To buy en primeur, or not to buy en primeur? It’s a question that I first pondered almost a quarter of a century ago, as a new member flicking through my initial en primeur leaflet. At first glance, it seemed somewhat arcane, possibly even daunting. Nonetheless, encouraged by a friend who had been buying in bond for years, I took the plunge and the process is largely responsible for the collection that’s now my pride and joy.
I always look forward to a Society en primeur offer. I confess that I still get a thrill just reading the brochure, the equivalent of window shopping, however the effects of fine wine inflation, not to mention the rising tax take, make it a costly enterprise, so it’s certainly worth reflecting on the pros and cons of what amounts to an amateur dabble in the futures market.
For the uninitiated, en primeur means buying a wine before it is bottled and released onto the market. Purchasing in bond – with the duty and VAT payable when it arrives – requires an upfront commitment which in turn supports the producer’s cashflow. In return, you should hope for an attractive price and – arguably more importantly, as demand usually exceeds supply – it might represent your only hope of getting your hands on a particular cuvée.
Bordeaux was the birthplace of the en primeur system, with the powerful ‘négociants’ – effectively wholesalers – using their cash piles to do advance deals. For years, such wines were a one-way bet for investors, until prices rose sharply in the bull market of 2009 and 10, prompting some to question whether it was still worth doing.
‘It’s a good way to secure the wines of your choice at the earliest possible opportunity and normally at the most advantageous price,’ says The Society’s Bordeaux buyer Tim Sykes. ‘Unlike Burgundy, and to a lesser extent the Rhône, there is a thriving secondary market for Bordeaux, so it’s usually possible to buy the wines once in bottle. However, if you want perfect provenance and a competitive price, then EP from a reputable merchant is the way to go.’
Though cash inspired the en primeur system, these days cachet is king, as fine wines are sold using an allocation system that could easily leave us in the cold.
The Society’s Burgundy buyer, Toby Morrhall, has the unenviable task of securing precious supplies for members: ‘There is currently great demand for Burgundy from all parts of the globe… such is the scarcity of many wines, that most go straight into collectors’ cellars and do not appear for resale. EP is actually the cheapest way to buy wine from us because members pay early and help us to finance the stock, and in return we take a lower margin.’
As an experienced wine judge, I confess that I still find it challenging to assess the potential of a young wine, fresh from the barrel or tank, so how should we go about making our buying decisions, long before the wine has found its way into a bottle? This is where the grounding of The Wine Society buyer comes into its own.
‘Tasting wines early and before operations such as assemblage (blending), fining, filtering and bottling means it is necessary to understand we are not tasting finished wines and they may change. It is wise to allow a certain margin of error for tasting notes, especially when comparing different producers tasted at different times… so do not let one adjective swing your choice,’ Toby cautions.
When I first bought en primeur, there was an old adage that it was possible to buy two cases, sell one at a profit and enjoy the other, effectively free. Honestly, I have never achieved this particular holy grail, preferring instead to enjoy the rewards of my patience, rather than any potential pay day. As my wines enter their drinking window, they become much too tempting and The Wine Society is, after all, about putting passion before profit.
‘We don’t encourage the idea of investing in wine. The only point is to be able to buy rare wines that have the potential to keep and improve,’ says The Society’s Rhône buyer, Marcel Orford-Williams. ‘What EP does is to concentrate minds and bring focus to a region or country. Of course, it has to make sense so the wines in question should be ones that actually benefit from ageing, even just a year or two.’
Marcel also buys The Society’s regional French wines, citing the example of a Madiran from Gascon producer, Alain Brumont, which proved to be a hit with members: ‘Before deciding to sell en primeur, we were buying less than a pallet. Last EP offer, we sold several pallets in one go. It’s a win-win!’
Indeed, though some have questioned the long-term future of the en primeur model, The Wine Society has underlined its commitment to it, choosing to expand the range and diversity of wines offered, including a world first in 2020, with an Austrian EP release, featuring Schloss Gobelsburg.
Its instigator, Freddy Bulmer, also happens to be The Society’s youngest buyer: ‘I was quite surprised it hadn’t been done before, because the wines are wonderful, they offer incredible value and they would be very difficult to find on their release. I buy en primeur myself, so I obviously think it’s a good idea, otherwise I wouldn’t be putting my money where my mouth is.’
Whatever the origins of the en primeur system, its modern relevance surely has much less to do with investment and, rather, the precious opportunity it presents to secure wines to be treasured for their drinking potential.
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