Do Bordeaux Wine Futures Have a Future?

Paul Blow

The Bordeaux en primeur tastings are under way for the 2007 vintage. The system, known in English as “wine futures,” means that you pay upfront (usually 12 to 18 months in advance) for unbottled wine, still in the barrel.

The centuries-old system—Bordeaux is the biggest participant, but it’s also done in Burgundy, Rhône, and other regions—offers big advantages to the producers: They get paid ahead of time for products that will sit in storage. Meanwhile, the consumers get guaranteed delivery of wine at what should be the lowest price it will ever sell for, as well as—theoretically—the convenience of purchasing wine that might otherwise be hard to find once the vintage is officially released.

Futures buying—in wine, in the stock market—is a gamble. Vintages in Bordeaux can vary greatly. The châteaux set the prices each year after critics from all over the world descend on Bordeaux in April (I have never gone) to taste samples of the wines. Offers are made through merchants such as K&L.

What are the critics tasting? Six-month-old wines, still in barrel, perhaps not even finished with their malolactic fermentation. They’re tannic and quite often unpleasant. The tasters maintain that they are able to assess the vintage in general as well as the wines of each estate. But given that there is huge incentive for the château to show an eye-catching sample, is what the journalists taste the real thing? There is no certification process. How good a taster is the critic and how objective? The parties thrown surrounding this event are supposed to be great. Also, most Bordeaux wines are blends, and in some cases the winemaker might not even have decided the exact blend by the time the wines are tasted. Finally, when Bordeaux producers release their prices they never say how much they’ve produced. The panic that comes with the perceived scarcity of the best-rated wines goads people into buying the futures. But what if there’s plenty to go around and no real rush to buy?

These questions, combined with the incredibly high prices of Bordeaux the past few years and a terrible vintage last year, are rocking this age-old system. Europe had awful weather in 2007, and Bordeaux was hit with rain and rot. The 2007 wines are going to be impossible to hype; a friend who tasted the en primeur wines last week wrote me: “Wines are VERY uneven, with the top quality being modest and the lowest deplorable.” In addition, the former winemaker of Château Pétrus recently called the system “madness” and a disaster for wine. He was adding his voice to the strong condemnation offered last year by wine writer Jancis Robinson, who said in an interview, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to play this game? I hope 2006 will not be a success. I hope it will really show the Bordelais the shortcomings of the system.”

Thinking that futures are the cheapest and easiest way to buy Bordeaux, I’ve been tempted before. I’m glad I resisted. For instance, when I look at one 2003 futures offering, I see Château Potensac offered for $39 (see my tasting notes below). And here it is today for $39.99 at an online retailer. That’s 40 bucks I could have spent then for a wine I can get now for the same price—plus about three years, in effect, of free cellaring. I’ve also been able to sample this wine myself—rather than relying on the critics’ en primeur tastings—and know it to be good.

I recommend resisting the pull to buy futures and simply get your Bordeaux off the shelf at a good local shop. Chances are, it’s not going to be more expensive than when futures prices were set, and you can get a reading of how the finished wine looks—not some journalist’s opinion from a raw barrel sample.

2003 Château Potensac—The nose is a mesmerizing blend of rock and mineral aromas with violets, cassis, and black cherry. Though 2003 was a famously hot year, the flavors are not at all overripe, but juicy and lush. It’s a lovely mouthful of wine with a lot of forward fruit and a harmonious, elegant finish.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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