Grape & Grain
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The futures of European and US wines for customers and buyers

Like Bordeaux’s en primeur offerings, many wine areas and producers hold tastings of young wines before they are released

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 6:00am

Bordeaux is known the world over for its en primeur – “wine futures” tastings, when the latest vintage is put under the spotlight by critics and wine buyers who taste, spit, then decide what to buy before the wines are actually released.

But this is simply the best known of the many tastings of young wines that are held by producers across Europe.

One of my favourites takes place each January in France. This is one of the hidden highlights of the year – seriously, it should be much more widely celebrated – when the Rhone Valley holds its Marché aux Vins d’Ampuis for the red wines of Côte Rotie and the whites of Condrieu. This is a celebration of the northern Rhone, and winemakers bring along an array of their latest vintages for both professionals and customers to taste and buy direct. The wines are often set up alongside local truffle, meat and cheese producers, and 2016 saw its 88th version, making it considerably older than its Bordeaux sibling. I don’t know of a better way to beat the chill of a northern Rhone winter.

In fact Burgundy, Piedmont, Ribero del Duero and Rioja all have their own version of young wine tasting, but one of the most fascinating isn’t in Europe at all, but in California. Known as Premiere Napa Valley, this is a futures campaign with a difference. The winemakers – top flight – we are talking the Cains, the Duckhorns, the Stag’s Leaps of the Napa world – don’t simply preview the latest vintage that is going to be sold in bottle to all customers, but create blends specifically for an event that is held in February each year. These are limited edition, exclusive tastings out of barrel, with most producers making wine that will be enough for somewhere between 60 and 240 bottles.

I went to Napa last week for the 20th edition of the auction, held at the Culinary Institute of America, and which was the first where a section of the bidding took place online. Just 25 of the 225 lots were available online, each selling only to online bidders, so no “real” against virtual bidding.

Just like the Bordeaux version, at Premiere Napa Valley the auction is open to wine trade only, who then sell the bottles on to wine lovers through restaurants and retail. And just as with the fledgling Médoc and Saint Emilion wines over in Bordeaux, there is a wider commercial importance beyond simply tasting. Even if the barrel blends here are created specifically for Premiere Napa, the event offers a first glimpse into the potential appetite for the latest vintage – which this year was the young 2014s. The level of pricing achieved in the auction offers a way for producers to take the temperature of the market for when their main estate wines are released.

In spirit, however, Premiere Napa is closer to Burgundy’s Hospices de Beaune auction, because proceeds (last year US$6 million, with an average bottle price of US$286) went to local charities and educational projects. And also like in Burgundy, the barrel tastings are followed directly by the auction, whereas in Bordeaux tasters leave after a week in the region, gather their thoughts, and then place orders when the châteaux release their prices a month or so later. So where with the Bordeaux futures, final customers know which wines each merchant has at the time of purchase, here they usually put in requests before the auction, and the merchants have to fight it out for successful bids.

And that’s about as far as the whole Bordeaux meets Burgundy comparison can be taken. Over in Napa, there is the inevitable Californian sense of showmanship to proceedings. Winemakers use the event as a way to flex their muscles and show off their skills – it’s all about friendly competition between producers, so you might find unusual grape varieties or attention-stealing bottles from new arrivals to the region who want to make their presence felt. And the bidders in the room can feel the pressure.

“We get our customers to commit to buying wine before we have it. But whereas in ‘normal’ futures, customers can purchase a specific amount of a specific wine, with the auction, we really don’t know what we’re going to get,” Gary Fisch of Gary’s Wine in New Jersey tells me. “We ask for budgets and do our best to spend their money wisely, obtaining the best wine we can at the best prices based on how much of a commitment we’ve received. I suppose it’s a little bit like being a financial manager in that regard.”

Jane Anson is a Bordeaux-based wine writer

But the small scale of the offerings makes it impossible to get everything that you want – and drives prices upwards. “The Premiere auction offers lots of, at most, 240 bottles, and most high-end Napa wines that are ‘mailing list only’ have productions somewhere in that range as well,” says Fisch. “And the wines are sold at full retail price, or close to. The difference is that Bordeaux properties typically offer thousands, if not tens of thousands of bottles during En Primeur, so the concept behind the release pricing is that those who get in early get better pricing. For Bordeaux, it’s buy early and save; for Premiere Napa it’s buy now, or don’t buy at all.”