Every year, from early April to mid-July, en primeur season hits Bordeaux. One of the most important events in the region, en primeur marks the first opportunity buyers and critics have to taste the previous year’s vintage. During this period, estates can start selling their wines on the “futures” market — never mind the fact that the juice will typically spend up to two more years aging in barrel.
Buying and selling wine before it’s ready for release might seem speculative — it is — but there are a number of reasons why the practice made perfect sense when it was introduced. Nowadays, however, some experts believe en primeur is outdated, and argue the whole point of the system was lost when the region’s estates became financial powerhouses.
En Primeur’s origins date back to the period following the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, when a group of négociants (merchants) devised a system in which they paid châteaux for their wine while it was still in barrel. This gave the estates much-needed upfront cashflow; they returned the favor by selling to négociants at reduced rates, which kept consumer prices low in turn. It was a win-win scenario for everyone involved.
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Over time, however — particularly in the last two to three decades — Bordeaux wine has become a luxury commodity, fueling massive price increases. Nowadays, consumer demand is such that the châteaux dictate prices during en primeur, and the négociants carry all the risks when deciding whether to buy early or not.
Given this radically altered wine landscape, why does en primeur persist? Should we ditch the practice entirely?
“I think that the practice of en primeur — as in showcasing the wines in the spring after the vintage — will likely continue, but as we are seeing over the past years, it is less and less a week of generating huge sales,” Mary Gorman, Master of Wine and market advisor for the Bordeaux Wine Council, writes VinePair in an email.
Instead, she believes ”[en primeur] will evolve more as a showcase of the vintage, a PR action to communicate to the world the quality of the vintage, initiate interest, curiosity, [and] conversation.”
“It is changing, but it’s changing very slowly,” Scott M. Torrence, vice president and senior wine specialist at Christie’s auction house, says. “You [now] have some very savvy estates, such as Château Latour, who are pioneering the concept of direct-to- consumer sales within Bordeaux.”
In 2011, the château, which is one of Bordeaux’s five classified, first-growth properties, indicated it would no longer sell its wines as futures from the 2012 vintage onward.
Instead, Latour announced its first wine, Château Latour, and second wine, Les Forts de Latour, would be sold directly to consumers (through négociants) when the property believed they were ready to drink.
But traditions persist because they are exactly that: traditions. In Old World regions like Bordeaux, change comes slowly, if at all.
“If it didn’t exist you couldn’t invent it, and every generation predicts its demise,” Margaret Rand writes in a 2018 article on the Place de Bordeaux (Bordeaux’s négociant system). But given the region’s wines are still largely valued according to a non-scientific 19th-century land classification, en primeur probably isn’t going away anytime soon.