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Stop Whining About Bordeaux Futures

Consumers and wine merchants are complaining that château owners are charging too much. The real solution is to drink something else

Posted: May 16, 2013 10:30am ET

By Mitch Frank

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 d'Aiguilhe Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 2009 (91, $28)

Château Cantelys Pessac-Léognan 2009 (90, $25)

Terra Burdigala Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux Château Manoir du Gravoux La Violette 2010 (91, $28)

Château Chasse-Spleen Moulis 2009 (90, $33)

Ets. Thunevin Bordeaux Mauvais Garçon 2009 (90, $20)

Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  May 16, 2013 12:31pm ET
I have to express some sympathy for those noting the high prices now charged by the "famous" chateaux. They are in business to make as much money as possible. If there are enough (rich) suckers out there willing to pay outrageous prices (there are), then that is what they will charge.

Bit as Mitch notes in the last paragraph, there are more than enough excellent producers in lesser-known appellations to provide an ample supply of wonderful Bordeaux at bargain prices. And if you look hard enough, you can find excellent bargains even in some of the "prestige" appellations. A favorite of mine is Chateau La Tour de Bessan - a VERY good Margaux that is easy to find for under $25.
Mitch Frank
New Orleans, LA —  May 17, 2013 12:43pm ET
Thanks for the comment, Bill, and the wine suggestion.

One fact I forgot to mention - the vast majority of wineries in Bordeaux, one of the world's largest wine regions, don't sell their wines as futures. It's just a sliver of the top properties. Many of these producers who sell direct have really upped their game in the last decade and are well worth seeking out.

Bordeaux doesn't have to mean budget-busting.

John I Hanbury
Hattiesburg, MS —  May 18, 2013 12:07pm ET
Here are some gems that I have discovered with approximate prices:

Ch. Le Thil Pessac Leognan Compte Clary 2009 $24
Ch. La Croix Lartigue Castillon 2009 $29
Ch. Godeau St. Emilion 2009 $35
Ch. Lilian Ladouys St. Estephe 2009 $24

I rated these at 92.
Peter Hellman
New York, NY, USA —  May 18, 2013 4:58pm ET
Smart thinking on Bdx futures. It's a supreme irony, or so I think, that Bdx offerings include both the most overpriced and underpriced labels on the shelves.
Example of former: all First Growths selling for $500, $1000, or more. Example of the latter: A zillion petit chateaus made with love and skill. Just one favorite of mine: Patache d'Aux, which I just bought a case of in half bottles from the superlative, ready to drink 2005 vintage, for $8.99 per bottle. Finesse and drinkability in spades!
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  May 19, 2013 12:30pm ET
Yes, the Lilian Ladouys 2009 St Estephe is an incredible value. A very modern style - kind of like "Columbia Valley meets The Left Bank". FWIW I also gave it 92 points.
Charlie Stricklen
Dayton, Ohio —  May 21, 2013 8:08am ET
Forgive me, but I can't resist pointing out that, after an adroit two-paragraph lead to set up the Stop Whining theme, Mr. Frank launches into a standard whine/rant that comprises two-thirds of the story.
Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Canada —  May 21, 2013 1:49pm ET
Honestly, if anyone hasn't tried the Haut-Bergey 2008 yet is really missing out. I have seen it as low as $33 here in Canada, and it could be lower than $30 in the US. Some wines really only start to flourish after a couple years, flying under the Futures radar. Given that the current price is far below the 2008 Futures, it reinforces the point of waiting out the Futures campaign and seeing what discounts are given down the road (2006 and 2011 are other great examples).

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