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Buying Wines En Primeur - Suggestions as to what wines to buy early

Wine Interests

It's an old adage: invest carefully in a wine cellar and after a while you can drink for free. I've heard that on and off for years and in truth I've still to meet anyone who drinks for free.

It's an old adage: invest carefully in a wine cellar and after a while you can drink for free. I've heard that on and off for years and in truth I've still to meet anyone who drinks for free. Still, I've met plenty of people who drink if not for free, then at least at prices vastly more reduced than the rest of us. If that sounds to you like a tempting proposition, then bear with me a while we look at it in a little detail.

The basic premises are two. One is that you have some money to invest, and two is that you buy your wines 'en primeur'. Let's take them one at a time. Like any investment, a wine portfolio can go down in value as well as up, but in the past twenty years, up seems to have been its only direction. But even if you assume the worst, you've still got something that you can drink - there's a tangible and drinkable asset there.

Buying 'en primeur' is a system developed in the Bordeaux which means that you buy your wines as soon as the vintage is complete and the wine is still in barrels. You won't get to see it for a couple of years until it's matured and bottled. In effect it's a bit like buying by subscription; you put your name down for a fixed quantity of the wine an d depending on your agent or merchant you pay at least half the purchase price at once and the rest on delivery, perhaps a year or two later. The benefit to the producer is immediate cash-flow, for the buyer the advantage is a price that can be as much as 40% less than the wines will be worth once they're bottled and ready for sale. There are several ways to buy en primeur, including doing it all yourself, but perhaps the best way to arrange it is through a wine club or through a good wine merchant. In Dublin Searsons of Blackrock are offering an 'en primeur' service with the 1988 vintages. These wines will be landed in Dublin in the spring or summer of 2001. Their service includes the freighting, forwarding and bonded storage.

What makes this work is that the good Bordeaus are made to mature in the bottle. Unlike say, a new Beaujolais, that is fit to drink after a month or so but won't keep past Christmas, a classic chateau wine from the Bordeaux is hard and tannic for the first few years of its life and only begins to come into its own after five years or more. If you get an urge to drink a 1989 now and set out to buy some, someone will have been holding that wine for the past ten years and they will require you to pay for the wine, the storage and their investment. On the other hand if you've got five cases in your cellar you have several choices, including drinking it all smug in the knowledge that you bought it for a fraction of its current worth, or you could sell a couple of cases and put that money towards your next years 'en primeur' purchases. This is the principle behind 'drinking for free'.

The pitfalls are straightforward enough. Everyone tells you that this year's vintage is wonderful, the grapes were ripe and full of sugar, the vigneron made his best wine ever. As a result you buy. Then two years later the word starts to spread; the vintage hasn't lived up to its early promise, the wines are decaying fast, the prices are dropping. A bad vintage is bad investment. But these days things are not as bad as they used to be. Modern techniques of vinification means that even with poor harvests passable wines can be made, but more importantly changes in the laws governing wine production means that growers can keep back wine from a good year and blend it with a later and lesser vintage. The effect of this has been to even out the troughs in production and the continuing upward trend of prices reflects this. En primeur prices peaked in 1997, and although the 1998 prices are roughly 20% lower, they're still up on the 1995 vintage. Basically the prices of the good Bordeaux chateaus are supported by a huge and growing international demand, especially from the US and Japan.

Auctions are the other traditional way of buying wines at bargain prices, but like anything else at auction you do need to know what you're buying before you part with hard currency. A good chateau wine from a good vintage that has been badly stored will be more aged than one that has been well kept and will taste the worse for it. You need to know its provenance. Knowing how much to pay is a little easier; a monthly magazine like Wine or Decanter lists the latest auction prices of all the major chateaus for all the vintages over the past twenty years and sometimes even further back. It gives you a very good guideline for knowing how much to pay. It's also a good idea to buy as a syndicate with a group of friends, since larger lots tend to cost less per case than smaller lots.

So assuming that you're intent on starting a cellar of your own what comes next? Firstly a cellar in this sense is not necessarily something underground - although if you have such a cool, dark place you're very lucky. What it means in this case though, is storing more wine at home than you drink at any one time. The most important consideration is to store the wine where the temperature remains fairly constant and preferably no more than 16 degrees centigrade. Fluctuations in temperature, as well as warmth, speed up the ageing process. Whether it's in a purpose built storage unit with humidity and temperature controls, or a boxed-in area of a garage, keeping your wines free from odours, draughts, too much heat or cold and even vibrations, is the key to good cellaring. The choice of what wines you fill it with is very personal, but next issue I'll be suggesting what wines might usefully form the backbone of your cellar.

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