Vineyards & Wine

The Wine Expert: Buying Bordeaux Before Bottling

Chris Munro, Head of Wine Department, Americas, Christie’s New York, discusses the benefits of buying Bordeaux wine en primeur—before it’s bottled

Buying Bordeaux en primeur means buying a wine before it is bottled. Usually the en primeur campaign begins in the spring following the vintage. Selling wine in barrel really began following World War II, when the châteaux of Bordeaux were in crisis. Short of money, they agreed to sell their wines in-barrel to the leading merchants or négociants of the time—Ginestet, Cordier, Cruse among others. Back then it was not unusual for merchants to buy the wine prior to harvest.

Twelve bottles of Château Angélus 2010 sold for $4,375 in the Finest & Rarest Wines and Spirits sale at Christie's New York in June 2019. Banner image: Alamy

It remained somewhat limited to a few merchants until another crisis caused the châteaux to broaden their offering. Following a few very disappointing vintages and the oil crisis of the mid-1970s, they needed money and this led to the expansion of the selling of wine in-barrel to other merchants, notably in the United Kingdom and northern Europe. Merchants were able to secure large stocks of wine prior to bottling, which led them to be able to offer wines out to their clients at reasonable prices prior to delivery two years later.

The great change occurred with the 1982 vintage, seen as the best vintage since 1961—this was also the first vintage when the Americans entered the en primeur market, and it also saw the emergence of the wine critic Robert Parker. In the following years “Parker points” often decided the release prices of Bordeaux wines and in superb vintages demand for the greatest wines was immense. During these years prices were attractive enough for buyers to often make major gains on their wines bought as futures—this led to the great wine investment boom.

Following the the mid-1970s, the châteaux of Bordeaux started selling wine in-barrel to merchants in the United Kingdom and northern Europe. Image: Alamy

Although the last great investment vintage was probably more than a decade ago in 2008, en primeur remains a great way to secure wine from your favorite châteaux in formats you desire. Try and attend one of the many tastings usually held in March following the vintage, and read all the vintage reports you can. There are often great wines referred to as “sleepers” to be found in unheralded vintages. A word of advice: always buy from reputable established merchants: you are buying a future, something that will not be delivered for at least two years, so make sure the merchant is still around then.