Soon merchants will be releasing their 2009 Bordeaux en primeur offers – indeed for the first time the odd merchant was offering wines before the wines had even been tasted and several months before prices would be released! If you decide to buy en primeur you will pay upfront for wine that you will receive in 18 to 24 months time. This can be advantageous if the price of the wines rise dramatically from that the initial release price. It is also a way of getting hold of wines that are produced in very small quantities and are rarely seen after their en primeur release. The rarity argument, however, applies more to Burgundy than to much of Bordeaux where many of the famous wines are produced in relatively large quantities.
With en primeur you are essentially extending an interest-free loan to your wine merchant, while trusting that they won't have gone bust or disappeared before your wines are shipped to you or to a bonded warehouse. You are trusting that your merchant will pass your order and your money down the often complex en primeur chain that will include a Bordeaux négociant company and then the château itself. Incidentally any company that tells you that they buy directly from the top properties in Bordeaux is talking nonsense. That is not the way the Bordeaux system works. The châteaux sell to a number of négociants in Bordeaux (often called La Place). The négociants then sell around the world.
Before buying en primeur it is essential to do a little due diligence as in the past a number of apparently reputable en primeur companies have gone bust, leaving their customers disappointed and without the wine they ordered and without a refund. There have been some instances when companies offering en primeur have just been completely fraudulent – just trousering the money and placing no orders. This is what makes en primeur such a potentially wonderful vehicle for fraud. The customer places their order knowing the wine won't arrive for best part of two years. It is only when the two years or so are up and there is no sign of their wine or the company that people start to get worried.
There have probably been even more instances of legitimate companies getting into financial problems, using customers en primeur money to shore up the business only for everything to unravel leaving some very angry, wineless customers. For it doesn't matter how impressive your certificate of ownership looks with crests and embossing, it will be worthless if title (right of ownership) to the wine has not properly passed down the chain. Ownership is complicated since for much of the time your en primeur wine cannot be identified as it is a fraction of some wine in an oak barrel.
The château retain title to the wine until the Bordeaux négociants pay for the wine they have ordered . At this point a certificate of ownership is issued. Full title to wine does not pass until the wine has been bottled and ownership can be identified.
Thus it is crucial that you make some checks on the financial health and track record of any company from whom you are considering buying en primeur. Down load the latest company accounts and check when the company was founded. If I was going to buy en primeur, wouldn't buy from a recently formed company – the risk is too high. Deal with well established companies who have a track record of buying and delivering wine ordered en primeur. This may be particularly important for 2009 Bordeaux as if there is a huge demand, especially for the top wines, as some predict then it may only be established companies that have the contacts to source the wines.
Also watch out for any cowboys tempted to clamber onto the 2009 en primeur bandwagon with a boiler room team to fleece you and disappear into the sunset.
I'd distrust any cold calls from unknown companies.