Bordeaux wineries hoped this would be the en primeurs campaign to woo back Americans. The potential quality of the vintage on sale, 2014, is the best in four years. And while most of the château owners who have released their futures so far have raised prices over last year's, U.S. stores are offering the 2014s for less than recent vintages, thanks to a strong dollar and a weak euro.
But after more than two weeks of releases, leading retailers tell Wine Spectator they are seeing lukewarm sales."There is far more interest in 2014 than in '11, '12 and '13 put together, but overall it is a very quiet campaign,” said Ralph Sands, senior wine specialist at California's K&L Wine Merchants.
Until recently, futures offered wine lovers the best option for getting their hands on allocations of top Bordeauxs at a decent price. Whether they planned to drink the wine someday or sell it, they could pay a lower price for the future than they would for the wine at retail. Passing on the futures might make it difficult to secure the wine later.
Those days are gone. “Definitely not true any longer," said Sands. "Starting with 2010, you can still buy almost every famous wine five years later. There are large stocks in Bordeaux unsold, [except for] the minuscule-production wines.”
Barbara Hermann, wine buyer for Illinois chain Binny’s Beverage Depot, reports that the U.S. market is flush with moderately aged Bordeaux, ready to drink tonight. “There is a lot of wine out in the market from just about every château,” she said. “These past couple of years, I’ve been buying older stock, not too much high-end, but well-reviewed wines from 2000 to 2009 that sell for $20 to $70. We have a lot of customers that love to drink Bordeaux, don't buy futures and don't have a cellar.”
She added that even first-growths are not immune. “You can buy most first-growths from '12 and '13 for under $400 a bottle. The average customer doesn't spend $325 on a bottle of wine and the collector only wants the top wines at the best prices they can find.”
Travel to Bordeaux, and you’ll hear that the first-growths hold golden tickets during futures campaigns, enjoying demand seemingly disconnected from reality checks like price. A barrel sample of Château Haut-Brion's 2014 received a score of 95 to 98 points from Wine Spectator and the futures are selling for about $315 in U.S. stores. But while that price is lower than every bottled vintage of Haut-Brion on the market, retailers report little interest.
(For a full report on the 2014 vintage, visit senior editor James Molesworth's barrel tasting report. For the latest futures prices, check out our 2014 Bordeaux Futures Price Chart.)
It's becoming a trend. One major retailer with more than two dozen stores did not sell a single bottle of Lafite Rothschild 2013 en primeur. They have not sold any Mouton-Rothschild 2014 en primeur yet and predict they’ll sell only a small amount of first-growths in this campaign.
That's leading many stores to carry few or no Bordeaux futures, abandoning the market to a handful of specialists. Some of those sell futures only as a service to regular clients, and only buy what they know they can sell. “Our goal is to sell 80 percent en primeur, [though] I wouldn’t mind having a little Mouton hanging around,” said Jeremy Noye, CEO of New York's Morrell Wine. “But in general we don’t want to have young Bordeaux on the shelf. We buy moderately aged wines to sell on the shelf.”
Other retailers assume the wine won't sell for years. “I think Mouton-Rothschild’s price was fair, but the reality is it will sell slowly once it hits stores. And that is all right,” said Hermann. “We have a lot of stores and we pride ourselves on offering our customers a selection of the finest wines in the world. So we carry most of the first-growths, Harlan, Bryant, Sassicaia, DRC, etc. Eventually they sell.”
So who does buy first-growth futures in the U.S. these days? Collectors with verticals to maintain and milestone-year customers. It’s a small population. Even when retailers do sell futures, the volume amounts to a trickle. The wines are rarely sold by the case.
Bordeaux has also failed to ignite interest in the next generation of wine drinkers who might have been cajoled into buying futures. “Bordeaux needs to reboot and seriously energize and upgrade the little marketing that they do here in America to attract new young buyers before it’s too late,” said Sands. "We’re in the heart of Silicon Valley, we have a lot of young wealthy people, and no one is knocking on the door for these wines. It’s a big wine world now with hundreds of choices for good wine and they really do not have any connection to Bordeaux in most cases.”
So what are retailers buying and expecting to sell en primeur?
“I am buying some ‘blue chips,’ especially if our stock of older vintages are low. I bought as much Lynch Bages as I could, Beychevelle, and the Mouton group,” said Hermann. “And I've bought a couple of lower priced wines that have always sold well for us.”
“I think Lynch Bages got it right. Pricing was generally well-received by our base that has a little interest in futures,” said Noye. “It’s priced under $100—that’s very attractive for people. Smith-Haut-Lafitte could sell really well due to its popularity [if the price is right].”
Other wines leading retailers expect to sell are Beychevelle, Léoville Barton, Duhart-Milon and Montrose—depending on the pricing. Well-known wines like Clerc Milon, d’Armailhac, Branaire-Ducru, Brane-Cantenac, Rauzan-Ségla and Talbot might offer top quality, but “the general public is not racing to suck up these wines,” said one retailer.
At K&L, which sells hundreds of Bordeaux selections, Sands believes in the region's quality. “The winemaking in Bordeaux is at such a high level, there are clearly no slackers in today’s Bordeaux,” said Sands. That means that consumers and retailers can largely forget the classifications, and choose wines with solid reputations, strong ratings and attractive prices.
"Château La Lagune and Château Cantemerle are two of our most popular wines in recent years,” said Sands. "And there are many great wineries that fly under the radar and are making fantastic wines that offer great value—wines like Angludet, d’Issan, Labégorce, Kirwan, Giscours, du Tertre, Prieuré-Lichine and Poujeaux to name a few."
For now, the most opportunity seems to lie in châteaus that traditionally haven't sold many futures. “There are some petits châteaus, that aren’t really en primeur wines, that we’ve tasted and loved and are offering to our customers, like Capbern-Gasqueton at $17.99," said Sands. "People are ordering cases of it."