April 9th 2009
En primeur is at its simplest, a futures market. Uniquely in Bordeaux, customers have the opportunity to buy wine six months after harvest. Similar pre-release systems exist elsewhere, but the wine is sold just before or after bottling.
En primeur generally concerns around 50-60 of the most prestigious châteaux. These producers typically sell around 90% of their production en primeur. In outstanding vintages 200-300 producers may sell en primeur. Courtiers and négociants broker the wine. The main consumers are merchants, retailers and enthusiasts.
The most important châteaux, the so-called “˜blue chips’, are the First Growths, Super Seconds and some boutique wineries. International demand for these wines exceeds supply and is growing.
Bordeaux is a market of middlemen. The most important of these historically has been the négociant, with around 100 of them associated with the grands crus. The main role of the négociant is to distribute the wine worldwide, adding 10-15% to the wine value.
Historically the châteaux owners refused to associate themselves with the merchant classes and so a broker was used. The role is still important, with 10 to 15 courtiers dealing exclusively with the crus classés. The most important courtiers are Les Grands Crus, Baleresque and Tastet et Lawton. They take 2% commission.
The En Primeur Calender
En primeur begins in the vineyard. Experts watch the progress of the vintage and speculate on its quality. This creates hype around a good vintage. Every April following the harvest, wine journalists and professionals descend on Bordeaux to assess the recent vintage maturing in barrel. The main trade tasting is organised by the UGC. Others are organised within each district. An appointment is crucial to taste First Growths where the “régisseur” or winemaker leads exclusive tastings.
In May the UGC arranges “Le Weekend des Grands Amateurs”, for the general public. Expert journalists and the Union des Maisons de Bordeaux publish tasting notes. The châteaux then release their opening “prix de sortie”, and set a minimum selling price, which is lower than the final bottle price. The courtier informs the négociant and may even be responsible for allocations. The négociant cannot usually refuse it for fear of the implications on future allocations.
The market forces of supply and demand, the quality of the vintage and the individual wine, the economy and Robert Parker’s judgment often influence these prices, as well as the price of older vintages. Some proprietors do not release all of their wine at once but release a “tranche” to test the market. The prices of subsequent “tranches” increase. Generally there are no more than three “tranches” in a vintage. The First Growths utilise this system.
From May to mid-June the négociant advises merchants of the price. Merchants can accept it, ask for a discount or decline the allocation. Allocations are limited. Some négociants take advantage of their power over their clients by forcing them to buy a château’s second wine to qualify for an allocation of the top wine. Merchants must maintain good relationships with négociants in order to obtain allocations of the top wines at the best prices.
By the end of June most estates have marketed their wine. In recent vintages however, such as 2006, some châteaux have delayed releasing their opening prices, adding to the drama of en primeur. In a good vintage, wine is traded several times on La Place, increasing the value of the wine before it reaches the end market.
The wine is left to mature for 18-24 months in the châteaux’ cellars. After maturation, final blending and bottling, the wines are shipped by the négociants and merchants. On arrival, the customer can take delivery and pay duty, VAT and delivery charges, or they can store at a bonded warehouse. The wine is not ready to drink.