Buying wine before it’s bottled has recently lost its attraction after the risks began to outweigh the promise. Harry Eyres looks at the en primeur market and finds that there might be light at the bottom of the barrel.
The massed ranks of the British wine trade and a handful of journalists descended on Bordeaux for a few days in early April to taste barrel samples of the 2015 vintage. It had been heavily hyped (not an unusual phenomenon) and does indeed look like a very promising vintage, the best since 2009 and 2010, but enthusiasm for the en primeur market—offering for sale, supposedly at a discount, wines that are still in barrel, before bottling and shipping—has rarely been more mute‘d among both trade and press.
The pre-eminent American wine expert Robert Parker has even declared, in The Drinks Business magazine, that the en primeur market is ‘largely dead’. Chadwick Delaney of Justerini and Brooks (020–7493 6174; www.justerinis.com) is more sanguine: ‘The Bordelais can use this vintage to bring people back to Bordeaux—if they price it right. There needs to be a reason to buy en primeur for drinking, not speculation. The style of the vintage is very sexy and customers will love it.’
En primeur has always carried both a tempting promise and a number of risks. The promise, especially in the early days, was that, if you were clever, you could drink excellent claret for free. Buy two cases of, say, Château La Rêve Dorée (I’ve made up the name) en primeur, wait for the value to appreciate, as it inevitably would (or so you were told), then sell one off and the profit would cover the cost of the other one.
This did sometimes work—at least for certain vintages. Among recent Bordeaux vintages, 2004 and 2008 (priced very low because of the financial crisis) are two that buyers would have done well to buy en primeur. Counter-intuitively, it’s usually not the most acclaimed vintages that perform most strongly. ‘Often, it’s been best to buy the vintage before a very good and trumpeted one,’ says Charles Lea of Lea & Sandeman (020–7244 0522; www.leaandsandeman.co.uk).
The problem is that, in recent years, the initial price has been set too high and it’s extremely galling to find you paid £300 a case for your Rêve Dorée 2011, locking up your money for three years, then look in a merchant’s catalogue—Farr Vintners (020–7821 2000; www.farrvintners.com), for example—three years later and seeing the same wine being offered at a substantially lower price.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only risk. Another even more serious, although more remote one is that the company that sold you the wine goes bust in the meantime and you never see your Rêve Dorée at all. This happened in the 1990s with the Hungerford Wine Company, Nigel Baring & Co and others. Other risks are that the wine doesn’t taste as good when bottled as it did in cask or doesn’t develop in the way that was promised. Young Bordeaux is notoriously difficult to taste and judge.
The first principle when considering buying Bordeaux en primeur is simply to buy only wines that are delicious and that you would be very happy to drink, whatever happens to the price. A second principle is to concentrate on châteaux that have a record of fair pricing combined with excellent and consistent quality. High on this list would come the two St Julien crus classés owned by Anthony Barton, Châteaux Léoville and Langoa-Barton.
Bordeaux isn’t the only en primeur market, although it’s historically the most important one. Increasingly, Burgundy en primeur is looking a better bet than Bordeaux. This is a more recent market than the Bordeaux one and deals in much smaller quantities; the overall production of Burgundy is a fraction of Bordeaux and individual wines are made in quantities of a few hundred cases rather than several thousand (production at Lafite is about 300,000 bottles a year).
This can be an argument in favour of buying Burgundy en primeur. ‘The first reason to buy anything en primeur,’ says Mr Lea, ‘is that you simply won’t be able to get hold of it in the future.’ This is true of some of the finest Burgundies, especially the grands crus, but much less true of Bordeaux.
‘The second reason,’ Mr Lea continues, ‘is that this is the cheapest time to buy Burgundy.’ A good number of 2014 Burgundies are still available en primeur from merchants such as Lea & Sandeman, Justerini & Brooks and Berry Bros (0800 280 2400; www.bbr.com). This was a wonderful vintage for whites (Chablis was outstanding), which are seductive and have a perfect balance of ripeness and freshness, and a good—possibly very good—one for reds.
Now, we await the 2015 Bordeaux en primeur campaign. Will the châteaux keep prices steady and entice back the rather large number of customers who have strayed away from Bordeaux in the past four or five years? History doesn’t suggest a positive answer, but trends can always be bucked.
A Port in a storm
Speaking of bucking trends, laying down Port may sound decidedly last century, but vintage Port, the longest-lived of great wines, is better made and better value than ever and underpriced compared to top claret or burgundy. The last two generally declared vintages, 2007 and 2011, were among the most aromatically intense and beautiful ever seen in the Douro. Do buy a case or two of Graham, Taylor, Fonseca, Warre or Niepoort for your children, grandchildren or godchildren—or even for yourself, if you think you’ll still be around in 2035.