En Primeur – why bother?


The build up to the 2008 Bordeaux En Primeur campaign has almost been more interesting for the shouting and posturing than the wines themselves. Wine merchants have threatened to boycott the UGC tastings. James Suckling of the Wine Spectator has not bothered to make the journey across the pond. And there is no doubt that in these straightened economic times we are looking to our friends in Bordeaux to make a serious effort on pricing.

Over the next few days I am going to take a step back and review the En Primeur system, its origins, how it works and whether it still has relevance today.

The History of En Primeur

En primeur, or futures, is the term used for wine bought in advance on the Place de Bordeaux, Bordeaux’s wine market. The origins of this custom date back to the 11th Century when French merchants sold wine in barrel abroad, mainly to England. The marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry, the future King of England, in 1152 strengthened ties between the two regions, to the benefit of the Bordeaux wine industry.

Growth came with the arrival of Dutch and English merchants in the 17th Century and German and Irish in the 18th Century, who set up quayside storehouses in the Chartrons district of Bordeaux. These merchants and their French counterparts were the forerunners of today’s négociants.

At this time few châteaux had the equipment or cellars to bottle their own wine. The merchants bought wine in barrel to mature in their own cellars. A few years later they either blended and bottled the wine in Bordeaux, or shipped it in barrel, mainly to England. The merchant would put its name on the label in bigger letters, alongside the château’s. The merchants’ customers usually paid for the wine in advance, a practice that continues today.

Several developments since the 1970s helped the current en primeur phenomenon. Estate bottling became compulsory in 1972, although selling wine while in barrel continues. En primeur was brought to wider consumer attention by the L’Union des Grands Crus, a marketing body. The legendary 1982 vintage established en primeur as an investment opportunity.

Today en primeur is marketed to individuals both for their future enjoyment and as an investment opportunity.