Buying Bordeaux 2009 En Primeur: Buyer Be Wary

POSTED ON 12/04/2010

I wonder if you have heard of Mayfair Cellars, or Uvine, or Greens, or the Hungerford Wine Company, or Meyniac & Cie.? No? Well that’s good, because you’ll be able to sleep at night if you buy en primeur blissfully unaware of the losses suffered by consumers when these companies, English and French, went pear-shaped.

If on the other hand any of these names do ring an alarm bell, that’s also good. Because you’ll be less blissful but forewarned that buying en primeur, while not a risky business as such, does not come without its pitfalls. As Bordeaux prices go ionospheric and the financial burden of en primeur becomes increasingly hefty, it’s as well to take a good look at what happens to your money and your wine with a view to doing what you can to minimize the risks.

So you’re an alien from Planet Janet, shall we say. You’ve deciphered the arcana of the critic’s reviews and en primeur offers of the 2009 Bordeaux from UK wine merchants and plumped for three cases: d’Angludet, let’s say, for your short to medium term drinking, Calon-Ségur for the longer term, and Cheval Blanc for selling six bottles down the track with a view to recouping your outlay.

Who do you buy from? A reputable wine merchant, it goes without saying, but how do you know your reputable from your disreputable and what guarantee do you have that you will get your wine, or, if the worst comes to the worst and one of your chosen châteaux should be struck by lightning and go up in smoke, your money back?

For a reputable wine merchant, the important factors, as the Wine Society’s chief executive, Oliver Johnson notes, ‘are prevention of fraud through good internal controls and external auditing, comprehensive and reliable IT, insurance, financial strength and morals’. In a word, trust. The Bunch for instance, the grouping that includes Berry Bros. & Rudd, Armit, Tanners and Corney & Barrow, has a Code of Practice you can check out on the net.

Creditors of Mayfair Cellars ended up the victim of a crime, which underlines the need to do your homework and pick a wine merchant with a track record and firm financial backing. Human nature being what it is, you may be inclined to go for the cheapest price, but bear in mind that the merchant may not have invested in all the add-ons such as paying the 1.5% of the cost price for a bank guarantee that give that extra security.

What happens to your cash once you’ve placed your order? The asking price is typically ‘in bond’, i.e. less duty and VAT. When your money’s received by the wine merchant, you have a legally binding contract. You don’t have legal title to the goods at this stage because there are no identifiable goods while the wine is still in barrel. For that reason, and because of the complexities of the system, the precise moment when legal title transfers to you is a question that will probably one day be decided in the Court of Appeal after making many lawyers very rich.

What you should have, at the very least is a legally binding contract to deliver your wine, or, failing that for whatever reason, a refund at replacement value. So the first thing you need to check out is what guarantees does the merchant give between order and delivery. So ask. What insurance do you have? Do you guarantee a refund at replacement value? Do you have bank guarantees in the event of the Bordeaux négociant defaulting? If in doubt, you can also check your merchant’s financial health via its annual return on the Companies House website ( for a well-spent £1.

Your money is initially held by your wine merchant, who normally pays his supplier, the Bordeaux négociant, in two to three tranches, typically half in July -September and the other half November - October, possibly earlier in a great en primeur year, later in a mediocre one. Different Bordeaux négociants have different terms. Some UK wine merchants, like Justerini & Brooks pay in tranches, others, like Berry Bros. & Rudd, pay their suppliers in one go. Equally, some UK wine merchants are buying en primeur on customers’ orders, others for their own stock as well.

When the Bordeaux négociant gets a pro-forma invoice from the château, the négociant in turn pays the château, usually in three tranches. The château then has your money, tax-free thank you very much, and owns your wine until the VAT is paid. Meanwhile the négociant takes an average 12 – 15 per cent cut while the courtier, the intermediary between négociant and château, takes two per cent. Monsieur Deux Pour Cent, whose job it is to ensure the wine the négociant ordered will be delivered, is only paid once the wine is physically delivered to the négociant.

When your d’Angludet, Calon-Ségur and Cheval Blanc reach your wine merchant in two years’ time, you will want to be reassured that the stock is physically separated from the wine merchant’s own stock, that it’s identified as yours either with a name and barcode, or by the company’s IT system, and that storage is suitably humidified, temperature-controlled, either naturally or with air-conditioning, and secure.

If you wish to store it, you can leave it with the merchant if you’re satisfied with the storage conditions and that the annual charge is reasonable, typically between £7 and £11 a case, and includes insurance that covers the wine at its market value. Alternatively you can have it stored with a reliable cellarer such as Octavian or London City Bond. If you prefer to take your wine back to your own purpose-built cellar on Planet Janet, you pay the duty and VAT and the delivery charge, in which case for a soft landing do make sure that delivery charges are not exorbitant.

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