New wines for old…
For several years, KP and I have bought wine this way; it means buying wine of a particular vintage (wine made from grapes harvested in a single year) while it’s still in the barrel. It usually applies to premium red wines from the Bordeaux region of France but not exclusively so. It generates cash-flow for the wine-makers; they sell some of their product at least one year before it is bottled, and it provides an opportunity for buyers to secure sought-after names and buy high quality vintages cost-effectively as the prices have tended to rise as the wines get nearer to maturity (i.e. ready for drinking).
During the economic boom, fine wine became popular for investment, pushing up prices en primeur as demand (including new buyers from China) especially of the finest ‘growths’, outstripped supply. The Bordeaux climate means very variable vintages, but great grape-growing weather led to a couple of stellar years with prices reaching an all-time high for the 2010 vintage.
The bubble had to burst and although 2011 has been declared a good year (not as good as 2009 and 2010 but certainly equal to 2008 ) prices have adjusted with some wines on sale en primeur at 50% at less than last year. Château Latour will discontinue selling en primeur completely in 2012.
Every year wine merchants flock to Bordeaux to taste the different offerings from the Bordelais winemakers straight from the barrel, making their assessments and recommendations accordingly.
KP and I buy a few cases ‘en primeur’ and it is fun to monitor the experts’ views and prices as they are released. We buy and store it through a reputable and long-established UK wine merchant, Lay and Wheeler; important as at least fifty wine investment companies have failed during the last four years. It also means we know the provenance of the wine (in light of recent wine fraud). We’ve also bought Bordeaux en primeur in Dubai through Le Clos (the MMI-owned fine wine and luxury spirits shop in Dubai International Airport).
As previous purchasers, we were invited to the annual ‘en primeur’ evening at The Royal Mirage for a presentation and to taste some older vintages. However this year was a bit different; some barrel samples of the 2011 vintage had been shipped over specially. We had the opportunity to form our opinion of these brand new releases – something that usually only happens in Bordeaux. Wow!
Having recently completed my Wine & Spirits Education Trust Advanced level exams I was ridiculously excited about this. A friend from the course compared notes with me after we’d tasted a couple of the wines. He voiced what I was thinking ‘I don’t think the sort of tasting we’ve done really applies to this’. We were frankly a bit at sea. On the nose the wines were very closed, not much aroma at all. Made for aging, many had harsh tannins (the stuff that makes your cheeks pucker and your gums feel dry) which will eventually soften and form part of the complexity of the flavour if stored correctly and bottle aged.
The room was very warm, not ideal wine tasting conditions, but it did mean the wines started to open up a bit, or maybe I was getting used to tasting them. I didn’t look at the tasting notes that Le Clos had given to us (to be honest I didn’t have my glasses) and I tried to ignore the Robert Parker scores. Parker is a highly influential wine critic whose scores out of a hundred can almost make or break a wine. However, taste is subjective and many think that his preference for a full-bodied, powerful wine has impacted on winemaking and made wine-styles, especially in Bordeaux, more uniform.
As I was drinking (rather than spitting) I only sampled about a third of the wines. I looked at KP – his teeth and tongue were dark purple so I knew mine must be the same! Tasting some mature Bordeaux wines after those young, tannic liquids was divine.
My favourites (the most well-balanced) out of the 2011s (although please note this should in no way be used as a guide!): Château Rauzan Ségla; Château Gruaud Larose; Château Beau-Séjour Bécot; Chateau Monbousquet and Clos de L’Oratoire. There’s an excellent summary of tasting notes by leading experts on Farr Vintners (click on each appelation).
Of the other vintages (deciphering scribbled tasting notes which became more illegible as the evening wore on):
- Chateau Le Fleur Petrus 2006 – a velvet texture with black cherries, plums and a hint of spice
- Chateau Angludet 2005 – graphite and blackcurrant leaves on the nose, textured mouthfeel with deep black cherry fruit
- Chateau Branaire Ducru 2006 – pencil shavings and dark, soft, ripe black fruit
If you buy en primeur, the wines are eventually bottled and delivered ‘in bond’ to your merchant’s warehouse where you can store them (for a fee of course) until they are ready to drink or you sell them on. You have to pay the duty once they are taken out of bond (for drinking). This is how it works in the UK.
Le Clos is a good option in Dubai because of the buying power of the Emirates group; this means the allocation of wines available is considerable. Wines that sell out immediately in other markets are usually still available for order at a more leisurely pace. En primeur prices include delivery to the UK, insurance and warehouse receiving charges but the purchaser must then pay to store in bond as above. I believe that once ready for drinking they could be shipped to the UAE and collected from Ras Al Khaimah but this should be checked with Le Clos.
And, in case you are interested, but for no other reason…this is what we bought this year: Château Clinet 2011; Château Gruaud-Larose 2011; Château Leoville-Poyferré 2011 and Vieux Château Certan 2011 (which, even in the unlikely event that the value goes through the roof, I want to drink this one).
In terms of investment, Terrance Conrad once said that you should invest in wine and paintings because even if they go down in value you can look at the paintings and drink the wine. Sounds good to me.
Note: eagle-eyed wine experts among you will notice that the wine in the glass is not from Bordeaux. It is, in fact, a Pinot Noir, but you can also buy this en primeur from Burgundy. That’s my excuse anyway!
So do you dream of drinking Château Lafite and love the ritual surrounding en primeur? Or has fine Bordeaux wine become too homogenized and inaccessible – labels for rich customers to drink with lemonade (no joke)? Is your favourite a tenth of the price? Cheers.