En primeur is a French wine trade term for wine which is sold as a ‘future’, i.e. before it is bottled – usually the year after the en primeur offer. The most important annual offer comes from Bordeaux.
Every spring after the vintage, the great cru classé properties of Bordeaux produce young barrel samples from the previous year’s harvest. These are then tasted and assessed by members of the international wine trade in Bordeaux. The châteaux then release for sale a ‘tranche’ or proportion of their total production at an opening price. This is sold in strict allocation to wine brokers in Bordeaux, known as négociants. The négociants then sell the en primeur offers.
Bordeaux en primeur wines from Listrac, Margaux and Moulis-en-Médoc
It works this way mainly because it always has. Moreover, by selling to négociants, the châteaux effectively spread the risk of bad vintages, which they might otherwise be unable to sell. En primeur sales also provide the châteaux with a ready source of cash, which they would otherwise not recoup until the wine was bottled and sold.
As the system stands, the négociants are more or less obliged to buy whatever the châteaux sell. If the négociants don’t buy what they are offered (in a bad year), they risk forfeiting their allocation for next year (which may be a great year). However, the system only works effectively in periods where strong world demand for the great wines of Bordeaux outstrips supply, as is currently the case.
Winemakers whose wines are not classified growths, but whose quality and price justifies a futures allocation, also offer wines in this way. In some cases this is the only way to obtain limited-production wines on release. You will find en primeur offers from other wine regions around the world, including Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, Italy, California and Australia.