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Buying wine en primeur: How to approach it

Are you considering buying en primeur wines? Political economy professor Colin Hay examines the rationale, but also warns not to bank on huge returns.

Colin Hay, a professor of political economy with a special interest in the Place de Bordeaux, considers the different ways of approaching en primeur purchasing, ahead of this year's 2021 campaign.

Buying en primeur wines is a rather strange and, arguably, arcane system of buying and selling in which the consumer purchases the wine typically in the early summer following the vintage even though it will not be bottled and delivered for a further 12-18 months.

It is, in effect, a futures market. Money changes hands and a stake in a wine is purchased before the commodity has become a finished product.

In the period between purchase and delivery the price of the wine is likely to change, giving this market (like other futures markets) a certain speculative character.

Reasons for buying en primeur wines

People buy en primeur for rather different reasons. Amongst these it is easy to differentiate between the following:

  • (i) for investment (the aim being to secure a return on the outlay between the point of purchase and delivery);
  • (ii) out of a sense of emotional attachment to the property or properties one is ‘backing’ by buying en primeur;
  • (iii) to guarantee securing a case of a rare commodity for which demand is high and/or to guarantee securing a case in an unusual format (halves, double magnums etc.);
  • (iv) to secure a wine which is ultimately for drinking at the best available price;
  • (v) some presently unresolved combination of the preceding factors (‘I am almost certainly buying this wine to drink and I have an emotional attachment to the property, but it is likely to prove a sound investment anyway’).

Of these reasons arguably the second is the best – and this article has least to say to those of you whose en primeur choices fall primarily into this category. My advice, in so far as I have any for you at all, is to carry on doing what you do – and perhaps not to read any further. This article is really for the rest of us (for what it is worth, my own rationale for en primeur purchases is in fact a combination of all five).

Buying en primeur: supply and demand

Let’s perhaps begin with the third motive – the acquisition of a rare commodity whilst it is still available. This is certainly a good motive (if wine is rare, supply limited and demand high, the sensible choice is to acquire it whilst supply is at its greatest).

But for the majority of en primeur purchases this is simply not the case. Properties typically do not sell out en primeur and those that do tend to do so because they have strategically managed supply by holding back wine for subsequent release. In short, it is a myth (if, sometimes, quite a convenient one) that one needs to buy en primeur to secure a case of the wine one craves from any given vintage.

Yet there are exceptions to which we will come back to in a moment.  But to understand those exceptions it is useful to consider the first and fourth motives in my list. These might not seem connected, but they are.  Buying exclusively for investment and buying to secure a wine for the best price it will ever be available rely on the capacity to differentiate between those wines that will appreciate in value (because supply at the release price exceeds demand) and those that will not.

This is the holy grail of the en primeur market. A reliable mechanism for identifying what to buy does not exist.

Which Bordeaux 2019 wines sold best en primeur?

Buying en primeur wines: investment

But there are a number of things one can say about wines that have proven to be good en primeur investments.

Five factors stand out from the academic analysis of this that I and others have conducted.

1. They need to be well-backed by the critics – and, ideally and increasingly, by a range of critics.

2. They will ultimately need to be backed again by the critics once re-tasted in bottle.  In order to retain their value – and hence their investment potential – a high scoring wine en primeur will need to have it score confirmed once the wine is in bottle.  One-off high scoring wines en primeur tend to peak in price just before they are re-tasted.

3. Wines from up-and-coming properties are more likely to be under-priced relative to their value and to represent a better investment.  Look out for properties on an upward curve in terms of the critical evaluations they have received in recent vintages but whose release prices still have yet to catch up with their new found status.

4. The case for purchase is stronger if there is a compelling story to tell about the quality trajectory of the property.  Where a property has changed hands, wine-maker, consultant oenologist or, more simply, style to critical acclaim, the upward trajectory in quality would appear to be less of a one-off.

5. Scarce wines for which one needs an allocation are likely to be sure-fire investments.  There are a number of wines ostensibly offered en primeur which it is practically impossible for you or I to buy if we do not have a history of buying them (an ‘allocation’ is the term typically used).  Some of these are long-standing (such as Petrus, Le Pin and Lafleur in Pomerol).  But a number of new cuvees (especially in Pomerol and St-Emilion) have similar characteristics (tiny properties sparing no expense to make the best wine possible).  Identifying these is not always easy.  But clear examples in recent years include L’If in St-Emilion and La Violette and L’Enclos Tourmaline in Pomerol.

These five points hopefully provide useful guidance in how to think about en primeur from the consumer’s perspective.

But the brutal reality is that most of us will not make money – or certainly not very much – from our en primeur purchases.  That is not an argument for forgoing en primeur; but it is an argument for going into it with open eyes.

Written by Colin Hay.

Buying en primeur wines: FAQ

  • How does the system work?

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.

  • Why does it work 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.

  • Is only cru classé Bordeaux sold en primeur?

No. 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.

  • Is it only Bordeaux that sells its wines as en primeur?

No, you will find en primeur offers from other wine regions around the world, including Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, Italy, California and Australia.

  • How much time do you have to make your mind up to buy en primeur?

Don’t delay too long, you may miss the boat.

  • When do you pay?

Consumers pay the opening price as soon as the offer is made by your merchant. They will then pay tax and duty on arrival of the wine, should they wish to withdraw it from bond.

  • When do you get the wine?

Usually in spring or summer two years after the offer. Then, once you have paid the additional shipping costs and duty, you can take delivery of your precious cargo. An estimate of these costs is usually given to you when you buy your wine.

  • How easy is to get what you want?

It depends on what you want to buy. Because demand is so strong for the most sought-after wines, it helps if you are a long-standing customer of a wine merchant that is offering wines en primeur. If you’re not you may have to go to the back of what could be a very long queue. However, you will have less of a problem with those wines which are more available and less expensive. In order to get some great wines, customers may have to take lesser wines, too, as part of their order.

  • Complicated, isn’t it?

Yes, but there seems to be little sign of change in the offing, and the system does work

Bordeaux en primeur

Burgundy en primeur

Rhône en primeur

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