The flurry of invitations to fly into Bordeaux airport for a day or two of claret tasting, appears to have become yet another victim of my daily engagement with recessionary forces. Gone, it seems, are the days when mortals of the wine world such as I were courted for their opinions on forthcoming releases of this or that wine from Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Rhône Valley. Opinions are increasingly shared, or perhaps broadcast, by email often without lip ever reaching glass. Such is the machinery surrounding the outbreak of one particular seasonal activity, known as en Primeur, that the normal thrust of public relations can appear pale by comparison. This is the wine merchant’s equivalent of the Cirque de Soleil, exciting, expensive, often risky but with an air of fantasy as the cast assembles.

In simple terms en Primeur wines are those that are sold as part of a futures market.

Grapes have been picked at the harvest, generally around the end of September, and the juice will have been fermented over a number of days thereafter. In the main, this fermentation will have taken place in vast stainless steel vats and the resultant wine transferred weeks later into oak barrels to begin its alchemical journey to fulfilment and maturity. The final customer i.e. you and I, were previously forced to wait until the broker or the négociant deemed it time to release the subsequent bottled wine two or three years later, before we could command ownership. However over the latter part of the 20th Century it was the consumer, the end user as it were, who was granted permission to purchase the wine direct whilst it still languished in the barrel, the cost of which would register as the opening price upon the ‘release’ of the wine. This public release normally takes place around the beginning of April following the previous year’s harvest. Of course you could not see the wine or even handle a bottle as yet, as your volumetric purchase mingled with everyone else’s for another two years or so in its 250 litre barrel. Once bottled, and after you stump up the additional costs of shipping, Duty, VAT and inland transportation, the wine would finally become yours. Most consumers will never have tasted the wine during this period. Instead they will have relied upon the bulletins issued by the French growers, winemakers or brokers as well as the opinions of their trusted wine merchants who may have tasted a cask sample of the wine, albeit increasingly uncommon in my experience.

So what are the advantages to such an apparently arcane system? Well if you take some of the notable Chateau of Bordeaux such as Petrus, Lafite-Rothchild, Margaux or Latour, or the second, third and fourth growths thereafter, the wines produced are a sought-after commodity the world over, so the only method of securing the most recent vintage is usually to buy at the moment of release – en Primeur. Although none of the above would be regarded as inexpensive, you are likely to pay considerably less at this point than during the ensuing years as their price invariably climbs once on the open market. You are after all, contributing to the certainty of the winemaker’s cash-flow, so a modestly discounted price is to be expected coupled with the potential risks associated with an untried, incomplete, organic product.  Having said that, purchasing wine on the future’s market is not a guarantee of  profit by any means. Prices have been known to stagnate and even fall, especially in the sort of financial climate we have all witnessed recently, and one must not forget that the maturity of a top class Bordeaux does not begin to show until at least eight years after harvest and in many cases not until fifteen. So your money is potentially tied up for a considerable period of time.

Now once you have charged your British wine merchant to secure a parcel of French wine, in cask, at the winery of your choice, you have a number of alternative decisions on your hands. After the appointed time and the payment of shipping costs the bottled wine arrives on our shores. Unless otherwise arranged the wine will head for one of a number of bonded warehouses scattered around the country. Here if you so choose, the wine can be parked for almost as long as you like on the condition that you pay the monthly storage costs.  One can postpone the need to pay the draconian customs duty, as well as the VAT, until such time as you want those precious wooden cases delivered to your own cellar door.

Once you have granted houseroom to your cargo maybe years even decades later, one final and utterly frustrating decision awaits you – to sell or to consume. As by now the wine may well have substantially increased in value.

But by chance and at the time of writing, a single invitation to go over to St Emilion in the heart of Bordeaux has finally arrived, so I will file my untutored views on the 2009 vintage samples upon my return, as well as a broader opinion on that hot chestnut of the Fine wine market. Investment versus consumption – fleeting joy or comforting prosperity?