STEPHEN BROOK explains why buying Bordeaux wine is so complicated, and how best to go about it
Over the past year I have bought wine in Tuscany, Franconia and California. It wasn’t very difficult. I went to the winery, handed over a credit card and carried off my bottles.This is not how Bordeaux wine is sold. Direct sales (ventes directes) are regarded as a last resort, and the system is encountered only in the less fashionable areas such as the Côtes de Bourg and the Saint-Emilion satellites. And where you can buy directly from a Médoc tasting room, you can be quite sure that the price will be no bargain, since the proprietor doesn’t want to upset the merchants to whom he has sold the majority of his production.
Instead, Bordeaux is a market of middlemen. There are historic reasons for this. Château owners in the 17th and 18th centuries were rich or aristocratic or both. They had no wish to dirty their hands with commerce and were happy to make use of the existing merchant classes at the port of Bordeaux. A system developed whereby the proprietors sold most or all of their new vintage to one or more négociants. The grower had cash in his pocket, and a canny merchant could make a good profit by selling the wine to a variety of markets.There was another intermediary, the courtier or broker, and it was his role to act as middleman between grower and merchant. This dubious profession still exists today. If Château Latour agrees to sell 100 cases to a négociant, a broker will draw up the contract and pocket a two percent commission. Easy money. The courtier justifies his existence by sorting out any contractual or other problems that may arise. In the past the broker was the source of all knowledge, keeping careful records of every vintage and staying in touch with all the important proprietors, but today they are little more than middlemen. They have one further role: they maintain accurate and up-to-date databases of stocks of bottled wine. Thus if a British importer wants to locate 50 cases of 1953 Château Talbot, a courtier should be able to tell him where they can be found, and at what price. Plus, of course, two percent to the broker. With such a complicated system, the consumer is sometimes forgotten about. By the time the courtier has taken his percentage, the négociant his margin of between 10 and 15%, and the importer has covered the costs of shipping, promotion and so forth, the price the consumer is paying for the wine is far higher than the release price from the château.
Buy en Primeur
Rather than wait for the new vintage to be bottled and shipped, the consumer has been encouraged over the past two decades to buy en primeur (or futures, as the system is known in the US). The proprietors will set an opening price about six months after the harvest; the international wine trade and wine press rush to Bordeaux to taste the new wines just before the prices are announced. The professionals will assess the quality and likely prices, and offer to their customers – whether institutions such as clubs and restaurants, or private clients – the new wine at a price supposedly far lower than that one would be likely to pay for the wine 18 months later after bottling.There are years when the system works well. In 1982, quality was superb and prices were reasonable. Anybody who bought the best wines from that year en primeur will have stocked up with bargains that could either be drunk with enormous pleasure or traded at a good profit. 1990 was another vintage worth buying in this way. But there are also years when there is no advantage in buying en primeur.
The fatal flaw of the Bordeaux market is that it is speculative and, sometimes, greedy. En primeur prices rose steadily in dreadful years such as 1972 and 1984, when there was no justification for their doing so. More recently, the modest 1997 vintage was offered at prices far higher than the excellent 1995 and 1996 vintages. Demand seemed strong, especially from the Far East, and as a result, proprietors saw no reason to lower prices, despite the middling quality. (Two honourable exceptions to the rule were Châteaux Léoville-Barton and Phélan-Ségur, whose owner, Thierry Gardinier, told me: ‘I did not increase my prices because I wanted to be able to look my customers in the eye.’)
Anyone who bought the 1997s en primeur against the advice, it must be said, of the majority of the wine press can almost certainly buy the same wines for less today. The 1996 vintage was far better, and although opening prices were high, it seemed a good vintage to buy en primeur. I recently compared those opening prices with the retail prices for the same wines as offered on the lists of leading wine merchants today; in almost all cases the prices are about the same.The en primeur system is a delight for the proprietors and a handful of top négociants, who receive cash up-front a year before the wine is even bottled. For everyone else it can be a costly waste of time. The wines must be assessed while they are still in their infancy; prolonged oak-ageing, micro-oxygenation, fining and filtration can all bring about serious changes, for better or worse, during the year that must elapse before bottling. Moreover, there is no system in place to guarantee the authenticity of samples supplied by the châteaux.In modest vintages, when demand would normally be slack, growers pressure négociants to buy their wine by hinting that if they fail to do so, they may lost their ‘allocations’ for future vintages of higher quality. This same blackmail is then applied by négociants to importers, who in turn have to hype the vintage in order to get rid of their stocks. Somewhere down the line the wine gets stuck, which is why you can now find 1997 Bordeaux being heavily discounted. There are warehouses full of the stuff, in France as well as in export markets.The system has led to considerable price instability. By and large the 1998 Bordeaux (except for the very successful Right Bank) was cheaper than the 1997. This had nothing to do with quality, but with the négociants’ insistence that opening prices had to come down to compensate for the greed of the previous years. For many consumers the yoyo-ing of the Bordeaux market has led to considerable disillusionment. After all, price should bear some relation to quality. So what is the Bordeaux lover to do when a new vintage comes along? Here are a few simple rules. If the vintage is unexceptional, do not buy en primeur. Even in good vintages, buy en primeur with great care. Read the tasting reports from as many sources as possible. Remember that nobody tastes a finished wine. You are being asked to put down your money for the equivalent of a new car that lacks an engine and three wheels. Compare the prices for, say, the 2000 vintage with those for the same châteaux in still available vintages such as 1989, 1990 and 1995. If the 2000 price is substantially higher, ask yourself whether it makes sense to pay more for an unproven new wine than for a bottle-matured older vintage.
Also, only buy from reputable merchants with a good track record. The temptation to take your money and then walk off into the sunset with it has proved irresistible in the past to several unscrupulous merchants.The less regulated nature of the Internet means that it is important to be especially cautious when buying en primeur online. Remember that there is nothing magical about buying online: it is simply another, and more risky, method of retailing. Compare prices, for en primeur as well as for bottled wines. You will find considerable discrepancies. Scrutinise price lists from traditional merchants, and from reputable mail-order merchants such as Millésima. Check the lists of major players in the Bordeaux market such as Farr Vintners, whose turnover is colossal and whose prices can be surprisingly keen. Check Web sites such as Winesearcher.com, which cites prices for the same wine from a variety of stockists. Remember, even though the overall quality of Bordeaux wine has never been higher, the steep prices demanded for the best wines continue to make buying Bordeaux a tricky matter.