What is the en primeur system and what is its purpose? Many of you might find it hard to understand this 50-year-old system of selling wines in Bordeaux.
After the second World War, most of the châteaus were very poorly run and very much underfinanced, and they struggled to pay their bills. Moreover, their markets were basically limited to the U.K., Benelux, France and Scandinavia. The base of consumers was much smaller than it is today, and the wine media was nonexistent.
The en primeur trade was initiated by the dominant Bordeaux wine merchants of the day, including Ginestet, Calvet, Cruse and Cordier, among others. They agreed to buy wines from top châteaus prior to bottling and pay in advance for them. It was not unusual to even buy wines before the harvest with anticipation of the quality and, above all, quantity. A real poker game!!!
In those years, apart from the first-growths, the châteaus were far less powerful, rich and dynamic than the Bordeaux wine merchants. This system allowed the wine merchants to set their own price, and the châteaus were also very happy to have some cash in advance. I have to confess that in those years wine quality was not so much of an issue in the discussion. Quantity and up-front cash were the main issues.
In the 1970s, both the world market for Bordeaux wines and the fine-wine press were beginning to expand. By the end of the decade, the en primeur system had changed: What had been primarily a source of financing for the châteaus became an efficient way for the wine merchants to secure large stocks of wines from the best estates. For the first time since 1850, the châteaus started to be profitable and were able to invest in new winemaking facilities and improve their vineyards’ management.
1982 was a key vintage for the en primeur system as it was the first great Bordeaux vintage since 1961, and one that offered quantity as well as quality. It was also the year when the U.S.A. really started to buy Bordeaux wines en primeur. As it turned out, Americans who bought their 1982s as futures made very good investments.
From 1982 to 2000, the en primeur system was the best way for the consumers to buy Bordeaux wines at very affordable prices and secure in advance the numbers of bottles that they wanted in their cellars. These 17 years of prosperity also helped the châteaus to invest in quality and equipment as well as in replanting vineyards. Thanks to this unique system, more progress in quality was made in Bordeaux in this period than in the previous 100 years.
This year, the vintage 2006 will be offered by the châteaus to the Bordeaux wine merchants beginning in late April, who will sell the futures contracts to other merchants—importers, distributors and retailers—who will offer them to consumers. The wine will be bottled in June or July 2008, then delivered to the en primeur buyers.
With this unique system, the trade and consumers have the possibility to purchase great wines before they are sold out, at prices (even though still high) that are likely to be substantially cheaper than the current market price at final release. It seems that with the short supply of great wines from around the world (including California) and the rise of new wine aficionados, Bordeaux’s en primeur system will continue to flourish.