Like most wine regions, Bordeaux has an annual rhythm. When the grapes ripen, it's time for harvest, or vendange. After the wine ferments, they pour it into oak barrels for élevage. With February, blending, or assemblage, begins.
May brings another annual Bordeaux ritual. Sadly, I don't know the French word for whining.
Every year, château owners announce futures prices for the most recent vintage, offering wine fans a chance to lock in that price nearly two years before the wine arrives on store shelves. Since the global economy took a nosedive five years ago, I've discerned a pattern: A few weeks before prices come out, négociants and retailers—the people who have to sell the wine to consumers—will announce that the châteaus really, really need to cut prices this year. A few weeks after the futures are released, the same people gripe that château owners missed the mark and prices are not low enough. They pronounce the campaign a disappointment.
I understand why people are unhappy. When the fantastic 2009 and 2010 vintages went on sale, prices went up despite complaints that no one could afford to pay so much during a recession. The 2011 vintage was less outstanding, so there were price cuts—small ones. It's hard to make a discount look generous when you've doubled prices over the past three years.
Do I think château owners are being greedy? Perhaps. After all, their production costs haven't risen as dramatically as their prices. But the system gives them an advantage over their customers, the négociants. When I visited Bordeaux in March, I asked château owners about the complaints about 2011 prices last year and their response was the same as always: "I sold all my wine—within hours, in fact."
That's because négociants almost always purchase whatever futures they can procure. If they turn down a château's futures one year, they might not be offered an allocation in a subsequent outstanding vintage. Négociants would rather shoulder the cost of holding on to overpriced futures until they find a buyer than risk losing allocations. The négociants are betting on better times and better vintages. It may be a wise gamble; Bordeaux has sold wine this way for centuries.
And in some vintages, the négociants win. There have been years when the trade paid the châteaus' prices for futures, then immediately sold the wine at double the price.
But not this year. During my visit, several négociants told me where they stood: The 2010 wines are so expensive that they haven't sold as much as they wanted. They're holding onto them, hoping sales improve when the economy picks up. They're also holding the 2011 futures, because almost no consumers bought those. Some are even selling the futures at cost, with no profit, just to get rid of them. The idea of sinking more cash into 2012 futures, which so far are selling unevenly, is unappealing.
Retailers face a similar dilemma. American shops that specialize in Bordeaux want a wide selection for their best customers, but they might have to hold the wines for years before anyone buys them.
As for the consumer, the Bordeaux fans, well, why order futures now when you could probably buy the actual wines in two years at the same price or even cheaper?
So I understand why people are whining that 2012 futures are too expensive. Now, get over it and drink something else. I don't rant about the prices of Ferraris just because I can't afford one. I go find a smart buy.
There are plenty of Bordeaux producers in less-heralded appellations—Côtes du Castillon or Haut-Médoc, for example—who make very good wines and charge very good prices. And if $25 to $30 is still too much, never in history have so many regions produced so much great wine; almost all of it costs less than classified-growth Bordeaux.
Here are some of my favorite Bordeaux values. What gems have you found?
Domaine de l'A Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 2009 (92 points, $30)
Château Cantelys Pessac-Léognan 2009 (90, $25)
Château Chasse-Spleen Moulis 2009 (90, $33)