Drama Stalks Bordeaux Barrel Tastings

Robert Parker warns that chickens are going to come to roost

Flickr/Chris Cruises/CC 4.0

As the 2014 vintage itself is almost ignored, many ask if there is a future for futures. (Photo Modified: Flickr/Chris Cruises/CC 4.0)

This weekend, the world’s wine trade will descend on Bordeaux — for many, somewhat reluctantly — to taste the 2014 vintage still in its cradle.

Hubert de Boüard, of the well-respected Château Angélus, calls the young wines “rich, mouth-filling, generous, smooth, structured with attractive tannins, lavish, and delicate.” A representative of Millesima, the French-based merchants who sell tons of Bordeaux wines to America, gave a cautious “promising” to the few wines he has tasted.

Regardless of promise or potential, the wine trade and not a few writers will plead for the châteaux that make the wine to drastically reduce prices from that charged for previous vintages; prices that will be determined château-by-château as spring turns to summer. They will also debate among themselves how best to remove the Goth-like purple wine stains from their teeth without stripping away the enamel. Most likely, they will be frustrated on both fronts.

It wasn’t always thus.

There was a time 10 years ago when primeurs, as the event is informally called, was anticipated with more excitement than dread. The idea was simple, except when it wasn’t. For ages, Bordeaux producers would let wine merchants taste the very young wine in barrels to get an idea of how good the vintage might eventually be — a commercial guessing game. Based on this critical feedback, along with anticipation of what their neighboring château might be charging, each château would set a price for buying the wine now — called “futures” — which was 10 percent or so less than what it would be when the wine was ready for market in two to four years.

The châteaux needed the money. The negoçiants, as the Bordeaux middlemen are called, bought the wine and passed along the risk by selling futures to importers, distributors, and retailers. Many wine shops would invite their customers to rush to buy their favorite châteaux at a discount for future delivery.

Two things have changed that. One, many châteaux, enriched until recently by les Chinois, these days aren’t desperate for money, which means, two, that the upfront prices are often the same as, or even higher than, what the going price might be when the wine is actually available a couple of years later. It doesn’t take a Benedict Cumberbatch to figure out that this is not a good deal, especially if the merchant also has unsold wine from previous vintages in the cellar.Even the critic Robert Parker, once the sun king of all things Bordeaux, is railing at the Bordelaise, fruitlessly, it seems, as his golden rays weaken like an autumn sunset.

Even the critic Robert Parker, once the sun king of all things Bordeaux, is railing at the Bordelaise, fruitlessly, it seems, as his golden rays weaken like an autumn sunset. “There are so many people that I know well, that I consider professional acquaintances, that I have enormous respect and admiration for what they achieve in the vineyards and wineries, and yet when it comes to pricing their wine they totally ignore me,” he sniffed recently in a Drinks Business interview. Using an analogy of warning that may set a younger, urban generation all-a-Google and a-Twitter, he predicted “the chickens are going to come to roost.”

It should be footnoted here that the British wine trade and media, deposed by Parker decades ago, have been making the same hand-wringing complaints and doomsday predictions for years. And it should be noted that while first-growth Château Latour pulled out of the futures business a couple of years back, it still welcomes the trade to taste barrel samples, FYI only.

Little wonder that curiosity to taste the 2014 vintage has actually taken a backseat to all the drama about primeurs itself.

The real futures game these days, it seems, is betting on how long there will still be a futures.

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