A kind gentleman put a pamphlet through my door last week about En Primeur wine, which got me wondering what this was, how it originated, whether it was worth having a flutter or avoiding and putting my money into presently mature or ‘improving’ examples of fine wine.
En Primeur is the French for "wine futures", a way of investing in a product which has a capacity to grow in value with time. Though seemingly a romantic notion - we are still in the season of St Valentine as I write - wine Is a living breathing thing with a birth in the fermentation vat, a period of adolescence while shedding sediment and the fragments of its birth - dead yeast cells and colloidal fragments which are termed lees, adulthood while maturing in oak barrels and a life in the bottle waiting for the time when the cork is popped and the wine us ready for the 'love affair' of joyous or bitter-sweet consumption and then extinction or oxidation bringing the wine to its demise.
The French wine houses in Bordeaux of the seventeenth and eighteenth century knew the life-cycle of wine well - some suitable for early drinking and some for extended ageing. The lucrative British trade route to England and Scotland relied on skilful élevage or raising the claret wine of its day with barrel ageing, filtering and fining until the wine reached its full potential. Good winemaking decisions during élevage helped achieve the wine's full potential; bad decisions left it flawed. One in six of all Bordeaux inhabitants were involved in this trade at one point. This raising of the young wines into a mature product attracted investments as the maturing wine changed hands during élevage and gave rise to the modern En Primeur market. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the 1786 vintage for top Bordeaux wines cost "1,800 livres per tonneau compared to 2,000 livres for the older 1783" (a livre is about 1.0125 francs; a tonneau barrel holds 500 litres of wine).
Aerial view of Bordeaux by Hugo d'Alesi, 1899. Archives de Bordeaux métropole
So how does it work? A purchase is made from a wine broker while a batch of the current vintage is still maturing in the barrel. Payment is made about a year or 18 months before the official release date of that vintage. There is a chance the wine will not achieve its expected potential and so an element of risk is undertaken by the investor, but usually the quality of the bought wine improves up until the release date. The purchaser can still stand to lose money at release if the market price falls due possibly to overproduction. Many wine experts recommend buying En Primeur for wines with limited expected quantities which will most likely not be available when they are released. There are advisors to help you and for small purchases this advice is free but should be from a trustworthy source.
There are many good offers about this time of year. Of the wine's available the safest choice of wine appears to be Bordeaux, Burgundy, wines of the Rhone Valley, and Port. For a good broker do test their reputation – for the small purchaser I recommend the Wine Society (www.thewinesociety.com/fine-wine-en-primeur). If you follow the rules and fancy a flutter on usually expensive wines, go for En Primeur and chances are your purchases will be fruitful!
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