The Bordeaux 2022 campaign is about to begin, so, if you are new to buying wine this way, here is some useful background on how and why we offer wines ‘en primeur’.
The term can sound intimidating or exclusive, but it simply means buying the unfinished and unbottled wine shortly after the vintage, whilst still in the barrel. The finished wine is then delivered at a later date, once it has been shipped and bottled. The dates and timescales vary from region to region but here, our focus is on Bordeaux.
The history of en primeur
Merchants have bought unfinished wine for centuries, but selling directly to consumers is relatively new. Until the 1960s, Bordeaux was routinely bought by négociants 'sur souches', or 'on the vine', i.e. they would visit the region and see the grapes in the vineyard, make their own assessment of the likely quality of the harvest, agree a price and ship the wine in tonneau, or barrels of 300-750 litres. The wine would then be bottled in England.
Richard Kihl was one of a handful of merchants who pioneered offering the wines en primeur directly to the public. After working as a ‘stagiaire’ or intern at Latour, Richard decided to offer the 1970 vintage direct to the public. Through the 1970s he developed his relationships with the châteaux and négociants, which led to him receiving impressive allocations.
En primeur really took off in the 1980s, with the growing popularity of Robert Paker’s 100-point scoring system, which helped to make the wines more accessible to a new audience of younger collectors. Parker's non-reverential view of the top names in Bordeaux undoubtedly did a great deal to improve quality. He is quoted as saying:
"What I've brought is a democratic view. I don't give a shit that your family goes back to pre-Revolution and you've got more wealth than I could imagine. If this wine's no good, I'm gonna say so."
This sentiment may seem obvious now, but in the '70s and early '80s, it was undoubtedly the case that many underperforming top estates were trading on mystique and former glory. The stellar 1982 vintage also brought in many new customers, the first great vintage after the doldrums of the ‘70s.
For wines offered en primeur, we usually taste the new vintage from barrel (a 'cask sample') shortly after it has finished fermentation. At this stage, it may still have many stages of blending, maturation in oak or other vessels, and sometimes fining and filtration ahead of it, before final bottling. Nevertheless, at the cask sample stage, we are able to assess the quality of the vintage based on the raw ingredients - the fruit - and make an assessment.
The château or domaine then releases its price and the quantity available to us, which we offer on to you. Once your order is confirmed, we send you an en primeur invoice (see below).
A characteristic of dealing with the great-named châteaux in Bordeaux is that, historically, these were owned by nobles who would not be seen to sully their hands with commerce by selling the wines themselves. This led to the development of the ‘Place de Bordeaux’, a notional marketplace. This is a tripartite system made up of the châteaux, agents or ‘courtiers’ who negotiated with them and ‘négociants’ who bought and stored the wines, for onward sale. This trade was centred on the Quai des Chartrons, whose fleet of ships was licensed to ship the wines.
The Quai des Chartrons before the First World War, showing tonneau ready for shipment
The tripartite system still exists today, although many châteaux owners are now also négoce owners, and vice-versa. The stockholdings of the 110 négociants are enormous, with impressive, high-tech storage facilities dotted across the region. As with many modern businesses, over the last decade, the châteaux have become more aware of connecting directly with their consumers, but the mechanics of dealing directly with wine merchants around the world is still left to the négociants, who jointly turnover nearly two billion euros of Bordeaux each year.
What to expect during the 2022 en primeur campaign
Prices are set by the châteaux after the Union des Grands Crus Classés (UGC) en primeur tastings (next week). This is an important opportunity for the châteaux owners to taste their neighbours’ wines, to assess relative and absolute quality, and to gauge the critical reception of the vintage. Then, the waiting game begins! Some owners, like Alfred Tesseron of Pontet-Canet, lead the way by declaring their pricing early.
By 'release', we simply mean that the château has confirmed their selling price to the négociant. The négociant informs us of the price, along with our allocation, if the wine is in limited supply (usually the case). Often this happens at the start of the working day in France, so around 8am our time. If the new release is a wine which impressed us at the cask tastings, we then have to leverage our relationships with the négoce, often going to several sources to negotiate over quantities, to be able to meet expected demand. This can take until mid-morning, sometimes longer.
Once we have confirmed allocations, we send out our email offer for the wine, with as much analysis of the property, the wine, the vintage and the price as we can give, to help you make an informed choice.
These early releases can influence the pricing for the whole vintage, or they can become outliers, releasing above or below the rest of the market. On occasion, they can represent great value. Other châteaux owners subject us to interminable waits, perhaps silently locked in a battle with their next-door neighbours or closest competitors, waiting to see what price they will release at. These things can be determined by the owners of two châteaux having lunch, a chance meeting, or even some gossip, making the campaign delightfully unpredictable.
Usually, the releases continue up until the end of June. It is only at this point that we get an overview of the value-to-quality offered by the vintage. Liv-ex, the UK fine wine trade index, offer a detailed analysis of each wine as it is released, comparing it on price and scores to previous vintages. We tend to make our own decisions on which wines to offer, with the most important factor being our experience of tasting them.
The UGC estates represent only 4% of the output of Bordeaux, but around 25% of the value. Of around 5,600 châteaux, we offer just 80-90 wines each year, which may explain why our tasting notes of these wines are often full of superlatives, as they represent the very best of the vintage!
What happens next?
The schedule for high-quality red wines from the 2022 Bordeaux will be roughly as follows (based on a standard Bordeaux year, not the specifics of 2022):
Sep-Oct Red wine grape harvest
Oct-Dec Primary (alcoholic)
Jan-Mar Secondary (malolactic fermentation)
Mar-Apr Wines racked from fermenting vessels to ageing (‘elevage’) vessels…barriques, concrete amphorae, eggs, wooden vats etc
Late Apr UGC tastings – wine samples drawn from barrel after the wine has had a chance to settle, but with very little oak influence
From Apr Most reds will receive from 12-24 months ageing before bottling, followed by a further few months in bottle before the wine is shipped
May-Jun Bordeaux 2022 vintage will be shipped to the UK (beginning with wines receiving less ageing).
When the wine is bottled, we ship it to the UK and inform you that it has landed. At this point, we will contact you for your delivery/storage instructions, i.e. whether you would like the wine stored in bond, or delivered duty paid. If for storage, we invoice for annual cellarage charges and insurance. If for delivery, we invoice for duty and VAT at the prevailing rate.
Why buy en primeur?
So, why would wine enthusiasts choose to buy wine en primeur? Probably the reason most en primeur buyers share in common is an intangible one; a sense of a connection to the vintage, and to the château or domaine. Despite modern winemaking advances and climate change, the character of each vintage is still very distinct in wines from classic regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy. Each year has a distinct personality and following the new vintage is not just about assessing which year is 'best'; it can be a pleasurable pursuit in itself.
The most sought-after wines are usually released in very limited quantities. An important part of our role is in building and maintaining long-standing relationships with the producers and their agents, to ensure we receive the best possible allocations. Many such wines subsequently disappear from the market.
Financially, the opening en primeur price is usually the lowest price at which the wine will be offered to the market. For 'drinking' wines which will be stored at home, this is the most cost-effective time to buy. For investment wines, a vintage may well be released at a high price, but may subsequently fall in value (as happened with the legendary 2010 vintage). Such falls are rare and in-demand wines will usually accrue in price over the medium to long term. Usually, the first re-assessment comes after the wines are bottled and re-tasted by the critics. Retrospective tastings can also lead to price movements. The quality and size of the following vintage can also have an impact on market values, as of course can macro-economic factors.
Increasingly, provenance is a consideration, both for investing and drinking. Buying en primeur is a guarantee of provenance, from the vineyard to the dinner table.
For the consumer, the en primeur system helps to spread the cost of buying, with duty and VAT deferred until the wine is released from bond. For the producer, particularly smaller ones like the artisan domaines we deal with in Burgundy, en primeur helps their cash flow, in an industry where it can take producers years to recoup their outlay.
Buying en primeur allows a choice of formats, e.g. half bottles, magnums, double-magnums and larger formats, as well as unusual formats such as tappit hens for port. These days, many of these are rarely available in the secondary market and en primeur is the only time when they can reliably be bought.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, cellaring and ageing red Bordeaux can be an intrinsic part of the wine style. Made from thick-skinned grapes in a climate which produces wines with powerful tannins and balanced acidity, the wines can become more than the sum of their parts, when aged carefully and drunk at the right time. The 'right' time is very much down to individual taste, which buying and ageing claret in this way both a very personal process and one which can add intrinsic value to their enjoyment.
Top tips for buying Bordeaux en primeur
1. Read our summary of the growing season, to understand how variations in the weather translate directly into the wine
2. Sign-up to our fine wine offers by email. Usually, we send out 2-3 per week, but during en primeur, from the beginning of May, this can increase to 2 or 3 per day, as new wines are released.
3. The most in-demand wines often sell-out almost before they reach the market! Be quick off the mark, if you read a great review and the price is good, we suggest ordering straight away, or e-mail us with your expression of interest before the wine is released!
4. Mix things up and try wines from châteaux you have not bought from before. Following a familiar name each year offers its own special pleasure, but it can be an equal pleasure to get to know new estates. There is a reason why stalwart names like Léoville-Barton and Lynch-Bages are widely loved, but reputation is also priced in. As an example, Haut-Batailley and Pedesclaux are both Pauillac Fifth Growths, like Lynch-Bages, but are offered at far lower prices. If the scores compare favourably, such wines can be great value.