En primeur roughly translates from the French as “first refusal” or “in early produce.”
In its pure form the method originated two centuries ago, when merchants selected barrels of wine which they would then bottle themselves. Today the bottling process has been taken over by the châteaux. Despite the changes, the principle remains the same, allowing producers to benefit greatly from the advance payment for their wine.
In its simplest terms en primeur is the practice of selling wine before it is ready for release, before it has even been bottled. These are unfinished wines, which are only half way through the maturation process. It will be months, even years, before these wines are ready for the bottling process, after which they will still require further maturation before they become approachable.
The method is traditionally practiced by the wines of outstanding quality from Bordeaux, Burgundy and The Rhone valley. Other regions such as Italy, California and Australia have recently begun to partake in this practice on an extremely limited scale.
En primeur purchasers fall in to two distinct categories: Wine lovers, who are unfazed by the prospect of waiting years before they can taste the final product; or investors, whose aim is to make a financial profit from leaving the wine to mature. The latter are the most predominant buyers.
The en primeur process is a complicated one, in which people purchase wines on others recommendation. Often, they will not have even tasted the wine for themselves, and are led simply by the profile and recommendation of wine commentators within the industry, such as Robert Parker, Clive Coates and James Suckling.
Barrel tasting for Bordeaux en primeur wines occur the spring after the harvest, which equates to a maturation of around six to eight months, leaving the raw wine still highly tannic and undeveloped. Tasting for en primeur wines of Burgundy and The Rhone regions occur another six months after that, leaving them in a similar condition to that of Bordeaux. The tasting allows producers of the wine to understand how the market will react, by the feedback of the wine connoisseurs. It also gives the negociants a chance to see how the finished article will develop, giving them an idea of the quality of the wine. This in turn allows them to determine the eventual price.