Buying wine en primeur: Pay now drink later

Vergisson in Macon, where the Barraud family make fine white wines.

Vergisson in Macon, where the Barraud family make fine white wines. - Credit: BIVB/Michel Joly

Any collector of fine wine will be familiar with the en primeur system – reserving and paying for chosen bottles many months before they're ready to leave their maker's cellar. It's a serious commitment, even occasionally a risky one.

Fraudulent sellers apart (sadly, they do exist), a vintage may not live up to its initial promise, the excise duty and VAT rates you must pay before delivery could rise, the eventual retail price once the wine is readily available just might be lower than you've paid. Or, if you're buying for pleasure rather than investment, you may simply not enjoy the wine.

But, more often, all works out well. En primeur buyers can get their hands on highly desirable wine that sells out before it hits merchants' shelves – and if any is available later it may well cost a lot more.

All that said, why not have a go? I have, and have both liked the results and saved money. Currently, I'm enjoying the very classy Samuel Billaud Petit Chablis 2019, bought en primeur a year ago from Jeroboams and delivered last summer. The dozen bottles worked out at £15.50 each once I'd paid everything; that wine is now sold out at Jeroboams, but late last year it cost almost £20.

That was a real pleasure purchase, as have been excellent Macons from the Barraud family I've bought over the years from Lea & Sandeman, and money-wise all have been worthwhile.

Much more significant, though, was the saving on JL Chave's Saint-Joseph Céleste 2011 from The Wine Society's Rhône en primeur offer. I was patient, and it aged superbly (there's still one bottle left, waiting for the right occasion). That also cost me approximately £15.50 a bottle, two years after vintage. Now, I can't find the 2011 anywhere in the UK, but the 2012 is £48.

En primeur choices are mostly French, with Italy and a few other wine nations joining in. The offers come at different times of year – act soon, and you may still catch some for 2020 Burgundy and Rhône, a very fine vintage in both regions. Like almost everywhere in France both were hit by last year's vicious spring frosts, so 2021 wines will be in short supply and pricier.

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Bordeaux, somewhat strangely for wines that often need even longer to reach their best, releases earlier, so 2021 offers will start appearing early this summer. It was a challenging vintage, so take care.

You can see from my choices that I'm a very small fish in a huge sea, but I'm swimming happily. You don't need to be able to pay the stellar prices of the best grand cru wines: en primeur can work out well on quite modest bottles.

Six Wines to Buy in February

There's no need to wait for these wines:

First up, an already released 2020 Chablis, Simonnet-Febvre Premier Cru Montmains (£25.50 waitrosecellar.com). It's a baby still, but has huge promise. You can begin to sense the fossil-rich stoniness of this east bank site, alongside 2020's well-ripened fruit. The many crus of chablis are complex, and there can be big vintage differences, so when you find a place and producer that suits your palate, remember them.

Chablis Premier Cru

Chablis Premier Cru - Credit: Supplied

Eastwards to Italy, where Banfi has been crucial in the re-emergence of brunello di montalcino as a top Tuscan wine. But this big company, committed to research, sustainability and community involvement, is innovative too. La Lus (£19-£20), from Banfi's Piedmont vineyards, is a rare example of albarossa, a cross between barbera and little-known French grape chatus (mistakenly thought to be nebbiolo by the scientist responsible). It's a grape that deserves more recognition, resulting here in a smart modern wine with elegant flavours, approachable yet a serious treat.

Banfi has spread from the hills to the Tuscan coast, where La Pettegola (£15-£16) is a very tempting example of vermentino, floral, herbal, excellent balance, body and length. Both these wines are available from farehamwinecellar.co.uk and sandhamswine.co.uk.

La Pettegola

Banfi's La Pettegola - Credit: Supplied

Still in Italy, but from the far south, is a bargain in Morrisons. Colpasso (£7 until March 15) is made from a semi-dried crop of Sicily's nero d'avola. This appassimento technique enriches the grape's already generous character and the not quite OTT sweet-fruited result is a perfect sunny answer to London's winter greyness.

Morrison's Colpasso is £7

Morrison's Colpasso is £7 - Credit: Supplied

There was an intriguing tasting recently, where cabernet francs from New York State went head to head with examples from elsewhere round the world. The NYS wines were excellent, though are hard to find – try the impressive Lamoreaux Landing Finger Lakes T23 2020 (£19-£20, cheerswinemerchants.co.uk, eynshamcellars.com). An outstanding challenger was Zuccardi Apelación Cabernet Franc 2018 (£17.50, oxfordwine.co.uk), from high in the Argentine Andes. It's deep, dark and delicious.

Zuccardi Apelación Cabernet Franc 2018

Zuccardi Apelación Cabernet Franc 2018 - Credit: Supplied