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!


  1. On the whole I'm in favour of the en primeur system because as a wine enthusiast as opposed to the professionals and those who wish to make a quick buck, it allows me to guarantee buying a property I like, and I choose these largely by reputation and personal experience. That helps to avoid too many errors in purchasing, but of course means that the tasting jamboree is largely irrelevant as I would rarely take the opinions of the "professionals" into account when assessing individual wines and vintages; their (the professionals) value lies in an overall assessment of a property over several vintages and the expectation that the property will continue to perform at the same level, which broadly speaking is true.

    I object to the game playing which many chateaux get up to, but then we live in a capitalist society so have to put up with it! And of course now all the best properties are priced out of reach of a small fish like me, so vive la revolution! Except we all know what happened to good wine in Hungary.

    The biggest risk I run is that the wine merchant I purchase from goes bust in between me ordering and receiving the wine as happened on one occasion to me personally, and so I would recommend using a merchant who attaches some sort of worthwhile guarantee to the purchase, e.g. The Bunch. As far as it goes, of course.

  2. You have some good points Anchois, but I am slightly confused by what you mean when you say that you rarely take the opinions of wine professionals into account when buying futures. If you buy from a merchant, as you have to, you are surely taking their opinion into account as they have chosen to sell that particular wine.
    Your personal experience of a property is of course the most important factor in your decision, but discovering new sucesses, or possible failures in a given year, is the role of good professionals, and I am talking about honest journalists who do not have a vested interest in selling you A rather than B.
    Accessiblility for us consumers (I am first and foremost a wine lover, before being a journalist) is indeed an important factor in the success of this strange way of selling.
    But, I think you will agree that the increasing precocity of these tastings tends to makes people's judgements of the wines less and less reliable, and, paradoxically, cause the speculation factor to grow.

  3. David, I’m not so well versed in the fine art of ethnographic physionomy. But I guess from one of your pictures potential buyers are Japanese, or am I wrong? How many milliSievert can one bottle of GC absorb? Is it a linear function of the price you pay it? What is the half-life of cesium in any given Saint-Estèphe?
    Yes, I’m wicked.

  4. Sorry if I didn't express myself clearly.
    Professional opinion continues to be very important to me; clearly I cannot taste the breadth and depth of wines of these wines as I'm not in the business. What matters most to me are their opinions of properties over several vintages when a clearer idea can be had as to whether its worth buying a future with a reasonable amount of certainty that what will end up in the bottle is going to be as good as I hope it will be. Of course I read the tasting notes for the latest vintage but more for interest than as a reliable guide; unfortunately I'm old enough to have found out that these judgements are often found wanting some years down the line. In other words they are often not worth the paper they're printed on!
    Isn't this what you were saying?

  5. Anchois, my poor boy, go and buy wines that are enjoyable straight away or taste them by yourself, for yourself and according to your own criteria. I don’t deny wines that will and can age will develop something special a “new” wine never has. But they are so rare and no-one can tell you for sure, not Parker, not I, not Peynaud, not Perret, NO-ONE. I’ve been drinking wine – good wine – ever since I was 4 y o (“avec modération” at that time) and I’m nearing 55. I used to enjoy older Bordeaux “Clarets” (as they used to be called, not their pinkish new meaning) as well as older Bourgogne or Hermitage, Barolo’s, Rioja’s ... you just name them. But wine-making has changed, mostly for the better. While you HAD to wait for the tannins of robust wines to soften their rough edges over decades, you can now really enjoy them – however sturdy they be – a few months after bottling. One could argue for ages about this – and I won’t – but it has all to do with RIPE picking and a better knowledge of the yeasts metabolism, as well as mastering malo-lactic fermentation.
    The only thing you’re still going to gain by waiting is restricted to 3 types of wines:
    . the “oxidative type”, of course
    . the “non-fruity” wines where only tertiary bouquet matters (of the type of old-fashioned Barbaresco, medieval Dão, outdated Rioja, unpalatable Pauillac etc...), but their more modern counterparts have got so much more to offer
    . wines with residual sugar where time is of the essence

    Apart from that, if you great Cairanne is good today, so it will be in 5 years time.
    If your Douro red is excellent, it will in 2015. If your Saint-Julien pleases you now, I bet it will in 60 months from now. And just forget about all the rest.
    Sapias, vina liques ....
    Please, NEVER pay hundreds of euros for a bottle of wine: it’s a SWINDLE.

  6. Ok Anchois, much clearer now, thank you. You now also have the advice of Senor Luc Charlier (our resident Belgo-Catalonian expert) some of which I suggest you take at face value, but other points he makes may be construed as reflections of his own quite well-defined tastes and therefore may or may not apply to you. But Luc knows what he is talking about, and I would certainly agree with him a hundredfold on the last point he makes.

  7. As Master David is both the owner of this blog and the moderator, I pay tribute to his wisdom, Anchois : yes, I’m biased, prejudiced, skewed, influenced and - dare I say it ? – sometimes even screwed. He is not 100 % , but 200 % right when he implies my opinion may only be relevant to my own set of values and preferences, no doubt about that. I’m a fan of proselytism, never of integrism. It takes me ages to form my own opinion – the only one I value, with time – and then I try to convince others I’m right. But I only try to convince, never force: I’m a monster of intolerance as far as ideas are concerned, but very respectful of people, their beliefs, their feelings, their preferences and their difference.
    One single thing really bothers me: they are of course wrong and I, Comrade Napoleon, am always right in my pig stall.

  8. Can't say much to that except, maybe, right on, pig!

  9. @Anchois

    "it allows me to guarantee buying a property I like"

    Isn't that a highly pessimistic view of the risks? It is VERY unlikely that you would NOT be able to buy your favourite wine two years down the line in some shop, so what purpose does the Primeurs really serve other than pure publicity and spin?

    And in any case, being small fish (like me), you can hardly afford buying these wines just for pleasure any more.

    It is a marketing gimmick that works brilliantly. It has certainly contributed to making top level Bordeaux wines very successful and a handful of chateaux proprietors even richer. But I don't really mind. Why should I? There are SOOO many good wines to be had today that are not top level GCC. Just as good and much more affordable. But not with a Louis Vuitton cache'.

    The curious thing with this year's campaign though is the reaction of some journalists that I write about here: Is the market for Bordeaux wine a market economy or should it be a plan economy?