En Primeur musings

Here’s my next opinion piece about En Primeur published in the National Business Review 8 May 2015. 

En Primeur musings 

There has been much written about the En Primeur process. For those following twitter, you’ll have seen many a debate. As someone who ‘participates’ in this process, I’ve been thinking it over and share here some of my thoughts.

So what is the process? For the En Primeur week the wines are still in barrel, the final blends are not yet prepared, though the winemakers have an idea of what they will be. During the week the samples tasted are essentially cask samples to represent the final wine. Which leads to a curious question, would we go taste Hawke’s Bay red wines in barrel and offer them at that stage? Or commit to buying them then? We don’t, though not necessarily because we would not. Bordeaux has itself one of the best pieces of marketing in the wine trade.

En Primeur is not a new process and to understand why and how it exists, a little history assists. There are many references to selling Bordeaux in bottle, including the famous Ho Bryan  – Haut Brion –  the only wine sold at The Sign of Pontac’s head eating house in London in the 17th Century. It was so popular that patrons would ask to secure allocations in advance.

The role of the Negociant in Bordeaux is intertwined with the region in so many ways. The Negociants, in establishing themselves in Bordeaux, were first and foremost businessmen, though not from Bordeaux. Early Negociants were of German, English and Dutch descent. Seen by the Château as outsiders, a middle man was required – giving rise to the role of a courtier.

At this time Negociants bought wine in cask, straight after the grapes had been vinified; the Negociant would blend and bottle. It was not until in the 1920s when Philippe de Rothschild led the charge and his was the first Château to estate bottle. He quickly convinced all the first growths to estate bottle; the Negociants still bought the wine straight after it was vinified, though left it with the Château to care for it and bottle it. Initially, it was only the five first growths, then in 1967 all classified growths were required to estate bottle (all French wines followed suit shortly after).

The Negociants carried all the costs of these stocks and aged them until they were ready for sale. It was not until the financial hard times of 1974 that, to relieve some financial pressure, the Negociants started to sell the wines while in barrel at the Château to retailers globally, marking the birth of the En Primeur system we know today.

There is a lot of discussion in the media about En Primeur. There are those who question the relevance of rating cask samples and those who question the processes validity. Overall, it is a system that works. Is it a system that provides excellent return on investment? It certainly has over the years and may do in the future.

Although some have looked to and will continue to consider Bordeaux for the investment potential, these are great fine wines for enjoying and drinking. The so-called ‘lesser’ vintages often mature earlier and represent excellent midterm cellaring potential.

Have the prices gone too high? With the exceptional quality of the 2009 and 2010, the prices did reach new levels. Since then, the very top producers have maintained a certain relatively high price level. Not all wines are at this level and there is a bracket of top wines below the 30 or so in the category above that represent excellent value and are great wines. The shadow cast by the top prices of a selected few unfortunately has cast a shadow over the rest.

As for tasting cask samples, you are tasting a young wine that is created by the winemaker to represent the final wine. Experience shows that these final wines don’t vary greatly from the samples reviewed. Comparing scores given by critics of these samples and the final wines show very little difference other than usually a point or two upwards.

There are a lot of people who bemoan the process, particularly the UK trade for whom in good years En Primeur is financially very important. There have been many calls from media for En Primeur to be re worked, done differently. Yet these same people turn up in droves each year to taste the wines: The curiosity gets them every time.

En Primeur is a fascinating process, one that creates a huge amount of media attention and discussion. When you think about time spent on marketing brainstorming sessions to find a point of difference and how much effort is put in to create a clever campaign to stand out from the crowd and the marketing dollars required to do so, the Bordelaise have a system that works and the vintage is reviewed, analysed, discussed and communicated. En Primeur is really an excellent piece of wine marketing that works.