En primeur, Pre-Release or "Wine Futures", is a method of purchasing wines early while a vintage is still in a barrel, or at least in bottle but not yet shipped. In the correct circumstances it can offer the customer (both you and us!!!) the opportunity to secure or invest in a particular wine before it is shipped.
The wines most commonly offered en primeur are from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley and Port, although other regions are adopting the practice with enthusiasm. In our view there are essentially two distinct reasons to purchase a wine Pre-Release, these are scarcity and price. One or preferably both make this system of buying essential or at least an attractive option. Put another way, if a wine is likely to have become considerably more expensive at the point of shipping (for example, market forces have pushed the price up) and/or that availability is so limited that you have just this one chance to purchase said wine then En Primeur is the preferred or even only method. Other advantages are minor and are generally around convinience, predictability and protection of future allocations.
How should it work?
Payment is made at an early stage, months, a year or 18 months prior to the official release of a vintage. As mentioned a possible advantage of buying wines en primeur is that the wines may be considerably cheaper during the en primeur period than they will be once bottled and released on the market. However, that is certainly not guaranteed and some wines may lose value over time. Increasingly it is recommend buying en primeur for wines with very limited quantities and will most likely not be available when they are released.
This way of doing business has existed in Bordeaux for centuries and in the best vintages demand pushes prices sky-high while availability remains finite. As well Burgundy, The Rhone and Port it is increasing employed as a way for 'in-demand' produced to manage their allocations of their best wines. Therefore it is increasingly typical to see such methods employed in Piedmont, Tuscany, Ribera del Duero, California and Rioja. In Italy some work is being done to promote the development of a full-blown Italian en primeur market. In recent years the line between "allocated wines" and "En Primeur" has become increasingly blurred.
In the past 10 years, due to the increase in interest from consumers and the potential investment benefits examples of fraudulent practice in this sector of the wine trade has increased. Both the WSTA (Wine & Spirit Trade Association) and WSET have guides to buying En Primeur wines. See also Investing in Fine Wine and wine journalists excellent blog Investdrinks.org