Due to overwhelming demand from his clients, Sommelier and wine buyer Arnie Millan put together a very helpful 'Bordeaux Futures Primer', which neatly corresponds with the recent and upcoming 2010 future releases. As Arnie points out, the very top estates have not yet released their future prices, but so far 2010 is looking to be on par with 2009 as a knockout vintage.

This story appeared on Arnie's blog and was edited for republication.

 

A Bordeaux Futures Primer

What are Bordeaux futures?

The futures or en primeur market for Bordeaux is a relatively recent development of the mid-twentieth century.  At its core, futures buyers are paying now, in full, for delivery of specific wines roughly two years later (i.e. a future).

Why buy futures?

People buy wine futures because they are guaranteed delivery of the wines they want at a pre-determined price. Why lock up your cash for two years? It makes sense if you believe that either price of your desired wine will rise significantly or that the wine you want will not be available later.

Risks of buying futures

There can be significant risks associated with futures purchases. First, make sure you are purchasing from a reputable, reliable source that you are certain will stand behind the futures. Otherwise, the wine may never show up and you may lose the cash you invested up front.

Secondly, unless it's a top quality vintage like 2009 or 2010, arrival prices may not rise appreciably; they may even début at levels lower than the initial offers (like 1997, for example, when futures débuted at exceedingly high and unsustainable prices). You may have made a poor investment, tying up your valuable cash for two years.

Finally, it's important to assess the overall worldwide economic environment. What is affecting Bordeaux prices? Is it unfavorable exchange rates? Do you want to buy on a weak dollar, for example? Is it the strength of a new dynamic market like China and can they sustain long-term demand? Are there other players driving prices like British pension funds and investment houses who are now permitted to invest in wine futures?

Is demand strong across all châteaux or just a few like Lafite, Latour, Petrus, etc.?

Are importers, negociants, brokers, or châteaux sitting on large unsold stocks of prior vintages? Or is supply of top estates really low (this may be the case for the 2010 vintage)?

How the Bordeaux futures market works

Each Spring, around the end of March and beginning of April, the chateaux of Bordeaux open their cellars to journalists and the wine trade to taste the new vintage of the prior year. The timing reflects the cycle of the wine. Both alcoholic and malolactic fermentations have been completed and the final assemblage or blend has been finished. The wines are very young, they need to age (or sleep) in oak barrels for another 18-24 months, but they are ready to taste and tasters can now get a sense of the wine's quality.

It is during these tastings that the journalists and wine trade rates the wines. The big wine publications like Decanter, the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator publish their reviews. Chateaux are able to take the pulse of the market and set their prices for wine futures with input from brokers, negociants, importers and merchants.

The futures offerings appear over the course of nearly two months, beginning in late April and continuing until late June. The early offerings are from the smaller lesser-known estates. The top Second and First Growths appear only at the end of this process.

The Bordeaux market is highly structured with several layers of middlemen. Few chateaux sell directly to importers. Incidentally, the lists of chateaux offered, that you receive from your wine merchant, is a result of a selection process - not all chateaux offers are presented.

Futures are available in several tranches or offerings. The lowest prices, as well as the initial supply, are usually presented in the first tranche. If you miss it, you may get another crack at it but prices may be higher, supply possibly lower.

Conclusion

I recommend caution when purchasing futures. With a small handful of exceptions, they can be risky investments. If you buy, buy what you want to drink or collect. Get the advice of a knowledgeable, trustworthy expert at your local wine merchant. Do some homework and read up on the current offered vintage. The best rule of thumb is to buy well-reviewed wines from a superior vintage. Recent superior vintages are 2005, 2009, and 2010. Although not as highly rated as the previous three, 2008 was a very good vintage; if you purchased futures of top wines you benefitted from lower overall prices (set during a huge economic recession) and a stronger dollar.

Arnie is a Sommelier certified by the Guild of Sommeliers. In November 2006, he was named a Vigneron d'Honneur (honorary winemaker) by the l'Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins de Beaujolais. Arnie is the European wine buyer at Seattle's Esquin Wine Merchants.