The terms Wine Futures and En Primeur refer to buying wine after it is made, but before it is bottled. Six months or so after vintage, when the wines are still in tank or barrel, tasting samples are made available to wholesale buyers and wine journalists. The buyers place orders based on their assessment of the wines, and sell their 'future' stock on to their customers (although the wine itself is not bottled and shipped for another year or two). The journalists rate the wines and publish their notes, in either print or online media. The race to publish these ratings (particularly for Bordeaux futures / en primeur) has become increasingly competitive since the advent of celebrity wine critics, online wine media and wine investment. In the case of Bordeaux En Primeur, the wines are released in several stages or tranches, in which prices are adjusted up or down according to the success of the previous tranche. The first tranche typically attracts the most attention.
Buying wine en primeur (literally 'in youth') or as wine futures can be a prudent investment practice - the initial release prices are usually the lowest at which the wines will ever be sold (see table). The Bordeaux 2000 vintage was highly profitable for futures and en primeur investors; the wines were in great demand, but were initially priced too low. Even those who bought at the second or third tranche prices saw the value of their wines rise quickly.
Table 1: Bordeaux vintage 2000 price data
As with all investments, however, nothing is certain. The 1997 Bordeaux futures prices, for example, were pitched too high initially, and actually declined slightly over the following few years.
In Burgundy, buying wine futures can often be the only way to secure wines that are available in very limited quantities (some properties produce as little as 200 cases a year). The finest Burgundies often disappear into private cellars and are rarely, seen on the market again.
Investing in wine? See Fine Wine Investment Advice.