Should you buy en primeur – or in bottle?

Brane Cantenac - 176 - Version 3There’s been little incentive for consumers to buy Bordeaux en primeur in recent years, so can the chateaux turn that around with some ultra tasty prices? For the first time in four years, there’s genuine enthusiasm amongst the wine trade to get behind the 2014 en primeur campaign. “The market, though, is tepid” says James Miles, MD of Liv-ex.

There was a positive reaction to the wines at the annual Spring tastings here in Bordeaux just before Easter but, as most collectors know, there’s been no advantage in buying recent vintages while the wines were still in barrel. The 2011s, 2012s and 2013s failed to ignite much interest en primeur, so consumers are going to need some convincing; it’s now in the hands of the leading chateaux as they set their opening prices a year or so before the wines are bottled. For UK buyers, the exchange rate will help too.

Robert Parker, the world’s most influential critic, is no longer reviewing Bordeaux from barrel, but only in bottle, and this may affect the way people buy Bordeaux. However, if consumers don’t buy Bordeaux during the en primeur season, will they ever get around to buying once the wines are bottled? The golden goose could be in mortal danger.

There are umpteen 2014s that will be really enjoyable to drink. The question is, which should you buy, at what price, and when?

Here are some observations.

  • Many old hands in Bordeaux believe that en primeur should only be about the selling of 80 well known names, no more. The rest, with few exceptions, should really be bought once bottled.
  • Wine merchants are looking to sell wines that offer good value for their customers. In general, this means that the 2014s should be cheaper than comparable vintages on the market.
  • For the vast majority of 2014s, the value is unlikely to go up in the next year or two.
  • The point of en primeur is to secure your supply of wines that you want at a favourable price, and sometimes in a different format (such as magnums). If you’re happy with reviews of the wine and the price, then fine – go for it.
  • The wines to buy are the ones for which demand is strong, supply is short, and whose price is fair compared to other vintages.
  • Scarcity might be important. Some chateaux make 25,000 cases, some make less than a thousand. (If there are a few wines that interest you and you want to know how many bottles have been produced, I can probably give you a steer. Gavin at Bauduc dot com.)
  • I’ve been tasting en primeur for fifteen vintages, and re-tasting many of the top wines in bottle for the last eight. I regard it as a learning curve and, since the 2009 vintage, there have been very few bargains en primeur. Tasting from barrel is really useful – and the Primeur week is a great advert for the region – but I now prefer to judge a wine once it’s been bottled. By this time we know what the market price is, and I reckon that that’s the best time to buy.
  • En primeur is really about cashflow for the chateaux. It is the Bordeaux negociants who buy the wines from the chateaux in the first place, and it is a whole other matter whether this trade network can support a switch to consumers buying only in bottle. I doubt they can, so I’m not advocating a major shift in the way most people buy.
  • “In the old days, the consumer wasn’t supposed to buy the wine early. The negociants bought and aged the wine, and then sold it later on” Lilian Barton told me in April. So really, I’m only suggesting a return to the way it used to be.
  • It’s for the chateaux and the trade to make a clear case for consumers to pay upfront for wine that won’t be shipped for eighteen months. If they can’t do this, I’d wait for the wine to be bottled. I’ll be reviewing them again around the end of 2016 and the start of 2017. In the meantime, I’m working on a website.

One thought on “Should you buy en primeur – or in bottle?

  1. Richard Bampfield

    Excellent summary, Gavin. Agree totally about the preference for tasting once the wine is bottled. The disparity between different critics' scores and tasting notes this year makes it quite clear that tasting en primeur is relatively random.