Before a highly coveted wine hits the shelves, consumers and the trade may have an opportunity to lock down an allocation by paying for it in advance. These are called "futures," and in the case of rare, hard-to-find wines, they may be your best opportunity to secure them. The futures price may prove to be a bargain, as well, if demand for the wine sends prices soaring.
However, as with any investment, there is always the risk that prices may drop: Predicting the quality and demand of any given vintage is a gamble, and economic factors can strongly influence prices, no matter how good the wine.
It was once possible to make a killing, as anyone who bought 1982 Château Latour futures could attest: It presold for about $40 a bottle in 1983; now it sells for about $1,500 a bottle. More realistically, one can hope for substantial savings, as was the case with futures for the 2000 vintage, some of which are now valued at double or triple their release prices. Recently, however, futures have been a less-lucrative endeavor, and the secondary market has proven competitive with initial offers.
Bordeaux's 2010 vintage debuted to stellar reviews and all-time high futures prices; while the quality of the wines has held up, their prices have not, and most blue-chip 2010 Bordeauxs are now available for well below their release prices.
What's in it for the wineries? The futures system allows wine estates to pay off debts incurred over the course of the vintage sooner rather than later, when the wines have been barrel-aged, bottled and are ready for release. But not all agree that the system is necessarily beneficial to the wineries, either. Bordeaux first-growth Château Latour's owners shocked many when they announced in 2012 that Latour would no longer participate in the futures market, electing not to sell any of its wine until it was ready to be released.
Wine sold as futures, called en primeur in Bordeaux, reaches the world through a series of phases. For Bordeaux, it all begins in late March or early April, when châteaus host tastings for the trade to evaluate the potential quality of the vintage harvested during the previous autumn; these wines have just gone into barrel and are still about two years from reaching the market in bottles.
Over the course of the spring, châteaus release their trade prices for the vintage based on the initial response to the wines and global economic conditions. There is no fixed schedule; while the top growths sometimes pave the way for everyone else, in other cases they may hold off until May while smaller estates test the waters. The wines first go through courtiers, or brokers, who take a small percentage; then the right to sell the futures is passed on to the négociants, or shippers, who set a new price for the wine, referred to as the ex-négoce price. With very few exceptions, no one deals directly with Bordeaux's châteaus; they deal with the négociants.
For the U.S. market, the négociants in turn sell the wine to importers, who then sell the wine onto wholesalers, retailers and restaurants, each of whom further marks up the price.
Bordeaux is not the only region to sell its wines in advance. Many wines from Burgundy—especially those from grand and premier cru vineyards—are offered on a "pre-arrival" basis, with consumers paying in advance for a wine that the retailer has not yet received in order to secure these often tiny-production wines.
In the United States, domestic wineries may presell directly to consumers, typically in the form of allocations distributed among mailing-list members shortly before the bottled wines are released. For mailing-list members of cult-status wineries like Screaming Eagle and Sine Qua Non, it can be relatively simple to resell these allocated wines at a big profit on the secondary market, a practice known as "flipping." (Winemakers have mixed opinions on the phenomenon.)
If you plan to buy Bordeaux futures, work only with reputable merchants who have a history of delivering the wines their customers order. Shop around for the best prices, but don't be tempted by a price that seems too good to be true.