The Bordeaux System and the ‘en Primeur’ Vintage of 2014

IMG_0752Right now, Bordeaux, located in southwest France is hosting a week-long tasting known as “en Primeur” of its most recent vintage, 2014. To offer a simple explanation of en Primeur, it’s a centuries old practice wherein Bordeaux winemakers draw samples of wines from barrels (barriques), place the samples into temporary bottles, and offere them up for tasting.

This notion of the en Primeur system came into being in the 1600’s, thus setting into motion the Bordeaux system of selling wine as futures. In the 1600’s it was not tradition to sell Bordeaux wines in bottle; it was sold in barrels. This tradition carried on well into the 1800’s and in part way into the twentieth century. As late as the 1600’s, there was brand awareness and development with a burgeoning market for specific labels and appellations. Historic records show that top châteaux like Margaux, Haut-Brion, Latour, Lafite were in demand even then.

In the eighteenth century, as the Bordeaux system developed and became more sophisticated, châteaux proprietors would grow the grapes, tend to the vine, pick, harvest, and ferment, and make the wine and place the wine in barrel for aging. Once in barrel, for a period of time the wines would be transported from the châteaux to the négociants. From that point the négociants would take care of any other detail required including blending, bottling, sales and distribution.

In essence, Châteaux would nominally sell their wines in barrel to the wine merchants known as négociants who were almost exclusively located on the riverfront in the city of Bordeaux. It’s very important to point out that with more than 5,000 châteaux bottling their own wines, not all producers sell their wines on a futures basis. The wine merchants and négociants would take delivery of the barrels and mostly ship the barrels to other parts of France, throughout Europe, Americas and including Asia. There is rarely an exact figure, but it would probably be safe to say that in any given year there may be 300-500 châteaux who may option to sell all or a portion of their wines while the wines are still in barrel.

One of the most important aspects was the châteaux/négociant relationship enabled the châteaux to sell their yearly vintage to the négociant before the wines were bottled and therefore guarantee payment. This made possible for the négociants to become extremely powerful and for certain wine merchants exceedingly wealthy. One could surmise that the négociants became unofficial bankers for the château proprietors. What transpired was the Bordeaux château producers had very little to no customer interface and hardly any communication or contact with the clientele. To this very day, this lack of contact makes the Bordeaux wine system of commerce and business unique.

IMG_0768Of course, today things have changed drastically with the châteaux owners having more direct access to the companies, and customers who are buying their wines around the world. This week more than 3,000 press and trade have descended on Bordeaux to the taste and have a first look of the 2014 wines. There are tastings held morning to night throughout many of the appellations. You can easily taste a thousand wines during the week if you have the stamina. I have myself have surpassed the thousand-wine mark tasting over the course of one week at en Primeur tastings. Appellations and different internal trade organizations facilitate this by setting up tastings where châteaux group together under different banners that allow the tasting of 50, 100 to 200+ wines in one setting.

Regrettably I’m not able to attend this year, but I’ve been following certain wine writers. James Molesworth of the Wine Spectator, whom I particularly admire, has been blogging and posting his thoughts, impressions and tasting notes on a daily basis. On Tuesday James said, “Through my tastings of the 2014 Bordeaux barrels at various châteaux, I haven’t been able to peg the vintage in comparison to another. 2010, 2005 and 2000 are muscular, structured vintages; 2001 and 2004 rounder, charming, earlier-maturing vintages, etc. But 2014 doesn’t come across as having a profile of a warm vintage, nor of a cool vintage. It’s neither tannic nor soft. It’s balanced, pure and ripe but has no particular hook to link it to another year.”

Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait until the wines arrive—or until my next trip to Bordeaux—to find out for myself. Rest assured that as soon as I know my experiences with the 2014 vintage, you will too!

Inside IWM

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