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New wines for old…

June 11, 2012

Red wine and wine cabinetWhat’s all the fuss about buying wine ‘en primeur’? What is ‘en primeur’ anyway and why would you buy it? Can you buy it in Dubai?

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.

Pouring red wine

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.

Bordeaux 2011 en primeur

A few of the 2011s at the end of the tasting (love the wine stained labels)

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).

Bordeaux wines

Some more 2011s plus some ready for drinking

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.

Red wine and wine notes

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
Red wine and a bottle of Sauternes

This Sauternes rounded off the evening

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).

red wine

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.

27 Comments
  1. June 11, 2012 8:35 am

    Had that 1998 Suduiraut about a week ago – it’s divine – drinking perfectly right now. Regarding en primeur, I’m not really a fan, particularly in this economic climate. There was a debacle surrounding a company in Australia selling wine on indent quite successfully until they went broke. Then everybody stepped in to claim the wine they thought was theirs. Turns out, until you have it in your hot little hand, it’s hard to say who it belongs to. (I have forgotten the name of the company now, and tried to find them via google, and it turns out it’s old news and faded into obscurity – did find this though… http://investdrinks-blog.blogspot.com/p/i-wouldnt-buy-wine-from-these-companies.html interesting.)
    But then again, I’m really a ‘live in the moment’ kind of wine drinker. Wish I’d been in that particular moment with you!

    • June 11, 2012 4:01 pm

      Wish you had too – it would have been great fun. It’s certainly a tasting experience I’ll always remember and taught me a lot too. With en primeur through merchants such as Lay & Wheeler and Le Clos you receive an official wine stock certificate but investors in the UK are estimated to have lost 100 million GBP through small and younger companies going bust. The Sauternes was a great foil for everything else we’d sampled although it would have been nice with something to eat! We also tucked away some 2011 Chateau Doisy-Daene from Barsac into our cellar (well eventually!) The problem with the 2011s is that some 2008s and 2009s are already coming onto the market keenly priced – so instant gratification seems to make sense (well Jancis thinks so)!

  2. June 11, 2012 9:38 am

    Generally, I prefer older wines as young ones don’t express themselves fully when drunken too early… Mmmhhh, Sauternes is so delicious!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    • June 11, 2012 3:45 pm

      Yes I love the complexity of wines made for aging – although there’s a time and a place for a fresh, young wine like a vinho verde e.g. well chilled, sipped overlooking the beach!

  3. June 11, 2012 9:57 am

    Thanks for a great post! A friend of ours is a wine maker and he will not sell his wine this way. However, we can still get his 2003 vintage so we don’t mind 🙂

    • June 11, 2012 3:15 pm

      That’s what I need! More friends who are winemakers 🙂

  4. June 11, 2012 11:24 am

    Hi Sally,

    Great that you can put all your wine knowledge to good use in a practical way-plus have a good evening out!!

    • June 11, 2012 3:14 pm

      On a never-ending learning curve…but yes very enjoyable 🙂

  5. June 11, 2012 1:30 pm

    Brilliant post Sally. I really don’t know much about wine at all and generally stick to a Chardonnay so wonder if these lovely red wines would be lost on me…
    I too love the picture of your wine stained labels.
    🙂 Mandy

    • June 11, 2012 3:14 pm

      The most important thing about wine is to drink what you enjoy. I hope the complete backlash against Chardonnay is over – wine fashion has a lot to answer for!

  6. June 11, 2012 3:20 pm

    Brilliant article, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Forwarded it to BaroloRaymond. He is currently away, and will enjoy reading your wine post while in transit at the airport. Have to ask him, but do believe he bought 2000 en primeur, the year our son was born. Again, beautiful true wine lover’s post!

    • June 11, 2012 4:59 pm

      2000 was a bun-fight at the time because of the Millenium status plus it was a good year. Would love to read BR’s notes on the 2011s as mine are very jumbled. I would spit next time!

  7. June 11, 2012 3:29 pm

    Great post, you reminded me there is a lot about wine I don’t know!
    I had the pleasure of a wine tasting of English wines two weeks ago, very interesting flavours!

    • June 11, 2012 4:56 pm

      I tasted English wines at Sharpham last summer which is worth visiting for the views and the food alone – but the wines were excellent.

  8. June 11, 2012 11:48 pm

    Wow, that’s a big move by Latour! There will be generations of Europeans who’ve been buying en primeur from them forever. I know exactly what you meant about the tasting. Back when I was more seriously into wine, I was never good at tasting young wines, particularly the ones set up for aging. They just tasted brutal when young! Thankfully I have friends with reliable palates, and I have a reasonably cellar with lots of bottles mostly pre-2000 that are now great drinking (very little French though – it was always prohibitively expensive by the time it arrived here!).

    • June 12, 2012 6:41 pm

      Pre-2000 was when Bordeaux en primeur was affordable – should have bought first growths!

  9. Catherine permalink
    June 12, 2012 9:12 pm

    Glad you wrote this as I was conducting a private tasting that night and couldn’t make it. En primeur is such a curious process. Wines that don’t begin to be drinkable in under 10 years are judged in their youth and bought on the “say-so” of experts and winemakers in the biz…. hmmm? ‘Wing and A Prayer’ comes to mind. I understand it from a business model but as a Somm it often baffles me. Aging in barrel and bottle still holds magic for me. Having said that, I look forward to exercising my nose and palate next year when LeClos brings in the 2012 vintage. Perhaps the title of wine journalist is in your future? See you the 14th!! Catherine

    • June 13, 2012 9:55 am

      It made me realise how many years of experience you’d need to judge the potential of these wines – and a taste memory to match. Thanks for really thoughtful and encouraging comment – it means a lot from you wine-guru 🙂

  10. June 16, 2012 8:28 am

    I had no idea this service was actually available in Dubai! This is good to know. We love wine, and go on a wine tasting tour once yearly and usually stock up during that tour, but to know that this is available here is fabulous. Although, I don’t think am gonna tell, I do like my tasting tours too much lol 🙂
    There are specific vintages and estates that I prefer above all else, but when it comes to wine I like to try different vintages and areas instead of stick to the French, which I find does not travel well. Of course French wine is French wine, but It is something having the wine in France, and totally another after it’s traveled!
    Congrats on completing the exam, this is awesome. Makes a total difference to how you experience the wine I guess :))

    • June 16, 2012 10:27 am

      I like your tasting tours too much too! Take me next time….please….

  11. June 18, 2012 12:46 am

    WOW! I’m impressed by how in-depth this post is! I love wine, I’m going have a look at that course because I would love to become more knowledgable!

    • June 18, 2012 7:02 am

      I recommend the Wines and Spirit Education Trust course very highly. Most are designed for people working in the hospitality and catering industries but it is possible to do them to improve your personal knowledge like I did. I wish I had attended them years ago. It’s given a context and a background for my enthusiasm!

  12. July 17, 2012 8:02 pm

    OH. HOW. FUN. Sally, thanks for guiding us through a part of the wine world that is unknown to me… Bordeaux is, so far, untouched by us, but trying wine en primeur is something I would love to do someday!

  13. June 7, 2014 7:49 am

    Hello there! This article could not be written much better!
    Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept preaching about this.

    I am going to send this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a very good read.
    I appreciate you for sharing!

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