En primeur is a French term for wine which is sold as a ‘future’.
Barrel samples are tasted annually by critics and merchants. The wine is then offered to consumers on the promise of delivery at a later date, once the wine is bottled and shipped.
The most important annual en primeur offers are those of Bordeaux and Burgundy, although you will also find offers from other wine regions including the Rhône Valley, Tuscany, Piedmont, California and Germany.
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Sommeliers prepare to pour Bordeaux 2016 en primeur wines for critics at the UGC’s Hangar 14 venue.
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 offers to merchants.
What are the benefits of en primeur?
En primeur sales provide the châteaux with a ready source of cash, which they would otherwise not recoup until their wines are 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. This allows the châteaux to spread the risk of bad vintages, which they might otherwise struggle to sell.
For merchants, en primeur is an opportunity to check the quality of the wines at an early stage and decide if they would like their full allocations. Like négociants, they risk losing future allocations if they don’t buy the current vintage.
For consumers, en primeur is traditionally an opportunity to buy a wine at the lowest price. Market demand and retail margins can push the price of many wines up over time.
However, buyers should be aware of market volatility. The much-lauded 2010 en primeur campaign, for example, saw record high release prices in spring 2011, but suddenly crashed in the autumn. Some values have still not recovered, leaving many buyers of the 2010 vintage out of pocket.
Bordeaux produces a huge amount of wine, but in a much smaller industry such as Burgundy, en primeur can be the only opportunity to get hold of sought after wines with tiny allocations.