Every spring, thousands of people trek down to Bordeaux to taste and assess the previous year’s vintage wine, which is then immediately offered for sale ‘en primeur’. With lots of talk about how good the vintage was, demand typically becomes so high that the new Stade de Bordeaux is then the venue for two days of intense tastings. ‘En primeur’ means investors and collectors pay upfront for cases of wine that are still in the barrel and won’t be physically available for at least two years. The original idea was a good one — the château owner gets money upfront for their overheads and the purchaser manages to buy their favourite wines at the lowest price. What’s not to like?
Well, the big fly in the ointment is that since 2008 en-primeur punters have lost money on every single vintage except 2012, where the modest 9 per cent gain has been wiped out by the 10 per cent sales commission. Also, given how indifferent the 2012 vintage is, there is no point in laying it down for a decade and paying the £10 annual rental charge per case because it won’t be sought-after in the future.
This year, we are told the conditions are different because 2015 was a good vintage — certainly the best since 2010 — so annual prices have gone up by between 15 and 25 per cent. This has led to the absurd situation where the price of some en-primeur releases, such as Clos de Marquis made by Château Leoville-Lascases, is actually higher than the current cost of the 2009 and 2010 — both vastly superior wines to the 2015 and that much more valuable because of their bottle age.
How times have changed. Back in the 1970s, it was an accepted wine-trade belief that if you bought wine en primeur you would be able to sell half in two or three years at double your money, meaning you could drink for free. It may not have always turned out like this, but even an amateur like me found it relatively easy to treble my money within five years. I started buying en primeur with the 1982 vintage, which launched the career of Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate newsletter after he was one of the first critics to rave about it. This is the vintage you always read about when someone is trying to get you to invest in en-primeur wines, as they have soared by 6,000 per cent. What they don’t bother to point out, though, is that these sort of returns have never been equalled since and never will be.
The 2005 Bordeaux vintage was the last major one that gave decent returns relatively quickly. Given that Parker reassessed it only a year or two ago and upped his scores, it is certainly worth purchasing for the long term, as are the best from 2009 and 2010. In the past, a 100-point score from Parker would guarantee an instant price hike, but he has now retired and it is too early to predict if his successor will have the same power.
The real problem for Bordeaux is that there is an enormous amount still being held in reserve and the Chinese are not the huge players they were five or six years ago. There has also been a lot more interest in Burgundy, which is made in tiny amounts by comparison. First Growth Bordeaux amounts to about 20,000 cases a year, but the most sought-after Grand Cru Burgundy is usually counted in the hundreds of cases. Other parts of the world have also encroached on the Bordeaux market, especially Italian wines and the very best from the USA.
En primeur still works for small Bordeaux producers from the Right Bank, such as St Emilion and Pomerol, as it can be difficult to find mature examples of those wines. Also, modestly priced Bordeaux for drinking is still worth purchasing. But buying cheap Bourdeaux to lay down is a waste of time because within a decade the storage charges will be as much as the cost of the wine. It makes sense only for those who like to have their favourite wines bottled in different sizes, such as half bottles or double magnums. Other than that, it is a mystery why anybody would sink their money into a system that has delivered such poor value.
At its peak in 2009, Farr Vintners, the leading fine wine brokers, sold £75 million of en primeur Bordeaux. In 2014, that figure was down to £1 million. The amount sold this year will certainly be more than that, but the future may be a different matter.