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Primer on En Primeurs and their History

Posted: Friday, 06 July 2012 14:19

Primer on En Primeurs and their History

July 06 : There is considerably more history that leads up to the En Primeur Tastings than there is about the En Primeurs themselves as no such thing as En Primeur existed until the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux came along, writes John Salvi MW giving a lucid background but asserting that the spiralling prices may even lower its importance in future.

If we look back to the post -Second World War period we find many, if not most, of the Classed Growth Châteaux were in a very run-down condition - and poor state of repair.  The ravages of the German occupation had taken its toll by occupation of many Châteaux.  For example Château Palmer was occupied and horses were kept on the ground floor, officers lived on the First Floor and prostitutes were entertained on the Second Floor. 

Post-war scenario 1945-1961

When the Germans left the property was in a very bad state of repair and I visited it in 1945, aged 8, with my father and the co-owner Allan Sichel, who wanted to see just how important the damage was.  Lack of manpower (all the men being away and the vineyards cared for by the women and elderly) and lack of products for treating the vines and the wines was obvious.  This was a pretty universal situation throughout Bordeaux.  Many of the proprietors lived elsewhere. 

The value of the properties was low, a group of Négociants having bought Palmer in 1938 for around £38,000. Demand for the wines of Bordeaux was not massive and prices were very cheap.  There was absolutely no profit to be made, and money to refurbish, replant and renovate was in many cases unavailable.  This situation continued into the 1950s. 

Gradually prices improved but remained quite incredibly low compared to today.  I was working for the company of Allan Sichel Ltd.  We put the 1961 Palmer on the English market at £3 per bottle and Latour at £5!  Châteaux sold their wines whenever and wherever they could find a buyer and there was no thought of putting them on the market at any fixed period.  Gradually a system had emerged by which buyers generally paid a percentage on placing the order, another a few months later and the rest when the wine was shipped.

The disastrous 1961 Vintage

So bad was the situation in the 50s that owners and growers started selling their wines “on the vine”. This meant that they sold in spring the wine they were going to make the following autumn.  In 1961 disaster struck them.  The 1961 was sold at the same very low price as the mediocre 1960.  Then came the appalling weather conditions and 1961. Although it was one of the greatest vintages of the 20th Century, they  produced only one third of a normal crop.  To make matters worse, in addition to the very poor price many had sold more than they produced and had to reimburse the buyers for the unavailable wine.  This was the last time that anybody ever sold “on the vine”!

Better quality and auctions

Things gradually grew somewhat better and many vineyards, having been renovated, were producing better wine.  Also, post war wine-making was making wine that was ready to drink much earlier and needed less laying down.  Interest revived.  Then, in 1966, Christies decided to restart auctioning wine and employed Michael Broadbent.  They had originally started wine auctions in 1776, but had discontinued them.  Michael was hugely successful.  He researched the market and found “collectors”.  These were mainly persons with vast fortunes and a passion for collecting.  Sadly not all of them had a passion for drinking great wine and the aim and object was to possess every single vintage of a great Château from the distant past until the present day. 

Beginning of wine boom of 60s and 70s

Splendiferous, temperature and humidity controlled cellars were built and the wines displayed in serried ranks.  These collectors started to bid against each other and prices rocketed.  The wine boom had begun!  From that day onward prices have not ceased to increase.  Every time somebody said this cannot continue, it continued.  Gradually, or in fact not so gradually, prices became astronomical but there was still no order or organisation about selling.  It was each for oneself.  Michael remained a Senior Director of the Wine Department until 1992 and a Senior Consultant until 1999.  He has done more to increase prices than any other single person in the world.

Formation of UGCB

Back to the 60s and 70s; at that time very few growers followed their wine beyond the sale, through a broker, to a Négociant.  A very few official organisations helped single appellations as best they could. Just a very few growers had the money to travel the world promoting their wines and promotion and communication budgets were virtually unheard of.  Air travel was not yet democratised.  Six proprietors, all owners of Classed Growths, who DID travel the world, had the revolutionary idea of multiplying their travels and doing so by forming a collective group of proprietors of properties of quality equivalent or similar to theirs. Thus, in 1973 the Union des Grands Crus was born.

Gradually the Union acquired more members, all passing stringent tests for quality before being admitted. It started developing tastings throughout France and then abroad, which significantly contributed to both the fame and the reputation of Bordeaux wines.

The wine boom had continued apace and now, rather than having difficulty in selling their wines, the great wines of Bordeaux were being besieged by visits, offers, requests and demands for the new vintages earlier and earlier.  Everybody wanted to invest in FUTURES.  Buy the wine at an opening price and watch it rocket up so that a fortune is made in no time.  At the height of the boom prices could double in days- so eager were investors to buy.  Rich markets would pay any price. 

Rise of En Primeur

The Union (UGCB) understood the market and decided to show their wines all together in the spring following the vintage.  They even recommended their members NOT to allow buyers and visitors to taste the wine BEFORE the joint presentation.  This was fixed for early spring, a date that turned out to be late winter – end March/begin April.  Most agreed that this was too early, but market forces were too powerful and would not wait.  This massive joint presentation of the new wines by all the members of the Union des Grands Crus was termed “Les En Primeurs”.

Today the Union comprises 132 Châteaux, many of them Classed Growths, sharing a quality philosophy and coming exclusively from the great appellations of Bordeaux – Médoc, Graves, Pessac Léognan, Sauternes, Barsac, Saint Emilion and Pomerol.  Between them they total some 5,000 hectares of vines, produce 236,000 hectolitres of fine wines and sell them for over €300 million.
In 39 years the Union has only had 6 Presidents.  The first was Jean-Bernard Delmas of Haut Brion (1973-75).  He was followed by Pierre Tari of Giscours, Peter Sichel of Palmer and d’Angludet, Anthony Perrin of Carbonnieux, Alain Raynaud former owner of Quinault L’Enclos and La Croix de Gay and now of Château du Parc, Patrick Maroteaux of Branaire Ducru and today Sylvie Cazes-Régimbeau, Director of Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and member of the family that owns Lynch Bages.

Future of the ‘Futures’

Will the En Primeurs continue??  Today there is some doubt.  Latour has shocked the wine world by announcing that they will not present the 2012 vintage En Primeur.  Others may follow suit.  Many think prices have become too exorbitant and MUST go down.  This would mean that there would be no longer any point in buying wines at opening prices if you could get them cheaper a year or two later, and no longer make a fortune but possibly lose one?  We live in exciting times, but the Union today is a very powerful body and can probably adapt to whatever the future brings!

John Salvi, Master of Wine

John Salvi is one of the most senior Master of Wines-in twenties, both in the serial number at IMW and pshychological age. He first appeared for his MW in 1966 but admits he was drunk when he sat in the exams He passed eventually in 1970. He has had a colourful personality-past and present.He has spent his whole life devoted to wine and is as passionate about it now at 75 as when he drank his first bottle of dÝquem aged 8- except now he carries his personal spittoon as he feels he has already finished his quota of wine drinking as advised by Bacchus. He lives in Margaux with his charming South African wife Nellie.

Fore earlier related articles click

Star Interview: Sylvie Cazes of UGC Bordeaux

Bordeaux Beauties Unveiled in Delhi-nay Gurgaon


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