Bordeaux Wine Guide: En Primeur
Having completed an examination of how Bordeaux’s business system, the nebulously named Place de Bordeaux, evolved and operates, it seems appropriate to move on to look at the next step in how the wines of the region actually reach the most important individual in the selling ‘chain’, the consumer. To quickly recap, the process of selling the wines first involves trade between the châteaux and négociants on the Place, as many in Bordeaux refer to it, most deals being mediated by the courtiers (see The Business of Bordeaux for more detail). The next step should surely be quite straightforward; all we need now is for the négociants and the world’s wine merchants to strike a few deals, and once the merchants have paid up and taken delivery they can market and sell the wine to their enthusiastic customers. As you are probably already aware, however, it isn’t quite that simple; there are peculiarities to this system, one very curious anomaly being that much of this trade is completed long before the wine is ready for bottling and shipping, a process known as selling en primeur.
In this instalment of my guide to Bordeaux I will examine this system of selling in some detail, looking at its origins and how it developed into the tasting circus we have today. I will also highlight some valid criticisms of the system, and discuss possible solutions. During the course of this instalment to my guide I will continue to refer to the roles played by the courtiers and especially the négociants in this system; if you remain unfamiliar with these terms, or need to brush up on your understanding a little, it might first be wise to take a step back to read The Business of Bordeaux.
The En Primeur System
The wines of Bordeaux have long been sold when still in barrel, but in centuries past that was because the oak barrel was the norm not only for storage but also the transport of wine. Once sold, the barrels travelled to the cellars of the merchants who had purchased them, and it was here that the wine would be bottled for sale and final distribution. Today, of course, any wine of significance is bottled at the château before being shipped, a practice which really kicked off with Baron Philippe de Rothschild at Château Mouton-Rothschild, as I have already discussed in my account of The Business of Bordeaux. We should remind ourselves, however, that sometimes what seems immutable is often quite a recent invention. Today, it is difficult today to imagine any system other than exclusive château-bottling being the norm. Baron Philippe was advocating the practice as long ago as the 1920s, and indeed many in Bordeaux have been undertaking château-bottling for decades, but it is only since 1972 that it has been compulsory for the classed growth châteaux. Likewise, the modern method of selling en primeur, complete with the tasting and reporting circus that revolves around it, although rooted in the tradition of the sale of the wine when in barrel, is also a very recent phenomenon. To understand the circus that exists today, first I shall explore the very early years of en primeur.
The system of selling en primeur dates back to at least the 1840s, and it was for the négociants a first chance to have a taste of the new vintage. They may have already made a purchase sur souche, or have an agreement to buy in abonnements (see The Business of Bordeaux for more detail), but these were in truth minor aspects of the purchasing system and most négociants would wait until spring in order to taste and assess quality, before agreeing a price and handing over their cash. This was how en primeur worked for well over a century; it was in essence a ‘closed-shop’ tasting which served to oil the moving of wine from the châteaux to the négociants’ quayside warehouses, with no merchants, journalists or similar in attendance. In the 1950s and 1960s the numbers of attendees may well have crept up a little, perhaps with a select band of merchants from traditional markets such as the UK or Belgium in attendance, but it was still very much a trade affair, out of the sight of the world’s slowly expanding band of Bordeaux drinkers. What wines the merchants bought would be delivered to their premises in barrel, in keeping with centuries of tradition.