This little piece comes on the back of having been suspended from the Wine Society blog, for the second time. I believe I am the only person to be suspended once never mind twice, so it's a sort of badge of honour.
Why was I banned? For asking a question that was not answered, so I asked again and still no answer despite me ‘helping’ the comment maker with a hint; he then 'lost it' and in doing so gave the answer I wanted at the start, but by then I had apparently ruined his day and everyone piled in to say I was a bully and it was not cricket to pursue the question. All very strange and it shows that a vociferous minority on there are living the latest ‘everything is offensive’ ‘everyone is offensive’ and asking a simple question is akin to a hate crime. Replying that if the commentator had answered in the first place that would have been the end of it resulted in my suspension; the strange world of wine appreciators strikes again.
But I digress, somewhat. Every year the wine trade winds itself into a frenzy over En Primeur - "EP" - this is the annual release by the top Bordeaux château of their yet to be bottled wines from the last vintage, 2018, to the public through wine merchants here.
It is all based on the wine critics going to Bordeaux in the early part of the year to taste cask samples, wine still fermenting in barrels, and then pronouncing their judgement on it and giving it points rather like in gymnastics, 9.9 or less or more, except that most - and this is where the general public will become baffled - almost to a man/woman, score out of a hundred; which is strange, as they start at 50, it's rather like a gymnast being given 5 out of 10 for turning up, but that's what they do and everyone waits with bated breath for the results... well, almost everyone.
Plus it is no guarantee that the wine will ever taste as their predictions say.
A little of the background to EP. It originated as a way to help wineries with their cash flow until the wine was ready to sell. For a discount you could buy wine in advance, so all things being equal you gained and the winery got some money up front to help with the cash flow.
But that all changed markedly after the ‘82 vintage which turned out to be superb. Those who purchased EP in those days would buy on the assumption that their purchase with discount meant in effect they got some free wine in the long run, but ‘82 saw a lot of buyers piling in to take advantage of the vintage and many later sold much of their stock at hugely inflated prices as the vintage matured. Some people made a lot of money, though of course you had to lay out a lot and take a chance as in those days profit was not a given.
The châteaux saw all this and said to themselves 'we want some of this' so started to jack the prices up as the end of the eighties approached and they have been ratcheting them up ever since. This was made easier for them as the affluence of the late eighties meant many buyers of wine, conveniently for the châteaux, forgot all about how EP came about and purchased whatever they wanted at these inflated prices. Strangely the crash of ‘89 did not see much of a check on the sales of EP and the sales and prices kept going up, until the 2008 crash; this time the sales did take a hiding and have not really recovered despite much hype and the explosion of the Chinese market. In America EP has always struggled as a concept because they cannot, rightly, see why you should pay in advance for anything, especially when it will still have to be cellared for years.
So despite all this and the fact that apart from one or two rare occasions when EP makes some sense, it makes no sense at all to older people who will be dead if they buy the latest vintage that needs at least ten years to be ready to drink. People here, as we are at the forefront of this folly, still believe for some reason despite the diminishing market, that EP is a good idea.
This video gives the good and the bad but doesn’t give the ugly, greed, and contains a portion of total bollox, to be expected as they are promoting EP, Ever Present in their case.
The trade of course push EP as it is part of their annual sales and get ever more hyped about it. The annual circus that surrounds EP has become a love-in for yet another vintage of the century despite the fact no one will find out if it is, and many of the 'vintages of the century' turn out to be merely good, for perhaps twenty years, by which time several other vintages of the century will have been promoted.
If anyone who is interested in wine as a drink they have to look no further than the broker's sales list to see that buying wine EP is pointless There is hardly a wine from all the good recent vintages that is not available, many ready to drink, so what really is the point these days of purchasing that way, as on top of the inflated prices unless you have a cellar you will have to pay for storage charges every year as well.
Here is an article by the respected Jancis Robinson on the current state of EP, and even this still has the underlying notion that it is a good thing, ignoring its raison d'être.
Virtually no raison. Going back to the late lamented blog, when I put this point to the over-excited adults foaming at the mouth about proposed purchases of EP they were obviously upset that it should be criticised, and would reply with childish notions of it being exciting. I cannot get my head round giving inflated prices in advance for a product you can buy at any time ready to drink, all with my money. Exciting? Stupid, yes; exciting, no.
And still the châteaux ramp up up the prices. The trade make light of 7-8% price rises over last year, another contender for vintage of the century. Will the bubble burst? It should, but the châteaux have become greedy and are loath to set fair prices while gullible buyers still exist; but even the Chinese, who have hardly helped by buying anything and everything at these ridiculous prices, are cooling as they become more knowledgeable and start to realise the real value of things.
What also doesn’t help in the war against inflated prices is the auction houses. Certain wines especially Burgundies that by their nature can never be made in quantities to satisfy demand have gone stratospheric, thousands of pounds for a bottle in some cases, for wine that is now a commodity not a drink is purchased and sold around the world by collectors, not drinkers who treat a case of wine like an art work. It isn’t of course it is a beverage but you would never guess.
So what next in the arcane world of the wine trade, who despite moving eventually into the 21st century on many levels have brought much of the baggage of the past with them, EP being the prime example of something that lost its purpose long ago?
I give an example of how inflated prices have become, it is one I have used before. In the seventies I was browsing a wine outlet in Queensway, Bayswater, London and espied on a rack of bin ends (wines that are few in number, for clearance) a bottle of Burgundy vintage ‘66. It doesn’t matter for here what it was except it was a top winery in a good year. I thought for a while: should I, could I buy it? and I did. The exact price I have forgotten but it would have to have been around a maximum of £10. Out of curiosity I looked up the same wine: it would cost you over £2000 a bottle today, absolutely bonkers, but we are where we are and as long as people treat wine like an art work or a commodity or a talking point for the rich prices will remain ever more out of reach for the wine drinker who just likes the stuff.
Have I purchased EP? I would be a hypocrite if I said I hadn’t. I did buy the odd case long ago for the purpose of drinking when the prices were sensible and I did buy some after the 2008 crash as a way of spreading what little cash I had in what was a hopeful money-making project - it wasn’t and I came out with what I had put in, just about.
So the strange world of the upmarket wine trade bumbles on, its arcane set-up with EP (plus the matching language of the oenophile and wine taster, an article on its own there) remains. In a normal commercial environment, En Primeur would die a natural death, but I have my doubts. Whilst people still treat the whole annual jamboree as fun with your own money, it is a world apart, almost masonic in its rituals and habits, and will probably stagger on and who knows even revive while people retain that attitude.
For the more sane wine drinkers there has never been a better time to enjoy the choice, for the whole world has never been bigger more varied or better. Enjoy!