En primeur: How to taste unfinished wines

As months go, we all know that January is a tedious windbag. But what it does have going for it is Burgundy. Every year, various independent wine merchants organise for Burgundy producers to come to London and show off their latest wines; this time round it is the 2010 vintage. Most reports are indicating that it was a very good growing season, and some brilliant wines have been made. So should you buy any? And how do you taste these young, unfinished wines?

The 2010 Burgundies are being sold ‘en primeur’ i.e. the wines are not fully finished or bottled. The benefit for the producer in selling them this way is that they get the money up front, instead of having to wait until they are finished, bottled and shipped. There are two principal benefits to you, the customer. Firstly, wines bought en primeur are usually a bit cheaper than when they finally appear on the shelves (typically around 10% – 15%). Secondly, wines which are made in very small quantities may never reach the shelves; they might all be sold every year to early birds buying en primeur.

There are some risks involved however. The wines might not increase in price, particularly in a below-average vintage; their value might actually drop by the time they are bottled. Certain crafty producers might not be exhibiting wines that are truly indicative of the final blend they will be bottling and selling, it might be a special tarted-up version made for the tasting. And since there is a long wait for the wines to be finished and shipped over, there will be a period of 9 months or so (or even longer when buying Bordeaux en primeur) during which you’ve paid your money but have nothing yet to show for it. If the merchant you are buying from goes bust during this time, you might have trouble getting your money back. Be aware: there are also con artists out there who prey on this time lag between payment and delivery to extract money from unsuspecting wine lovers and then run off with the cash. But don’t let that scare you off, just be careful who you give your money to.

So if you do get the chance to taste unfinished wines at an en primeur tasting, how should you go about it? It depends on the wine to a degree; Burgundy is much easier and more enjoyable to taste young than Bordeaux for example, as Bordeaux tends to be more powerful, with much more aggressive tannin, and exhibited at an even younger stage. Young Burgundy can taste more or less like the finished article; young Bordeaux can taste very raw and actually pretty unpleasant at this stage. Here are a few general pointers:



How it looks

  • There is rarely much to gauge in terms of quality from looking at the wine at this stage. If a wine is unusually pale or brown compared to the rest, it could denote a lack of intensity or premature oxidation. But not necessarily – tasting is key.



How it smells

  • The wine should smell clean and fresh.
  • It depends on the type of wine, but the aromas can often be unexpectedly pronounced or a bit closed. This doesn’t necessarily reflect on how the wine will be when bottled.
  • The aromas tend to be quite ‘primary’, that’s to say of young fresh fruits indicative of the grape variety, and perhaps some aromas from the fermentation and any use of oak barrels.
  • The wine shouldn’t smell like a mature wine, showing developed aromas such as leather, truffle or chestnut. If it does, it might be ageing prematurely.
  • There shouldn’t be so much oak that it obscures the other aromas.
  • If the wine smells oxidised, this is possibly a fault of the tasting sample, which can degrade quickly. Taste another sample if you can before you write off the wine.



How it tastes

  • This is the most important thing to concentrate on.
  • Do a bit of research on the vintage beforehand. Was it a very hot year? Then look out for high alcohol levels or jammy fruit flavours. Was it cold and wet? If so, unripe, green flavours might be a trait to look out for across the board. Look for similar traits in the first few wines you taste when putting together an impression of the vintage.
  • Picking out individual flavours might not be easy at this stage; sometimes they can be very ‘tightly wound’. Tasting en primeur is often more of a case of tasting for the various elements that make up a wine – judging the level of acidity, amount and character of tannins, level of sweetness, etc.
  • It is important to have intensity and concentration of flavour, but without the wine being heavy or aggressive.
  • Are the flavours pleasantly fresh and lively? Or more dull and flat?
  • With whites, keep an eye out for levels of sweetness.
  • With reds, pay particular attention to the tannins. What is the character and texture of the tannins? Are they smooth and ripe – or grainy, harsh, or bitter? How much tannin is there?
  • Don’t forget the tannins gradually drop out of the wine over time, so if the tannin is a bit pronounced to start with, that is actually a good thing. You want some left by the time you come to drink it but when the rest of the flavours have matured.
  • Are there any unpleasant stalky or green flavours from unripe fruit?
  • Keep an eye out for any bitterness, usually more noticeable on the finish.
  • Also look out for unacceptably high levels of alcohol, again most obvious on the finish.
  • As with mature wines, length of flavour is important.
  • Most importantly, are all the elements (acidity, sweetness, intensity, tannin, alcohol, etc) in balance?


To find out about these kinds of tasting, get in touch with the larger London independent merchants such as Berry Brothers & Rudd, Howard Ripley, Bibendum, Flint Wines, Jeroboams, Corney & Barrow, Lay & Wheeler, Armit and Lea & Sandeman and ask them about forthcoming en primeur tastings and to be put onto their mailing lists. Burgundy tasting are usually in early January; Bordeaux tastings in April or May.

Finally, a few tips. Firstly, do some research to ensure you are buying in a good vintage. Secondly, buy from a well-established, reputable wine merchant. Thirdly, after tasting it’s no bad thing to get a second opinion from any critics who have long experience in tasting these types of wines, as it takes a while to pick the good vintages from the average. Fourthly, pay with your credit card, which could give you some protection in the unlikely event things do go wrong with your supplier.

For more information on safe en primeur purchasing, take a look at Jim Budd’s excellent site investdrinks-blog.blogspot.com