Saturday, May 25, 2024

WEEKENDER: The Strange World of Wine Buying, by Wiggia

It’s that time of the year again, en primeur is upon us in the strange world of wine.

Recent facts about over-production, changes in drinking habits and a wider world supply base of wine have finally come together and brought to a shuddering halt the ever rising price for top of the range wines, as in some countries vineyards are being grubbed up sold off and vignerons getting out of the business altogether. This has been in the offing for some years. A change in the drinking habits particularly of the young has meant that certain areas started to grub up vineyards some time ago; the sherry region in Spain started the process a while back when the bulk sherry market collapsed, it resulted in the bigger outfits changing over to producing still wine.

How long that will be sustainable is anyone's guess with an already overloaded market. The grubbing up of vineyards has affected many countries not just France, Australia and the USA: South America and others are also going this route with governments paying owners to leave the land fallow or plant other crops.

This is no different to other agricultural products that are affected by changing markets, weather and the pound in your pocket, but somehow wine is viewed differently by the cognoscenti, though even they are now being influenced, at the moment in a good way, by falling prices in the strange world of ‘en primeur’.

Wiki gives as good a definition of en primeur as anyone:
“En primeur or "wine futures", is a method of purchasing wines early while the wine is still in the barrel. This offers the customer the opportunity to invest before the wine is bottled. Payment is made at an early stage, a year or 18 months prior to the official release of a vintage. “
The above is of course a complete scam. Who pays in advance for a product that is not even in bottle let alone ready to drink? The trade of course: growers, negotiants and sellers make much of the system as a way of getting , if you are lucky, hard to acquire wines, and those desirable small output ‘luxury’ wines for drinking when mature. Burgundy tops the list and ticks all the boxes in that respect.

Well yes, those small output sites that fit the description have for years been able to name their price and en primeur has become the only way of getting your hands on a few bottles of the supposed elixir. I have to confess, in the past I also fell for this scam and did so with the knowledge that hopefully the increase in prices over time would benefit my bank balance as well as having some luvly stuff (with luck) to sup in my dotage.

Didn’t quite work out like that. Despite having some excellent vintages and the best Chateau wines that I could afford they didn’t really fulfill the investment side. There is an index published monthly of wine movements, yes really, like the Footsie, so you can track the increases or decline in value of your stock in bond.

Cases in bond do not have the charge of taxes against them. You only pay that on taking the wine out of bond; but although they are kept in optimum conditions you do have to pay for the storage and over time that also adds to the cost per bottle or case.

The origins of en primeur can be read here…….

If you read the above you will understand the origins and why it was installed. Sadly all that went by the way side after the ‘82 vintage which despite every year being the 'vintage of the decade', ‘82 was probably the vintage of the century, usual disclaimers.

Many purchased the wines in large quantities and several notable wine lovers or greedy bastards depending on how you view them, made a killing some years later - I’m looking at you Andrew Lloyd Webber as a prime example - selling off their excess purchases for several millions of profit at auction.

The Châteaux having seen their wines selling at much inflated prices upped their own initial prices under the old adage of ‘we will have some of that’ and for a couple of decades that is what happened at every annual announcement of the new vintage. Even poor vintages gained which is puzzling to anyone outside of the world of wine.

During this period the Châteaux in their eagerness to maximise profits even came up with a further wheeze by releasing the new wine in tranches; depending how the first tranche sold they would adjust the price of the second and even third tranche upwards - trebles all round!

So I decided to keep a few choice bottles at home and sell the rest. What with losses and gains I just about ended even, but there is another side to the whole process few ever mention.

Experts (!) will tell you that and admit maturity in wine is informed guesswork. When the wine is bottled by the producer it is for him the finished article, but these experts will try and define what is a likely date for the wine to be at optimum drinking, its 'drinking window.'

Some will mature faster and some take a lot longer, in some cases almost a lifetime. It becomes a lottery. The same experts do tastings at intervals during the wine's life to see how it is progressing, many wine lovers do the same and each failure to open a ‘ready to drink bottle’ means what is left in your case has had the price jacked up. This procedure can often take several bottles which makes en primeur even more expensive and to be frank a pointless exercise, other than proving you have more money than sense.

It is not unusual to read of a wine that has an age of twenty years being still not ready and needing five to ten more, though of course they still do not know, it is still an educated guess.

There was a time when experts were thin on the ground, but not these days. I well remember the first Masters of Wine:it was a real accolade for people to attain, many at the time I could name and all of them could fit into a phone box. Now there are, at last count, 416 worldwide, along with assistants and ever larger numbers of wine critics and experts such as sommeliers, writers and just plain wine lovers; the field is saturated with opinion, what to believe?

The same experts base their findings on cask samples, wine that has not been bottled and often not in the final blend on a points system invented by the American critic Robert Parker. This assumes a perfect wine to be worth 100 points out of a 100, but for a start the scoring begins at 50 and why has never been explained to my satisfaction.

Plus of course all the wine samples tasted come from known sources, they are tested in the cellars of the producer, and reputation is everything in the rarefied world of cru classe wines, so inevitably marks will be based on reputation as well as what is in the glass.

You can add to that no taster could explain from a sample if it was tasted blind what the difference was between a 97 and 98 point wine, it really isn’t feasible but has become part of wine folklore.

I had a personal example of a wine that was given to me by a happy client many years ago. On completion of the job he asked me about my wine collection - he knew nothing. When I presented him with a not insubstantial bill he said he had a gift for me as he was pleased with the outcome.

To my amazement he presented me with a case of Chateau Lafite. Bloody hell I thought, even in the eighties this was not cheap.

There was sadly a catch: he had gone to a very well known established wine merchant's in the city and told them what he wanted to buy, not knowing anything. They managed to sell him a case of one of the worst vintages by Lafite probably since the war:1972, one of several during that period that were below par, described by one of the few people I ever took notice of in wine,(the late Michael Broadbent, the taster for Christies auctions who had probably tasted more top class Bordeaux than anyone alive at the time) as ‘drinkable.’

You can gather by all this that I am more than cynical when an expert tells me this is another vintage of the decade, but people are taken in by this annual blurb and lay out not inconsiderable sums to get on the fine wine ladder, but not for a large part of the production it seems. Good.

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