'A lovely reward': Sebastian Payne MW on 45 years of en primeur at The Wine Society

To celebrate our upcoming Bordeaux en primeur offer, Sebastian Payne MW explains how buying in-bond first came into being at The Wine Society and why our considerable experience means that members get a great deal.

Sebastian Payne MW Wine Tasting At The Wine Society

The Society first offered members the opportunity to buy claret en-primeur with the 1975 vintage. In later years we added similar en-primeur offers of Burgundy, Rhône, Vintage Port and other sought-after wines. We made these offers of vintage wines when they first became available , because that is when there is the widest choice from the best properties at most economical price.

To make our selection, buyers spend a good deal of time in the region, first at vintage then tasting and re-tasting wines from cask. It helps greatly that our buyers have considerable experience of assessing young wines with their records of tasting previous vintages to make comparisons and judge potential.

When I was first responsible for buying with the 1985 vintage, I had already learnt from tasting several young vintages with my predecessors and producers at source, most memorably the young 1982 clarets - the year members' purchases en-primeur really took off.

We have learnt from watching how the wines we have chosen develop over many years. I am pleased to say those 1985 clarets have stood the test of time and have given much pleasure. We have also got to know and learn from producers themselves and watch how estates change and develop. Every vintage is different and the people involved in making the wine change from time to time and it is important to keep up to date with regular contact. The Society has no vested interest in any wine estate, but clearly a consistently good track record of providing good bottles for us to buy counts.

So the selections Wine Society buyers make are based on considerable experience and are totally independent.

The Society ships early direct from source to our temperature-controlled cellars, where they can also be stored after purchase in Members' Reserves. Opening prices are largely governed by the prevailing economic climate and today increasingly by a world-wide demand for the most valued names in limited supply. One of the few advantages of the pandemic this year is that it has caused opening prices to come down significantly. But it is also the first year Bordeaux buyer Tim Sykes was unable to taste at source when prices were released (though he had been there at vintage and early in the year), and so took great trouble to ensure properties sent us freshly drawn samples to taste here.

These days the best-run properties are much better equipped than in the past to be able to pick grapes quickly when they are at their best, so they can make good wine every year, though some vintages are lighter and reach their best sooner. The last claret vintages when we found nothing worth offering were 1977 and 1992. Because grapes are now picked when tannins are fully ripe, top vintages are accessible earlier than in the past though good balance ensures that they last and develop well over decades.

For wine lovers opening a good vintage bought with foresight many years before is a lovely reward.

Find out more about en primeur

Sebastian Payne MW

Society Buyer

Sebastian Payne MW

Sebastian, our longest serving wine buyer, joined The Wine Society in 1973. He served as Chief Wine Buyer from 1985–2012.

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