tight-knit wine community who cannot imagine life without en primeur sales, however illogical it is to expect customers and media to judge a product designed to live a lifetime when it is less than half-made. There was a justification for en primeur when demand for bordeaux was red hot, as it was, for example, for the 1995s, 2000s, 2005s, 2009s and 2010s – the flames fanned enthusiastically for these last two vintages by the Chinese, then new to en primeur and told, quite erroneously as it turned out, that it provided a sure-fire way of making money.

Such was global demand for 2009 bordeaux that Farr Vintners, London’s leading fine-wine broker and the first to set up an office in Hong Kong, sold nearly £69 million worth. Farr’s profits in June 2010 alone, peak sales month for en primeur bordeaux, provided more than enough for its owner Stephen Browett to buy a quarter-stake in his beloved football club Crystal Palace. With the benefit of hindsight, the 2009 and 2010 were the most overpriced vintages in Bordeaux’s history. Asian warehouses were reputed to be piled high with unwanted stock. It took until late 2016 for market prices to match release prices, according to Liv-ex.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese are much less enthusiastic en primeur buyers nowadays. In fact everyone seems much less enthusiastic about bordeaux in general and en primeur in particular. Farr’s sales of 2017s, the bordeaux vintage offered most recently, totalled only just over £3 million.

Most UK fine-wine brokers and merchants, who for three decades from the 1980s became dependent on the annual injection of cash generated by en primeur sales, have now figured out other ways of staying afloat, whether it be trading in more mature vintages and/or discovering – glory be – that there is a world of fine wine beyond bordeaux. The Bordeaux merchants meanwhile have also been diversifying. This very week is when a raft of ambitious wines made outside Bordeaux - Opus One 2015, Almaviva 2016, Solaia 2015, Masseto 2015, and Homage à Jacques Perrin 2016 from Beaucastel in the Rhône this year – are offered on the Bordeaux Place.

Burgundy was the immediately obvious alternative, even if the quantities available of each wine are so much tinier. Burgundy used to be offered to consumers only when bottled, but this has changed too. Justerini & Brooks first held a tasting of cask samples of the 1990 vintage in the old In and Out gentleman’s club on Piccadilly in January 1992. Chairman Hew Blair remembers, ‘Some vintages that followed the 1990 were not easy to see into at the pre-bottling stage and only with the 2002 vintage did we achieve sales of £1 million on the night. News of this milestone raised awareness amongst burgundy growers and merchants as well as the UK trade who then adopted the second week in January as “Burgundy Week”.’

Burgundy specialist Anthony Hanson MW of Haynes Hanson & Clark used to invite growers to bring samples over every September but even they have now joined the roster of as many as 20 different wine importers who crowd the wine-trade diary in January with their showings of samples of 16-month-old red and white burgundies in the hope of drumming up orders and cash. Now some of them hold tastings of young Rhône wines too.

All this may be very convenient for the trade, but it’s not very helpful for us wine enthusiasts. Admittedly it provides us with a chance to get our hands on highly sought-after wines, but it leaves us with the responsibility for tying up capital and paying for storage while they mature. And, perhaps more importantly, it sucks the top wines out of the market so that, in the UK at least (American wine merchants seem more user-friendly), it is getting harder and harder to find mature fine wine on offer by the single bottle. With prices soaring, thanks to interest in wine on the part of the super-rich, buying by the dozen or even half-dozen bottles (which is how wine is offered en primeur), is now of interest mainly to plutocrats and those who buy to invest rather than drink.

The world is full of thrilling wines without either a secondary market or global prestige. Some of them even come from Bordeaux and Burgundy. See my suggestions below.

These are alternatives to the most famous names. They are rarely overpriced and can often be bought when they are ready to drink.

Red bordeaux
Crus bourgeois and other ‘petits châteaux’ from particularly successful vintages such as 2016, 2015, 2010 and 2009
Wines from the bordeaux côtes such as Côtes de Castillon

White burgundy
Chablis, especially Chablis Premier Cru that can outlast many a Côte d’Or white
Montagny, Rully, Maranges, Hautes-Côtes

The wine world is your oyster

See specific suggestions on Purple Pages. There's a recent report on a vertical of Ch Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, for example.