This essay was originally written for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Diploma, which I have studied since 2014 and nearly completed. It is republished here by request from a fellow student.
Controversial, convoluted and complex, en primeur is a simple French term with an extremely complicated meaning.
The words en primeur are French for ‘in youth’ and are a wine trade term for selling wine as a future investment before it has been bottled.
The system has been in existence since the late 20th Century, but the practice dates back to the late 16th and 17th centuries in various different forms of trading wine before it has been made.
There are many regions in the world where wine is sold as ‘futures’ and the buyers pay in advance of receiving it. The most famous are Burgundy and the Rhone Valley in France; parts of California, Australia and Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.
The subject of this essay, however, is Bordeaux; a region in which en primeur sales are now highly controversial because of steep price rises of up to 700% in the past 25 years1. This means that demand now outstrips supply, there are counterfeit wines on the market and waning interest in Bordeaux en primeur. Astronomic price rises have often been apportioned to the influential United States lawyer-turned-wine critic, Robert Parker, who began scoring wines out of 100 in 1978 in his publication, The Wine Advocate. En primeur already existed at the time but when the 1982 vintage came along and Parker rated it highly, it began a rapid trend of speculative wine buying, which drove prices up, initially by consumers in the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Japanese and Chinese also began buying Bordeaux en primeur. Prices have now risen so high due to the increased global demand and the nature of the en primeur system that most wine collectors can no longer afford to purchase the best Bordeaux wines.
It has been suggested that a case of 1980 Petrus that sold for £130 in 1981 would now be worth £30,0002.
Has Bordeaux en primeur now outlived its purpose? Or does en primeur remain a crucial part of the annual fine wine calendar in Bordeaux, albeit one that is changing?
In this 2800 word essay, I examine en primeur as it stands and look at the recent departures – permanent and temporary – from it. I look at possible changes that could benefit Bordeaux and encourage positive evolution, as is healthy and normal in any living body3 (Peppercorn, 1982).
The history of en primeur
En primeur is a relatively recent system4 (Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, 2006), but its origins stretch back to the late 1600s and 1700s.
One of the earliest mentions of selling Bordeaux wine5 in advance of bottling was in 1620 by the Dutch Negociants, Beyerman (www.TheCellarInsider.com). The wines purchased in advance of bottling at this time were bought sur souche; the grapes were still hanging on the vine. The Beyerman negociants were followed by other early negociant firms such as Nathaniel Johnston, Schroder and Schyler and the Lawtons.
At this time, the Bordeaux chateaux tended the vineyards, made the wine and placed it in barrel but the negociants blended the wines, bottled and aged them at their cellars on the Quai des Chartrons in Bordeaux. It was not until the 1920s that wines were bottled at the chateau.
This began when Baron Philippe de Rothschild took over Mouton-Rothschild in the early 1920s and proposed the radical change to bottling grand vin on site at the chateau (Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, 2006)6. He convinced the other first growth Bordeaux chateaux to follow suit and bottle their own wine too. This involved initial investment but paid high dividends by lowering the incidence of fraud and raising the quality of the wine. It also provided Bordeaux’ first growth chateau with a new cachet on which they could pin that quality; authenticity. These wines are labelled mis(e) en bouteille au chateau7 (The Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, Oxford, 2006) and their makers can show that they have grown the grapes, made the wine and bottled it; providing a guarantee of control from the vineyard to the wine glass.
This radical qualitative change became compulsory in 1972 for the classed growths of the Medoc and also, generally, for the more important properties properties of Graves, St Emilion and Pomerol8 (The Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
When futures trading in Bordeaux wines began in the 1600s and 1700s, many of the region’s landowners did not wish to trade directly with foreigners because of wars between British and France. This created the need for middlemen; known as courtiers. They brokered deals between the British and the French, often travelling long distances to negotiate prices. The couriers were French and their travel enabled them to develop a detailed knowledge of the vineyards as well as forge strong relationships with land owners. They earned a brokerage fee for their work and they later devised the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, which was based on their detailed vineyard knowledge. Courtiers matched the supply of the landowners to the demand of the negociants who bought the wines. This trade grew fast because Bordeaux was a busy and powerful trading port in the 17th century. The first negociants were Dutch and English.
The significant recent history of Bordeaux begins in the 1970s with Robert Parker’s 100 point scoring system. This, coupled with the rise in popularity of Bordeaux fine wines in the United States in the 1980s, saw prices rise rapidly. The en primeur prices rose again in the 1990s when Japanese wine buyers discovered Bordeaux and in the early 2000s when the Chinese began to purchase it. The unprecedented popularity of the best Bordeaux has now created a situation where price has outstripped supply and counterfeit wines have become rife.
How en primeur works
En primeur wines are not sold when they are ready-to-drink. They are sold as unfinished wines, which are still maturing in 225-litre oak barriques. Their taste changes significantly from barrel to bottle and, based on this, the spring tastings of en primeur from barrels are increasingly viewed as a poor guage of quality and style by a number of well known, wine critics, including Masters of Wine Jancis Robinson9 and Tim Atkin10, among others.
The first link in the annual en primeur chain is the annual spring tastings of the Cru Classe for the trade and media in Bordeaux. The most sought after wines are predominantly red, many of them still going through malolactic fermentation when tasted. These wines are still maturing in barrel to soften the characters that enable them to be long lived, cellar-worthy wines – their high tannins. Top quality sweet whites with barrel aging and botrytis (aka noble rot) are also included by some producers in the annual en primeur.
Critics at the en primeur tastings comment on the wines and many award scores, which are published swiftly and followed immediately by pricing fixed by the chateaux, which is sent as a first offer to negociants. This is called a tranche; a proportion. Each subsequent tranche rises in price but the chateaux are obliged to offer each tranche to all negociants at the same price, regardless of quantities purchased.
If a negociant does not purchase in one year, they risk losing their allocation the following year and thereafter. The buyers then wait two years to receive the wine, when it has been bottled. Shipping costs are invoiced to the customers prior to sending them the wine.
The process involves price increases from the chateaux to the brokers to the negociants to the consumer. The consumer only sees the final price.
Advantages and disadvantages of en primeur
Price was once heralded as a key reason to buy wine en primeur. The theory was that by getting in early, a wine collector or investor would secure the best price. This is only of relative merit today because en primeur prices are higher than they have ever been.
In a good vintage, such as 2005, the average price rise of cru classe Bordeaux sold en primeur was 68%11 from the previous year and 93% of the wines available sold. By contrast, just 74% of the wines sold in 2004.
Demand drops in less well regarded vintages, which is reflected in less buoyant sales. Despite difficulty in selling their wines in a lesser vintage, many chateaux are reluctant to drop their prices.
This means that great vintages of Bordeaux en primeur can be an excellent investment for those with money to pour into fine wine but investment in wines from poor vintages can lead to large losses for those who invest heavily.
Wine collectors who once enjoyed buying Bordeaux’ best wines to drink are now largely excluded from the en primeur market, unless they are extremely wealthy.
This roller coaster of prices is one of the biggest criticisms of en primeur, particularly because the wines tasted from barrel in an unfinished state can at best be only “hazy approximations”12 of what they will taste like when bottled. This has led to the criticism that en primeur wines tasted in the spring following vintage are “notoriously difficult” to make accurate assessments on13, in terms of both quality and style.
This contributed significantly to the departure of Chateau Latour from the en primeur system in 2012. Latour director Frederic Engerer14 said he decided to stop selling his wine when it was unready to be properly assessed or drunk because he wishes to sell Latour when it is – in his opinion – properly marketable. This decision was a response to growing consumer demand for wines that are ready-to-drink after being aged in optimal conditions – rather than wines that are too youthful to drink.
Sweet wines are also part of the en primeur system. The most sought after is Chateau d’Yquem, which was first offered en primeur in 1999 at “a relatively modest price to kick-start interest in Yquem as a whole” by Yquem director Pierre Lurton, who has said that there were considerable stocks of unsold bottles in the cellars.”15.
Three years later, in 2012, Lurton, announced that he would release the 2011 Yquem at a “more suitable moment” than en primeur in 2012. This has heralded a three year hiatus from the annual Bordeaux en primeur campaigns for Yquem, which Lurton describes as temporary. Unless the wines are exemplary, he says he does not wish to promote them as early in their lives as en primeur demands.
Another radical change took place this year when Alfred Tesseron, the owner of Pauillac fifth growth Chateau Pontet-Canet, decided to release his 2013 ex-negociant “before almost anyone had tasted it”16.
It has been suggested that Tesseron’s decision was a self serving tactic “to get the wine out before anyone scores it” 16. But Tesseron set the price at the same level as the 2012. Such an evolution to the en primeur system may one day be welcomed rather than condemned.
The current en primeur system enables wine collectors and investors to purchase some of the great red and sweet wines of the world. It provides steady cash flow for Bordeaux’ most highly regarded chateaux, which have grown accustomed to receiving payment for their wines early in their life cycle and have established their business models around this system.
En primeur can also be helpful to wine investors because it provides them with access to many of the great wines of the world prior to their wide release on the market, by which time the prices rise even higher than throughout the en primeur tranches.
En primeur only provides a platform for the top 5 to 10% of Bordeaux wine. It overshadows and excludes other wines of Bordeaux. The Conseil Interprofessional du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) is the professional body of the Bordeaux wine trade and in 2010, it announced its aim is to improve the quality and reputation of generic Bordeaux wines.
A major drawback to the current en primeur system is that the customer must wait two years to receive the wine and then pay additional costs relating to shipping in order to receive it. In times of recession, part of the commercial chain of supply may fail, so the consumer may never receive wine they have paid for. When such high prices have been paid for wine, the ultimate enjoyment of the wine can be forgotten, as has happened to many bottles of Yquem, which were once described as being “like a protected monument – everyone admired it but nobody drank it.”17
Alternatives to en primeur
Why does en primeur work this way?
The British retailers Berry Bros & Rudd are the largest buyers of cru classe Bordeaux in the UK and have been trading for 300 years. Their website18 says that en primeur works this way “because it always has.” But it has been suggested that this system now needs radical change13, possibly by putting the current cycle back by a year to enable the wines to integrate, mature and be completely finished wines rather than barrel samples when they are tasted and rated.
This would enable the critics and trade who taste the barrel samples to make more reliable judgements. Given the price of the top Bordeaux, reliable judgements are more essential than ever and not possible to make when the wines are tasted in such a youthful state19.
If the commentary and scores were made on finished wines rather than barrel samples, the price might be a more accurate reflection of the wine quality. But because the wines are tasted so early, they do not communicate an accurate idea of how they will taste when bottled. Because demand for Bordeaux has outstripped supply, the price has ceased to be a direct reflection of quality. There are many other countries where high quality, Cabernet-based and Merlot-based reds – and sweet – wines are made, without the high prices of en primeur Bordeaux.
Bordeaux en primeur has become a victim of its own success. The global rise in popularity of great Bordeaux over the past four decades has seen a radical departure from what it was initially intended to be: a high quality wine to enjoy drinking.
Instead, today’s en primeur system fuels the fire of wine as an investment from which to profit financially. Wine is not able to be a permanent investment in the way that art, for instance, can be. Unlike art, which can accrue value for centuries, wine will be opened and consumed one day. The value of independent critic’s ratings are compromised, if the wines are not in a suitable condition to be tasted, such as they are as barrel samples.
These dichotomies are at the heart of the current debate about Bordeaux en primeur. The 2012 departure of Chateau Latour from en primeur and Chateau Pontet-Canet’s early release in 2014 both shine the spotlight on these weaknesses in en primeur as it currently stands. Inadvertently or not, they both open the door for others to follow their lead.
I think that the Bordeaux chateau owners should consider selling their wines two years following vintage, evolving the en primeur system in this way. This would not destroy their reputations. It would enable the chateaux to acknowledge their greatest strength; that the muscular tannins and powerful flavours of young Bordeaux reds need time to come into their own before they are ready to drink. This is one of the strengths of the best cru classe Bordeaux; their great aging potential.
The debate between retaining a system that has already begun to change and actively encouraging that evolution is like watching a child torn between two households in a separated family; it is conflicted and does not know which example to follow.
The consequence for Bordeaux is that it could lose its foothold as world leader of ultra premium wines in a similar way that Champagne has now been eclipsed in global sales by the more affordable Prosecco.
Change could refresh the image of Bordeaux and the region’s system of selling its best wines. The en primeur system runs the risk of appearing staid and backward, if its producers hold onto the past and ignore the potential for evolution. The meteoric 700% price rise seems likely to backfire one day, given the rise in quality of great reds from other wine regions in the world, which are now growing in stature.
The owners of the cru classe chateaux in Bordeaux have the potential to forge a new path forward for selling their greatest wines, which could also allow the lesser known wines at lower prices to shine.
With history dating back to Roman times, extremely highly regarded wines and demand currently outstripping supply, Bordeaux has many great strengths.
I believe that the chateau and the negociants owe it to themselves – and to the wines that they make and trade – to encourage evolution in order to retain their position as world leaders.
1 Jane Anson, ‘New Bordeaux – En Primeur Prices’ (2013). http://www.newbordeaux.com, accessed, 12 June 2014.
2 Jane Anson, ‘New Bordeaux – En Primeur Prices’ (2013). http://www.newbordeaux.com, accessed, 12 June 2014.
3 Peppercorn, D., 1982. Bordeaux, 1st ed. Faber & Faber.
4 The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edn, Oxford, 2006.
5 Bordeaux Wine History and Description of the Wines, Jeff Leve, 2010. www.Thewinecellarinsider.com, accessed 10 July 2014.
6, 7, 8 The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edn, Oxford, 2006, p158.
9 www.jancisrobinson.com The Bordeaux primeurs circus, 15 Jul 2005 by JR, accessed 14 July 2014.
This is excellent background material for a more indepth essay: “Last April the primeur (cask) samples of Bordeaux’s 2004s were even hazier approximations to what the finished wines are likely to taste like than usual, and that’s saying something. The harvest had been one of the latest in memory. The wines were stuffed with tannins. The winter and spring had been cold, so cold that some malolactic fermentations were still uncompleted and the wines in cask had evolved at a snail’s pace. And yet more than 4,000 otherwise sane people flocked to this busy city in south west France to see whether these wines were worth buying as futures a good two years before they are likely to be delivered.”
10 Bordeaux en primeur: the case for change, Tim Atkin MW, Off Licence News, June 2011. www.timatkin.com, accessed 14 July 2014.
11 Jane Anson, ‘New Bordeaux – En Primeur Prices’ (2013). http://www.newbordeaux.com, accessed, 12 June 2014.
12 www.jancisrobinson.com The Bordeaux primeurs circus
15 Jul 2005 by JR, accessed 14 July 2014.
13 Harpers, 2014 Why Bordeaux en primeur isn’t working by Tim Atkin MW, www.timatkin.com/articles, accessed 12 July 2014.
14 www.decanter.com, 2012 Chateau Latour to leave en primeur system by Jane Anson, accessed 16 July 2014.
15 www.decanter.com, Chateau d’Yquem: producer profile by Stephen Brook, 28 March 2014, accessed 16 July 2014. Also sourced information from The Drinks Business, 2012 Yquem to skip en primeur this year by Rupert Millar. www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2012/06/yquem-to-skip-en-primeur-this-year, accessed 20 July 2014.
16 Harpers, 2014 Why Bordeaux en primeur isn’t working by Tim Atkin MW, www.timatkin.com/articles, accessed 12 July 2014.
17 www.decanter.com, Chateau d’Yquem: producer profile by Stephen Brook, 28 March 2014, accessed 16 July 2014.
18 www.bbr.com, En primeur, Top 3 Reasons to Buy En Primeur from Berry Bros. & Rudd, accessed 14 July 2014. (As an aside, Berry Bros & Rudd include the shipping costs in their prices, but exclude taxes.
19 Harpers, 2014 Why Bordeaux en primeur isn’t working by Tim Atkin MW, www.timatkin.com/articles, accessed 12 July 2014.