The Beginning of Wine Futures (a brief history)

It’s the day before the official start of Primeurs 2009 and Bordeaux is buzzing—tour buses are everywhere, the crowds around Grand Theater make the city center resemble Times Square, and there’s a noticeable increase of non-French auto labels cruising the streets.

I’m excited to be a part of the action tomorrow afternoon as I head over with my work colleagues to taste Médoc and Sauternes (continuing with the Right Bank and Graves on Wednesday). My Wine MBA classes are finished and I’m now completing stage two of my program: an internship to acquire professional industry experience. I was fortunate to have been offered a position with the wine merchant Millesima to help them develop sales in the U.S. market, which is why I’ll have the chance to attend this year’s Primeurs tasting.

In preparation for the approaching campaign, I was asked to revise a script for a video we’re producing to inform customers about the En Primeur process and provide a little background information into this rather unique method of selling a product that doesn’t quite yet exist (well, the wine is there, but the bottle is two years down the road!).  

While going through the text, I found myself intrigued by a section devoted to the history of the Primeurs campaign. Though the campaign itself originates in Bordeaux, the process of selling wine en primeur (or as futures) actually began in Portugal with the sale of Port wine. The British developed this system during the early 18th century when a war with France dwindled their supply of “claret” and lead them to Portugal, a longtime ally, to satisfy their wine cravings (though I honestly can’t see how people can go from drinking a light-bodied red wine, then suddenly switch to Port…).

In the later part of the 18th century, after things calmed down and relationships between France and England improved, the British introduced the process of selling wine as futures to Bordeaux. At the time, this method of selling made financial sense as estates were facing an economic downturn and needed financing to continue production. By selling their wine en primeur, producers received advanced payment that covered operating expenses and guaranteed the upcoming harvest.

Unlike today, wine futures were only purchased by merchants. In fact, up until the 1970s, merchants only marketed the wine to customers at the moment of bottling, or slightly beforehand. There also wasn’t a regular tasting resembling today’s Primeurs campaigns. Merchants would simply taste the wines they were interested in selling, then place an order. Furthermore, those wines they did taste would be sampled much later in the year, or sometimes the following year after a longer aging period.

The process changed in the 1970s as a new population of wine-drinking Americans developed and started buying large amounts of Bordeaux. For this reason, 1970 is considered the first successful consumer-oriented En Primeur campaign. However, the real boost came in the spring of 1983 when Robert Parker arrived in Bordeaux to give his opinion on the ’82 vintage… and well, the rest is history!

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