PRIMEURS: 8 to 11 April
Bordeaux En Primeur:
History, samples, pros and cons, scores, prices…
Selling wines en primeur is a very old practice in Gironde, starting in the 18th century. From then until the mid-20th century, most of the harvest was bottled in the wine merchants’ warehouses. The wineries did not all have the technical capacity nor the necessary storage to bottle wine on their own property.
The practice of bottling wine in the chateau started slowly in the early 1920s. Baron Philippe de Rotschild, started this initiative by making chateau bottling mandatory for the entire harvest of Mouton Rotschild (wine). Wine bottling has been working the same way since then, the wine from the latest harvest is bottled at the chateau 18 to 24 months after its barreling, then it is sold to wine merchants.
In the city of Bordeaux, buying wines en primeur means that customers purchase wines from the latest harvest at an early stage: while it is still in a barrel. Only the grands crus classés and some highly rated wines can be bought en primeur, which means between 200 and 300 Châteaux (the number changes every year). The success of en primeur sales depends on the general fame of the vintage, and on the global economic conditions.
- In May / April, journalists release their comments on the wine tasting, along with their grades.
- From May to the end of June, prices are offered and the wines are put on sale. Initially, only traders from the Bordeaux market can buy these wine en primeur, at a lower price than after the bottling. Then these same wines will be offered to other French and international traders.
- 18 months later, the bottles of wine are delivered to the purchasers. The grands crus classes are then delivered a little later.
The Châteaux offer prices for their wines and virtually give a part of their latest harvest at reduced rate to the merchants, who then also virtually sell these same boxes of wine to other purchasers. Trust is a key factor is this process.
In the early 1970s, primeurs were initially only about tasting the vintages from the 200 or 300 upscale châteaux for the en primeur sales. The name “semaine des primeurs” (primeurs’ week) comes from this tasting period.
Fine wines from Pauillac, Saint-Emilion and Graves are fermented for 12 to 18 months in barrels. They are only available 24 months after the harvest.
Meanwhile potential purchasers come and taste samples of these wines to make investments in particular wines.
Once the price has been set by the property owners, the merchants will put these wines on sale in advance in May or June. Since there is often more demand than supply, especially for fine years such as 2010, having a good producer and merchant network is essential. The average buyer is the final customer who can take advantage of this system by booking and paying in advance for the product.
Recently, a dozen of other tastings, not traditionally included, have been combined to this unique process. Low-end and mid-range products, federations, enologists, and clubs try to organize numerous meetings in order to take advantage of the media coverage, as they do during the Vinexpo exhibition for instance, which promotes all wines from Bordeaux.
The early sample should not be mistaken as a Bordeaux Primeur.
As a reminder, here is a definition of 'Vin Primeur', which is a wine which may be sold in the same year as in which it was harvested. This kind of wine is characteristically fruity. Representative samples of the wine are initially presented to journalists, potential buyers, purchasing advisers.
They can taste the wine about one or two years before the wine is put on the market (place) so that buyers get an idea of the quality of the future product. It allows owners to show what will be delivered while at the same time, trying to show off the quality of their product.
What is a Primeur sample ?
Primeurs are introduced in Bordeaux on the first week of April, although winemakers start thinking about how to make it far earlier: at the beginning of the fermentation phase, or even as soon as the harvest is done.
The sample is first made at the property with help from advisors, crew, friends, and sometimes even the owner himself.
There are many ways to make a sample. Basically it is about trying different blendings and taste them, which will lead to the final version of the sample. What we are trying to do here is get a decent “wine-to-be”, which can be quite challenging since the wine is very volatile at this stage. Moreover, it may not be so appealing at such an early fermenting stage: the wine is far from being ready to drink, it is actually just starting to develop into existence.
Therefore you could say that tasting Primeur samples is about trying to turn a negative into an HD image. Very few tasters are able to accurately find out what the sample is going to be like, and of course people’s own subjectivity has to be taken into account.
How are samples made?
Many people wonder how exactly Primeur samples are made. There is not one unique “recipe” that works every time, man’s creativity is endless and it would take a whole book to write everything about all the methods. This is why we are not going to explain them all here, but only summarize a few of them.
One may select some grapes and have them fermented in a barrel so the tannin and fruit are properly assimilated. The point is to lead the wine to a convenient fermenting stage faster than usual.
Another possibility is to take samples from several barrels, blend them together to try and get a “tastable” sample. One can also add some wine from an elder vintage (up to 15% legally).
Oenology techniques such as gum Arabic and micro-oxygenation can be used as well.
Why do winemakers alter samples?
Some people may ask why the samples are altered so much. Can’t they be just taken directly from barrels and then tasted as they are with no modifications made? Should winemakers alter samples in order to try and make them taste as close to the final result as possible, or should they introduce them just as they are the day the tasting takes place and let tasters imagine how it will change?
There is controversy about altering samples because some people think that it might lead winemakers to use whatever methods in order to get high scores.
You might also wonder what the point of introducing an altered sample is because 20 months later the wine will not always taste like the sample did. The alterations are meant to have the taste of the already fermented wine, while it actually is only a couple of months old.
On the other hand, some winemakers have a philosophical point of view on the matter: altering samples are meant to introduce the wine as they think it will be when it is ready.
Science and ethics both have their place in the altering process. Trying and introducing a good sample in order to promote the future wine is blameless. Trying by any means necessary to get the highest score by showing off an unrealistic sample is not reputable.
Let us remember that wine is not only about tasting : it is about drinking, sharing, experiencing sensations…
Pros and cons:
Château Latour’s manager has recently announced their decision to leave the Primeur system next year. Some people suggest that this could be the beginning of the end for the Bordeaux “en primeur” sales. In any case it leads people to wonder whether ending the Primeur tradition would be a good or bad thing.
The Primeur system relies on the existence of many Bordeaux over 400 merchants.
By selecting a number of traders with different strengths, the Château can ensure a good overall distribution of its wines to a wide variety of merchants. The existence of these traders, managed by knowledgeable wine professionals who travel the world to promote and provide global distribution for Bordeaux wines, is a major asset for producers of Bordeaux.
The primeur system also is a good thing for wine purchasers. There are many “first class” traders and the competition between them is so intense that they are able to charge moderate prices. This enables global distribution of wines at a relatively low cost.
Once a wine’s price has been fixed, the price is announced to the merchants by the brokers. This can happen, for example, around 11:30 in the morning: if all goes well, all the merchants have made confirmations of their reservations a couple of hours later.
Then it is the merchant’s turn to offer wine they have purchased to their partners around the world, who then purchase the wine.
In a good year, this whole selling process can be completed within hours, by the end of the day the properties have sold all their vintages (or the amount they have decided to put on the market), which means they able to virtually distribute their wines globally within hours. The wineries have the clear advantage in this system.
From the perspective of the purchasers, buying wine en primeur is a very effective way to acquire wine from vineyards across the world. If the property tried to distribute the wine themselves, without working within the trading network, it would be more costly and less effective, because it would be impossible to ensure the remarkable worldwide distribution that traders are capable of achieving.
2 : Cons
There are striking examples of spectacular improvements in the “primeurs” samples.
The chateau selects about twenty of the best tasting barrels and performs blending to produce the best primeur samples possible.
Some vineyards even place these selected barrels in heated cellars to accelerate the malolactic fermentation, so that the samples are more attractive by March.
We do realize that a strategy is initiated; select the best wine, and "work" on it so that it presents best during primeur wine tastings. This is crucial, as it will decide the commercial success of the vintage.
Some even speak of samples developed specifically for professional tasters...
It is therefore understandable why the final bottled result can sometimes slightly differ from primeur samples. Knowing this, amateurs should avoid buying en primeur out of elementray caution because it will not give them advantages.
He purchases, two years before being on the market, a wine that he has most likely not been tasted, based on marks given by pros who tasted the samples they were given, and whose resemblance to the final product is at least questionable.
The problem is the Bordeaux wine vending machine is so well oiled, it manages to make customers believe that if they don’t buy en primeur, they no longer have access to the most sought-after wines, at least not to the "friendly prices" made during primeur campaigns.
This process seems contrary to common sense, as most people notice that almost all wines (except perhaps a dozen labels) are available for many years at similar or even lower prices than en primeur.
And yet, it works and it will continue to work for a while, considering the excitement and pressure that the Primeur forum in May and June brings every year...
One may consider that the people responsible for this absurd system, pushing to haste and greed, are: vineyards, journalists and ...................... amateurs!
This controversy reflects some of today's prominent societal issues.
Scores are determinant for business purposes: they enable producers to decide on skyrocketed prices for private sales which start immediately after. This private sales system which is unique to Bordeaux allow wine producers to sell their product twenty months before the delivery time.
At the time of purchase, the buyers can only rely on evaluations made by wine critics who, compared to the former, have had the privilege to taste the wines. While this practice is a boon to wine producers to whom it is highly profitable, to others it is equivalent to a curse when a vintage is poorly rated and the demand for the wine declines. In such a situation, the châteaux can either lower their prices or decide not to adopt the private sales system, hoping for an increase in their price level after some months. This last option has been adopted by the Château Latour who, on the 16th of April 2013, made an announcement on its withdrawal from the private sales market. "Our wine will be available on the market at the time they are ready for consumption", said the director of Château Latour to the traders.
As with the stock market or real estate in major cities, you can not win every year. But over time, buying fine wines en primeur is a good deal. It is a safe investment since you cannot lose any money ; your investment can only grow in value. The primeur market deals with 200-300 upscale chateaux, selected according to their excellent reputations. These wines are very popular all over the world. However the amount of bottles produced is limited because the properties’ surfaces cannot be indefinitely extended.
Of course, for the « elite of the elite », there’s always a high demand.
Ausone 2008 (Saint-Emilion), released at 480 euros, is now valued at 1 500 euros! Château Margaux went from 178 to 780 euros; Latour (Pauillac) went from 168 to 1230 euros; Petrus (Pomerol) went from 295 to 2400 euros.
The biggest price increase was for Carruades, - second wine from Chateau Lafite (Pauillac) and an icon in China, whose price has increased tenfold in two years (from 54.50 to 530 euros).