Forget 2011 Bordeaux Futures, Buy Wine in Bottles Now

Guillaume Thienpont
Guillaume Thienpont, son of chateau owner Alexandre Thienpont. The 2011 vintage of Vieux Chateau Certan in the chateau's cellarwine, available in tiny quantities, is one of the stars of the vintage. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

Delete. Delete. Delete. Of the 578 offers of 2011 Bordeaux futures that flooded Jamie Ritchie’s inbox one morning, most ended up in his trash file.

In mid-May, after doing practically nothing in the weeks that followed Chateau Lafite’s release of its en primeur price at 420 euros ($519) a bottle on April 16, (a 30 percent dip from 2010), thumb-sucking chateaux suddenly rushed en masse with their own offerings. Major players, like Ducru-Beaucaillou, still haven’t.

“All the merchants wanted a fast and well-priced campaign and we didn’t get one,” says Ritchie, president and chief executive officer of Sotheby’s Wine in New York, including its retail shop.

But didn’t the chateaux, including the famous first growths, reduce their prices this year? Yes, but discounts averaged just 15.81 percent off expensive 2010, according to U.K.-based Farr Vintners’ May 25 final Bordeaux report.

Most offers weren’t nearly enticing enough to kick start demand for a vintage that is very good but certainly not great like the 2010 and 2009.

Considering you can find older, ready-to-drink comparable vintages already in the bottle for similar prices, there’s little reason to buy now.

Consumer Apathy

“Customers are walking away in complete apathy,” says Gary Boom, head of London merchant Bordeaux Index, who expects to move only 10 to 15 percent of the wine he sold last year.

Still, with the 2011 Lafite cheaper than any of its previous vintages on the market, he’s managed to sell more than 100 cases at 5,500 pounds each in Asia.

Simon Staples, global sales and marketing director for London-based Berry Bros & Rudd bemoaned Bordeaux’s messy schedule. On “Super Tuesday” May 15, more than 40 chateaux released, followed by another rush on “Wacky Wednesday.” On some days so many different prices were released that offers got lost in the flurry, he says.

He had just landed in Tokyo when I reached him. “We sold 105 million pounds-worth of 2009 futures, 72 million of 2010, and we’ll be lucky to sell 30 million of 2011,” he said in an e-mail.

Buying wines as futures while they’re still in barrel, known as en primeur, used to be considered the way to obtain top Bordeaux at the lowest cost. That’s no longer guaranteed.

Older, Cheaper

En primeur updates on Farr Vintners’ website provided plenty of proof. “Rauzan-Segla 600 pounds -- a very good 2011 but the 2008 is available at 420 pounds, so what’s the point?” it says in one commentary. Another example: “Cheval Blanc is delicious in 2011, but for 4,500 pounds you can buy the magnificent 1998.”

If wines don’t sell, they may be discounted later in the summer. One merchant, who didn’t want to be named, reported that within hours of Cos d’Estournel’s release ex-chateau at 108 euros a bottle, negociants were offering 10 percent off.

The half-dozen merchants I spoke with in the U.S. and U.K. are buying far fewer wines than they did in 2009 and 2010. Clyde Beffa, owner of San Francisco Bay Area K & L Wine Merchants, lauded “semi-reasonable” prices of La Mission Haut Brion (2010, 600 euros; 2011, 219 euros) and Margaux (2010, 600 euros; 2011, 350 euros), yet questioned the wisdom of having a futures campaign at all this year.

Seller Skepticism

Daniel Posner, owner of Grapes the Wine Company in White Plains, New York was equally skeptical. He’s been saying to customers, “I’ll get them if you want them, but I don’t know why you do.”

Neither do I. The main reason for buying 2011 wines as futures now is to get your hands on scarce, sought-after bottlings produced in tiny quantities, like the stunning Pomerol Vieux Chateau Certan. That estate hasn’t yet released a price, but for comparison its 2008 goes for about $140.

I’d also single out vibrant, layered 2011 Pontet-Canet, selling at $110. That’s cheaper than the current price of the 2008 and the wine is much, much better, thanks to biodynamic vineyard practices. Another good 2011 buy is Calon-Segur ($67.50). Still, there’s no need to rush as there is plenty of both available.

Sweet Sauternes are terrific in 2011. A top-value buy is the rich, superb Chateau Raymond-Lafon ($40). Harmonious Chateau Suduiraut ($69) and lemony, bright Coutet ($68) are stunning, but be aware that you can buy older fine vintages at auction for less.

Last Latour

Given Chateau Latour’s announcement that its intense, compelling 2011 will be the last vintage to be offered en primeur, it might be worth buying.

The release price of 450 euros a bottle translates into 4,800 pounds a case at Farr Vintners (700 pounds less than 2008) and $700 a bottle at New York’s Sherry-Lehmann. Typically the chateau only releases a tiny amount at the opening price, so it might increase quickly.

With Bordeaux’s high prices maybe this is the time to make your very own luxury-class Bordeaux instead. Crushpad Bordeaux, a do-it-yourself consumer winemaking operation (an outpost of the Sonoma-based company), is teaming up with Chateau Lynch-Bages to establish a winery near Pauillac. The facility will be up and running in time for the 2012 harvest.

Would-be winemakers will have access to Lynch-Bages’s team and famed consultant Eric Boissenot, who advises the first growths. The cost per barrel (25 cases) to make your own at Crushpad? A mere 6,900 to 10,500 euros, way less than the cost of two cases of 2011 Latour or Lafite.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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