En primeur – spotting potential

The first full working week of January is a highlight of the English wine trade’s year.  If you have the stamina you can spend every hour of the working week tasting the new season’s wines.  Jancis Robinson complained and celebrated the fact that her team of three would be aiming to taste and write a brief note about wines at each of 26 tasting this week.  But it is a testimony to her stamina and personality, that at the end of the week I heard her say to a colleague that yes, it had been a long week – and that it was a privilege.  Now that is style.  Her patent stainless steel-like blocky shoes were a sight to behold.

IMG_0018En primeur is a controversial concept in it own right.  The vine grower spends a whole year tending the vine, harvesting and making the wine. But with Burgundy, and even more with Bordeaux, the wine is not going to be ready to drink for a minimum of three years, in the case of Bordeaux up to ten years.  So at what point should the labourer get his or her wages? 

Most wine we buy when it is in the bottle and ready to drink.  But if that were the case, the vine grower would not be paid for three to ten years after the work has been completed – and that takes no account of the long term investment in the land, its preparation and in the winery.  Traditionally, you hang beef for 14 days and then you sell it.  Pickles and Christmas cake you might keep for three months, some cheeses for two years. So you can see that there is a case (pun intended) for the grower getting payment before the product is going to be at its best. 

The down side is that if you buy en primeur you are buying the wines when most of them are still in a barrel or vat. They are not ready to bottle yet and there is a great deal of development to undergo.  The fruit will be very fresh but the acidity should be raw and the tannins untamed; certainly, the various elements of the wine will not have combined into a harmonious whole.  You only need to taste a recently bottled sample of vintage port to confirm this – it will be very fruity, but fiercely alcoholic and acidic, with nigh on undrinkable tannins.  In 20-30 years that will all have come together beautifully.  And even with table wines, many classic European styles of wine need a bit of time.  In turn this means that if you buy wine en primeur you are trusting that the wine will come together in an attractive way.  It is at this point that the quality of the wine merchant and the scribblings of the scribes kick in – the consumer needs a reliable guide, or preferably a range of guides, and then he or she can make up his or her own mind. 

If we are being mathematical about it, the fairest point for the drinker to part with his or her money would be at the half way point between picking and drinking. This would point to the en primeur campaign to be a year later than it is for Burgundy – which would certainly be a better point to judge the wines as they would have been in bottle for some time.  But of course the market is not a perfectly level playing field; it is affected by supply and demand.  For those of us with good or average incomes, it is difficult to remember that it is the top end wines for which there is the most competition. If you have just five barrels, 1500 bottles, of something really sought after, you can name your own price.  Some of the wines on display this week will cost £1000 a case plus VAT and some have not named a price yet.  So the market is intensely competitive for the very top wines, while there is plenty of choice at the £200-250 a case level.  This means that for those who are not bidding for the most sought after wines, the en primeur season is just too early, even if it is fair in principle to pay in advance for wines that are not yet ready to drink. 

And what are the 2010 Burgundies like?  We will save that for the next post. 

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