What is en primeur: the origins of wine futures

Each year, key fine wine regions offer their wines en primeur, or as “wine futures”, but it hasn’t always worked this way. Sophie Thorpe dives into the origins and history of the system – and what it means for wine-lovers today
What is en primeur: the origins of wine futures

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En primeur is the system of buying unfinished, young wine, essentially as “futures”. The wines are sold while still maturing in barrel, and shipped once bottled to wine-lovers around the world. Bordeaux pioneered the system, and it remains important in the region, although en primeur has now spread and wines from Burgundy, the Rhône, Italy, the US, Australia and beyond are now all sold in this way. But how did it start?

While consumers have only been purchasing wine en primeur since the 1980s, wine has been sold “unfinished” to merchants for centuries. Traditionally wine was not bottled or sold by the châteaux; once the wine went into barrel it would be transferred to négociants who would age the wine in their warehouses in the Chartrons district of Bordeaux, and be responsible for their sale and distribution – an unseemly business that didn’t sit well with the noble château-owners. The wine would then either be bottled in Bordeaux or shipped on in barrel to markets like the UK, and bottled for sale to consumers there.

While Bordeaux might seem glossy and polished today, with its grand châteaux, manicured lawns and immaculate wineries, the region’s wine industry has not always been so prosperous. In the mid-19th century, mildew arrived and devastated much of Europe’s vineyards, followed by the arrival of phylloxera, killing vines and forcing producers to, eventually, replant. When winegrowers had recovered from Mother Nature’s attacks, the First and Second World Wars arrived, bringing further economic challenges. Producers needed ways to finance their operation, while merchants were always on the lookout for a way to secure stock and the best price possible.

As producers struggled, they resorted to selling grapes while still on the vine, “sur souche”, agreeing a price based on the previous vintage and gambling on the final quality of the crop. Sur souche sales continued into the 1960s – eventually waning after producers were burnt by the low-yielding, excellent and woefully undervalued 1961s. When times were particularly hard, châteaux – even the most fabled addresses – committed to selling their crop for up to 10 years at a fixed price to a merchant, tying themselves into an “abonnement”, guaranteeing a base level of income, but losing out on potential profits if or when prices rose.

Up to this point, early sales of wine (or grapes) had only been to négociants in Bordeaux, but the 1973 oil crisis prompted a shift. The subsequent crash left producers, négociants and every layer of the wine trade in dire need of funds. Having struggled to sell the 1972 vintage, châteaux didn’t have the money to invest in the production of the challenging ’73 and ’74 vintages. The 1975 growing season arrived with more favourable conditions and the wines showed promise; samples were shipped to London for buyers to sample and sell.

En primeur really took off, however, with Bordeaux’s 1982 vintage. Robert Parker had started writing his newsletter in 1978, introducing the world to his 100-point rating system for wine. He came out early with a firm endorsement of the 1982s, and urging consumers to buy them; when others were less convinced. Many, especially in the US, took the opportunity to buy up the wines en primeur – and were duly rewarded, with the vintage now considered legendary.

The early sale of the wines eased cash-flow problems for producers and négociants, while merchants and consumers benefited from being able to secure stock of wines at a favourable price. As en primeur sales grew, properties became much more profitable businesses, able to funnel investment back into their vineyards and wineries. At the same time, ownership of estates was shifting. In 1981, inheritance taxes doubled, making it harder for families to keep châteaux and companies – from insurance to luxury goods and everything in between started buying up properties. While some corporations focused on quantity rather than quality, many arrived with the necessary finances to push quality forward. The 1990s saw many estates introduce second wines, allowing them to further elevate quality of their Grand Vin, and Parker’s influence continued to grow. All of these elements combined to see Bordeaux as a region and its wines evolving at pace – giving even more reason to secure a new vintage up front.

For consumers, en primeur provided a way to secure the most sought-after wines at the best prices. In top vintages, the wines offered significant returns too – and speculation ensued. The wine market expanded, with new interest from Japanese and Chinese buyers. The market exploded when Hong Kong abolished tax on wine in 2008. The frenzy built and prices rose – with the top-rated 2009 and 2010 vintages hitting new, inflated highs. En primeur no longer offered the safe return it had. The bubble burst.

Châteaux, merchants and collectors were all stung, and there is now greater awareness of potential inflation in the market. This consciousness and understanding has settled the market and made en primeur relevant once more, although fortunately without the speculation of previous vintages.

In 2012, Ch. Latour announced it was abandoning the en primeur system – deciding instead to offer wines only when they are ready to drink, with 2011 the last vintage to be offered as futures. It was a significant blow for en primeur to see a First Growth abandon the system, but while there was a fear this step could open the floodgates, no one else has yet followed the First Growth.

Today, en primeur remains significant for Bordeaux. In April of each year, the world’s wine trade descends on Bordeaux to taste the latest vintage (harvested the previous year). Organised by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, the “Primeurs” week is an impressive publicity machine, focusing attention on the region – and while the spotlight might be on the very top properties, there’s a clear halo effect for the entire region.

There has been a move for estates to hold back a little more stock, some of which may be offered ex-château at a later date, but most Classed Growths still sell between 70 and 90% of their entire production en primeur.

The benefits for Bordeaux and its châteaux are clear, but what is in it for those wanting to buy the wine? Many of the reasons to buy en primeur are unchanged. There are no guarantees that you’ll make a financial return with en primeur, but inevitably wines do become rarer with time; as wines enter their drinking window, they become more desirable (and often increase in value), and over time they become scarcer, as bottles are uncorked and the finite supply of a specific vintage dwindles. As such, en primeur can offer a useful way to secure stock of wines, particularly those from small, sought-after properties which can be near-impossible to obtain after release.

Buying en primeur also offers flawless provenance. The wine will move from the estate to wherever you store your wine, and then once more when it is withdrawn for consumption, ensuring optimal maturation conditions, and retaining maximum value should you decide to sell rather than drink. An additional luxury of buying en primeur is being able to buy any format; as the wine isn’t yet bottled, you can purchase half-bottles, magnums, jeroboams, imperials or any other size you desire easily.

While critic scores certainly still influence the sale of wines, no single voice has the power that Robert Parker had in his heyday. Today, there are more critics than ever before – with individual writers breaking away from larger publications like the Wine Advocate to create their own platform, each with their own tastes, offering different perspectives on the vintage – arguably giving consumers more information than ever before.

It’s little surprise that other regions have adopted the system, with Burgundy in particular embracing en primeur. Opportunities undoubtedly remain – as a vintage like 2019, sold in the midst of 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic shows. Faced with an uncertain market, producers dropped their prices and consumers flooded to buy Bordeaux’s wines. The vintage turned out to be spectacular, with buyers justly rewarded for investing in the wines. When a vintage is good, and the pricing right, there really is nothing like the palpable buzz and excitement that the Primeurs season brings to the world of wine.

Find out more about en primeur, including how it works, or browse all wine currently available en primeur


Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe joined FINE+RARE in 2020. An MW student, she’s been short-listed for the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer Award twice, featured on jancisrobinson.com and won the 2021 Guild of Food Writers Drinks Writing Award.