The Primeur system in Bordeaux

Primeur week is a very important time for all wine professionals. Taking place in late March or early April, it is an opportunity for Bordeaux châteaux to present their current vintage: in April 2017, we tasted the wine made in 2016. It is important to remember that when talking about a wine’s vintage, we mean the year in which the grapes were harvested, as opposed to the year in which the wine is bottled, as some wines spend over 18 months in barrels.

That is the case for most of the wines which will be tasted during Primeur week. They are therefore not finished wines, as they will stay in barrels for up to a year before being bottled. So what is the point of tasting a wine which is not finished? Simply to have an idea of the vintage’s quality, appellation by appellation. The châteaux that are members of the Union des Grands Crus get together by appellation in one place to offer a tasting of their wines.

Primeur week is also a time for journalists, négociants and other buyers to come to Bordeaux, to the vineyards, and taste the wines on-site. But the Bordeaux vineyard is very large and the châteaux can be far apart. Grouped tastings by appellation therefore limit the time spent in a car driving from one château to another. They are also an opportunity to compare the wines, which I find particularly interesting because the wines are still young, which makes it more difficult to distinguish certain aromas. Tasting several wines in one place gives you a more general impression of the vintage and of the appellation as a whole.

Some châteaux, however, decide to host tastings at their own estate, by appointment only. It is an understandable choice, since it gives them total control over the serving conditions, from serving temperature to the number of people tasting in the room at any one time. It is always much more enjoyable to taste a wine in a quiet room overlooking the vineyard than in a large room filled with dozens of people.

The Primeur tastings are a determining factor in a vintage’s commercial success. After Primeur week, the châteaux will gradually determine the retail price of their wine according to the overall quality of the vintage, the success of their wine compared to their neighbour’s and the scores given by wine critics.

Once the price of a wine has been announced, it will be sold “en primeur”, meaning that the château will estimate the number of bottles produced after maturing and sell a proportion of those future bottles to the négociants, before the wine is even finished. The négociants will then sell the wines on to their clients. Buying a wine “en primeur” is interesting because, barring a market crisis, the price is lower than that at which the bottles will retail once they physically come on to the market. However, remember that when buying “en primeur”, you can only by wines by the case (of 6 or 12 bottles). You will also need to be patient, first because you will be paying for wine about a year before you actually get it, and second because the wines are made to be aged once bottled. That means you will only get the full range of flavours they have to offer a few years after the bottles have been delivered to your door.

 

Some History

This may seem a rather strange system at first, but the explanation is historical. Until the turn of the 20th century, wine was made and barrelled at the château. The barrels were then sold to the négociants, who owned warehouses on the waterfront in Bordeaux where the wine could mature. The négociants would then take care of bottling the wine.

In 1924, Baron Philippe de Rothschild was one of the first château owners to put an end to this system. By selling barrels to the négociant, the châteaux relinquished their control over the quality of the wine. By storing the barrels on-site and taking charge of the bottling process, the château took back this control, thus guaranteeing the quality of their wine. More and more châteaux came to adopt the practice, selling bottles rather than barrels to the négociants. Négociants concluded more or less official deals with the châteaux, guaranteeing that they would buy a certain number of bottles once the time came, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the Primeur system as we know it today came into being.

SUnder Robert Parker’s impetus, the châteaux decided to organise “en primeur” tastings of their wines, not only for négociants but also for international buyers and journalists. Primeur week was born, influencing sales across the Bordeaux wine market. The consumer now has access to the opinion of trendsetters, enabling the négociants to sell the wine to individual customers before the wine is even bottled.

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