Bordeaux’s 2015 wines are the vintage the wine trade has been waiting for. After several difficult years that have left négociants, retailers and consumers alike wondering if the en primeurs system is a relic, a promising vintage could resuscitate sales and enliven the futures system.
Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth has tasted 279 wines from barrel samples, revealing wines with depth and attractiveness. While the quality is not as uniform as Bordeaux might like—some Left Bank producers struggled with rains—the overall potential is high. Retailers say this could be the vintage to attract younger consumers and reboot the futures market.
But two questions loom as the campaign is about to start: Do the châteaus really want to sell their wines as futures anymore, with prices that will draw buyers and make it worth retailers' putting energy behind the campaign? And will American consumers buy in significant numbers if prices are good?
“For there to be a successful 2015 campaign, prices have to be fair," said Christian Navarro, president of Wally's Wines & Spirits in Los Angeles. "That means room on the table for everyone.”
Tough years or a broken system?
Bordeaux futures have always been based on a fundamental premise: The initial price offered by the châteaus (with subsequent markups through the négociant system and eventually to retail) will likely represent the best price consumers see if the vintage proves to be outstanding. By the time bottled wines reach retail shelves, the cost could be much higher, and the top wines could be harder to find. The 2015 vintage offers the kind of quality that should appreciate—if the prices are right.
The vintage is the most promising since the blockbuster quality of 2009 and 2010. And those two vintages show what has gone wrong with futures. Like shooting stars, the en primeur prices for the 2009 and 2010 top classified growths soared, then fell. Unlike shooting stars, the wines have not disappeared—they’re still available on the market. In many cases, the wines can be found cheaper today than the original release price.
For example, Château Léoville Las Cases released its 2010 at an ex-négociant price of €192 in 2011. With exchange rates and markups, the wine sold at retail for about $302. Today in the U.S., Léoville Las Cases 2010 can be found among leading retailers at an average price of $303, with some offering it for $280.
Château Margaux 2010 was released at $802 ex-négociant, roughly $1,065 at retail. Today, it’s available at retail for roughly the same price, with some retailers going as low as $750. The other Left Bank first-growths have shown similarly poor returns for all futures since the 2009 vintage.
“You have to buy smartly. For purely investment purposes, you’re playing the scarcity factor,” advised Jeremy Noye, president and CEO of New York retailer Morrell & Company. But for consumers who want wines to drink, the possibilities widen considerably. “There is plenty of good  wine that would be nice to have to drink 10 to 15 years from now.”
What’s the right price?
On April 18, Hong Kong millionaire Peter Kwok released 2015 futures for his new 250-case Pomerol estate Enclos Tourmaline, priced at €90 ex-négociant, or about $101. The wine will sell for about $130 at U.S. retail.
“It flew away in a few minutes,” said Philippe Larché, partner at négociant Vintex. “Customers are definitely interested in the  vintage. People are waiting for it, but sales will depend upon the prices.”
On April 26, Château Labégorce released futures at $20 ex-négociant and Château Chasse-Spleen released at $21.70. Négociants and retailers are reporting lively sales. “[Chasse-Spleen] 2015 is a great investment for drinking in 10 to 15 years,” said Noye.
Bordeaux négociant Jean-Pierre Rousseau told Wine Spectator he believes that if 2015 futures are going to sell, the ex-négociant prices need to be 50 percent lower than the current retail prices for the 2005 and 2010 vintages. In the U.S., Labégorce 2010 currently retails for $35 to $50 while Chasse-Spleen 2010 sells for $38 to $45.
Château Valandraud owner Jean-Luc Thunevin told Wine Spectator he plans to release his wine at less than €100, or $112. The 2005 currently sells for $200 a bottle, placing his wine in Rousseau's sweet spot. Thunevin, who is also a négociant, said he expected a brisk futures trade in wines selling for $10 to $33 ex-négociant. At the top end, prices needed to show restraint. “The 2015 is a good vintage, but it has to be less expensive than the 2009 and 2010.”
China and the U.S. want the same thing
Eager demand in China was a major factor behind price increases for the 2009 and 2010 wines. But those days are long over. The Chinese market is now looking for the same value wines that the U.S. wants.
Demand plunged following the onset of President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign, as lavish business entertaining evaporated. But last year, orders rebounded and Bordeaux shipped 5.3 million cases to China, reaffirming its position as the region’s largest export market.
This new growth mainly comes from China’s expanding middle classes, who are drinking—rather than gifting—imported wines costing less than 120 yuan, or about $18 a bottle, Bruno Baudry, CEO of importer and merchant ASC, told Wine Spectator. ASC’s biggest seller is the DBR Lafite portfolio. They sold 320,000 cases in 2015, not counting the Bordeaux estate wines.
At the same time, Baudry says, “super VIP” Chinese customers have expressed a cagey interest in Bordeaux 2015 futures. “These are not the same people who were buying before. They’re gone. These are private collectors,” he said.
Do Americans buy futures anymore?
U.S. retailers who sell large amounts of futures are cautiously optimistic about the coming campaign. “I hope we’ll get our old buyers back, and hopefully we can bring young people in America on board, which I think is extremely important,” said Ralph Sands, fine wine buyer for K&L Wines in California. “Hopefully this vintage will create excitement for young people to take their first splash into the Bordeaux en primeur market.”
Several have found that consumers today savor the quality Bordeaux delivers in bottles priced at less than $100. “[At retail], $30 to $70 is the sweet spot,” said Sands. “Over $100, there are so many other wines they can buy and take home today. The 2012s are selling very well now that they’re here.”
Barbara Hermann, the fine wine buyer for Binny’s Beverage Depot in Illinois, agreed. “Our Bordeaux business under $50 a bottle is very good. The 2012s are selling well, as are older wines with a little bit of pedigree that come on the market every so often. And we continue to sell cases of château-bottled wine in the $8 to $15 range, which shows that there is still a lot of interest in everyday-drinking Bordeaux.”
In Manhattan, Noye says his sweet spot for selling Bordeaux falls between $100 to $275 and his customers are enjoying the older vintages from 1995, 1996, 2000 and 2005 coming on to the market from négociants and châteaus. “Bordeaux is back,” said Noye.
For retailers, the question is how to leverage this cautious interest into a reset for Bordeaux futures. And that again leaves them waiting to see what the châteaus will do.