On Bordeaux Futures & the Future of Wine Collecting

I’m paying a bill from one of the warehouses where I cellar wine when I hear a little voice in my head whisper ominously to me: Why would any sane person even bother starting a wine collection today? The compounding wine warehousing bills, not to mention my motley crew of wine fridges in the garage, send a cold shiver down my spine at the thought that, to Millennial wine consumers, I must appear like one of those wild-eyed compulsives on “Hoarders.” Don’t get me wrong - I love my little hoard. For the most part, my wines are not among the real collector blue chips, though I would never dream of selling them anyway. Like a lot of lover-collectors (as opposed to trophy-collectors) of my generation, it’s a stock pile of treasured wine journey discoveries packed around a foundation laid during a halcyon era of well-priced Bordeaux en primeur purchases. But considering the state of Bordeaux en primeur today, what are the real “carrot” wines that would inspire young collectors to become a lover-collector of cherished wines like me?

Wine collecting is by nature a curious endeavor and one with a long history. When pressed to justify my hoarder behavior, I’m reminded of how - many moons ago - people had to store provisions, because acquiring food and drink just wasn’t as convenient as it is nowadays. For the nobility of Europe, wine was a basic necessity that needed to be periodically acquired in bulk and squirrelled away in order to survive the long winters in the absence of Netflix. Consider the story behind the discovery in the 1970s at Glamis Castle of the walled collection of mid-1800s Chateau Lafite-Rothschild magnums subsequently sold at auction by Christies. Michael Broadbent worked at Christies at the time of the discovery and was charged with the task of authenticating and tasting the bottles for potential sale. He also pieced together the tale behind the magnums, which had mysteriously been left to malinger in the castle’s bowels for over a century, from the cellar book of the 13th Earl of Strathmore. In short, the Earl of the house thought the wine was bunk. The 1870 Lafite, for example, was by his accounts way too tannic and bitterly unpleasant in its youth. But I suppose we can forgive him for procuring so much as to be able to conveniently forget a few dozen magnums, because Amazon drone deliveries were a good 140 years beyond his reach and he’d probably got a very good deal buying en masse, well before the Bordeaux boom.

Unlike the good Earl, maintaining a constant store of palatable grog is not a hardship with which I need concern myself. Even at my local supermarket, the wine aisles are veritable lakes of wines just waiting to be fished and, if that’s not enough, I’ve oceans of options available in cyberspace. Though a Millennial I am not, I haven’t exactly grown up in lean wine times. So, searching for this root of my wine hoarding obsession, I hearken back to my formative collecting years, which coincided with the Bordeaux en primeur heydays.

It was around the same time as Broadbent’s Glamis castle discovery that the birth of Bordeaux’s greatest, totally unintentional marketing brainchild happened. Of course, Bordeaux en primeur was not initially intended for marketing. It was a way of financing negociants and Chateaux during leaner times in the 1970s. The scale of this model remained small until the 1980s. Although there was some en primeur dabbling occurring as early as the 1970s, it was the 1982 vintage that truly spring-boarded the trend for the trade and their consumers purchasing “futures.” This was the vintage that newcomer to the wine criticism scene, Robert M. Parker, Jr., went against the British grain and published rave reviews in his newsletter The Wine Advocate, which his readers acted upon. And they were rewarded. Consider the price paid for the great 1982 clarets back in 1983 – a mere fraction of the pretty penny they are worth now. A rousing success, the 1982 campaign was the touch paper for what is now Bordeaux's greatest annual marketing event and, for a while, a very lucrative one not just for the Chateaux and their middlemen, but for the buyers.

Alas, I was not lucky enough to have been of drinking age during the 1982 Bordeaux en primeur campaign. The first stages of my wine-collecting habit began when I was working in the UK wine trade in the mid-1990s. Bordeaux had just survived a harrowing set of vintages: 1991-1994. Convincing any buyers to take these lackluster vintages en primeur was, to say the least, a challenge. But then the en primeur scene picked up again with some better vintages, great wines and decent pricing (conveniently forgetting the 1997 pricing blunder, for argument’s sake). That I could actually afford seriously nice Bordeaux wines in my formative wine years without a doubt inspired me to begin collecting and in fact changed my whole perception of wine. Enticed to take advantage of fair en primeur pricing in vintages that I liked, which included 1995, 1996, 1998 (right bank), 2000, 2001 and 2005, transformed my relationship with wine from a passing interest into a lifelong love affair, and not just with Bordeaux. But since the 2005 campaign I haven’t purchased en primeur. I like to think that I have the good sense to leave a party while I’m still having a good time.

For sure, since 1982, Bordeaux en primeur has had its peaks and troughs. Most recently it has been in something of a trough, which can pretty much be pin-pointed to the Bordeaux bubble bursting after the jaw-droppingly high 2010 vintage pricing. Talk about shooting the albatross. Every vintage released since has been balked by potential buyers as too expensive, including the most recent decent vintage: 2015. We’re at the stage where many are questioning if Bordeaux futures even have a future. The fine wine market simply does not have faith that the recent vintages will hold or increase on their en primeur price after they are bottled and hit the retailer shelves. If there is no financial incentive to purchasing en primeur, what is the point? Yes, there will always be trophy-collectors who will want to buy, at any price. But for newbie wine lovers, the juicy “carrot” opportunities to afford Bordeaux classified growths and their right bank equivalents simply no longer exist.

For many collectors of my generation, the Bordeaux en primeur carrot – that initial platform of being able to afford to buy some of the greatest, longest-living wines in the world simply by making a commitment prior to the wines even being in bottle – was the foundation justification upon which wine collections, and in many ways our deep commitment to wine, grew. Now, given recent en primeur prices, there is no carrot.

The 21st Century has heralded a new era of wine purchasing mechanisms and pricing transparency. Thanks to ever-refining internet and app technology, we can immediately know the real value of almost any wine in seconds, locate a bottle of just about anything we want and get it if not immediately then safely within a week. Buy, drink, buy something else. Why hoard?

As far as I can see, there is little incentive for young, burgeoning wine lovers to begin collecting wine nowadays. This lack of interest in committing to collecting wine on any level could well alter the very commitment to wine for incoming consumers. I can’t help but worry that the long-term implications of the potential demise of en primeur – the world’s only fine wine region that can produce such quality in such quantity as to be able to service an increasingly thirsty and well-informed world of fine wine drinkers – is going to mean more than just sour grapes for the developing palates of future generations and the wine industry that services them.

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