31 Mar 2011

The great Bordeaux "futures" farce starts up again

This article is probably only of special interest to those who follows matters of wine closely. Although, when I think about it, the whole business that I am about to describe could be put down as a modern version of the Comedy of Errors, and so has some application to human behaviour in general.

Every year, when daffodils are out, the birds in full song, and leaves are beginning to bud and burst, the wine world of Bordeaux gets itself in gear for what has now become its major annual collective promotional campaign. This could be called the Futures Game. What are we talking about here?

These annual tastings, which now last for at least a week and involve a cast of thousands, have been organised in various forms every year by the Bordeaux wine trade for their major customers (importers and wholesale wine merchants) for as long as I can remember. For example I have memories of my father, who spent all his life in the wine trade, going to Bordeaux each year during the 1950's and 1960's to taste wines and make decisions as to which would be bought by his company for delivery to England a year or two later, then for bottling (in those days wines were mostly shipped in bulk) and storage by his company before being sold, sometimes years later, to private customers. These were more or less formal events of a purely commercial nature, organised by the Bordeaux négociants whose job it is to sell the wines that they buy, or contract to buy, from the wine estates (or châteaux in this instance). The public, and even the press, ignored them.

It should be remembered that the top level châteaux, with very few exceptions, do not sell their wines directly to importers, even less to the general public: they go through a complex chain which includes first a local merchant (known as négociant in French), and then importers, for export markets, as well as retailers of various kinds. All of this naturally increases the prices of the wines to the final consumer. The idea of buying the wine early, before it is bottled or shipped, is to get it at a lower price by taking a risk. This often works out for the buyer, but not always. If the wine sells this way, the producer is laughing all the way to the bank as he has cash for a product that he hasn't finished. It should be underlined that only a small percentage of all Bordeaux is able to sell its wine this way, but the media attention given to thsese events make for (usually) excellent coverage for the whole region.

Nowadays these tastings have not only been moved forward in the year (from May/June to March/April), they have also been opened up to en ever-incresing population of all kinds of wine professionals, from a growing number of countries, but also to all kinds of hangers-on and friends of producers and/or négociants. The result is a pretty good stab at organised chaos, although the official tastings organised sine 1973 by l'Union des Grands Crus, the largest collective grouping of top châteaux, are in fact perfectly organised. This year, for the tastings of the 2010 vintage, they are expecting some 5000 tasters as from Monday April 4th!
What has created some furore in press circles (we could call this a storm in a wine cup, given the low relative importance of this issue compared to other current affairs in the world) is the fact that some press members, eager to scoop a story, have "jumped the gun", already tasting a lot of wines in unknown (to us) conditions, and even publishing their opinions on the web. These greedy individuals are perhaps simply obeying the logic of all forms of journalism, where speed is of the essence. Yet it is not my idea of the right approach in this case, where greater subtlety is required to estimate the future quality of a wine which is not yet stable. In any event the wines are all being tasted far too young for anyone to be sure that they will actually resemble the finished product. Many barrels have not gone through their malo-lactic fermentation and so special barrels have been selected to prepare the samples. And none of the wines have finished their barrel-ageing phase, and so none can possibly be in their finished form.

In the past, when I used to go to these events, time and time again I tasted samples which were more or less different from the wine bearing the same name that I tasted a couple of years later, after bottling. And yet producers will be issuing prices for these young wines that are not finished, and many journalists accept to publish ratings, rantings, tasting notes and so on, some of which will serve to fuel the price positioning game which is the next phase of this very juicy business. Juicy for some, essentially on the production and selling side of course, as the "futures" sold mean cash in hand for the relatively small number of producers (maybe 5% of the total number in Bordeaux, but as much as 25% of the total value of all wines produced there) who manage to sell their wines through this system of buy-before-you-get.

The French term "farce" has an interesting double meaning in this context: one is the same as in English, signifying a slap-stick comedy; the other signifies the English word "stuffing". Guess who is being stuffed here? A mixture, as with all good stuffings! Press, retailers and the final buyer, in many cases. The system has become corrupt and hypocritical in that it pretends to be what it cannot be. Recently a Burgundian appellation, Gevrey-Chambertin, decided to ban all official tastings of unfinished wines to the press. They are of course perfectly right. Unfortunately, the amount of money at stake in the market for Bordeaux futures has become so considerable that I cannot see this system coming to an end for a long while. 

Good luck!