In Vino Scarcitas The 2000 Bordeaux vintage is being hailed by critics as the best ever. Is it already too late to buy a case?
(FORTUNE Small Business) – Wine critics tend to be a notoriously demanding bunch, but if you read what they're saying about the 2000 vintage in Bordeaux you'd think they'd tasted heaven itself. Wine Spectator's James Suckling claimed that it's "the first exceptional year for a new generation in Bordeaux." Uber-critic Robert Parker has gone so far as to call it "the greatest vintage Bordeaux has ever produced." To put these comments in perspective, they're akin to horse breeders saying that a current Triple Crown contender will make all the previous winners look as if they were limping.
Because of such critical raves, collectors all over the world have eagerly snapped up the 2000 Bordeaux at record-breaking prices. A case of Chateau Latour currently sells for $5,000, for example, or more than $400 a bottle. What makes that more surprising is that very few people have actually tasted Chateau Latour, or any of the 2000 vintage. The wine is only now beginning to be bottled, and it won't reach buyers until next spring.
To understand this state of affairs, you first need to know something about Bordeaux, and about wine in general. The best red wines are balanced--they have components like fruitiness, tannin, and acidity that all come together so that no single aspect stands out. Wines from Bordeaux get this balance from ideal soil and climate, and a winemaking culture that goes back to the 1600s. Bordeaux wines also tend to be balanced in that they taste "big" but are still complex--they have subtleties of flavor yet don't bowl you over.
Within the region itself, small differences in soil and grape composition mean that Bordeaux can put out a surprising range of wines--merlot from some areas, cabernet sauvignon from others. In a typical year some of those wines turn out to be great while others are merely good. In 2000, however, just about everything was superlative. From the best-known vintners to the smallest, virtually all the wines from Bordeaux were exceptional. Why? One reason is that the weather during harvest was nearly perfect. Rain at that time can ruin grapes--they absorb water and don't fully ripen. But in the fall of 2000 the weather couldn't have been better: It was the first hot, dry harvest in ten years. Bordeaux chateaus have also started using more modern techniques to grow and process their grapes. Combine those techniques with great weather, and most critics now say these wines will be as good as--or better than--legendary vintages like 1945, 1961, and 1982.
Along with those raves, of course, come high, high prices. The 2000 Bordeaux is already fetching as much as great mature vintages sell for at auction. Take Chateau Lafite Rothschild. The 1986 vintage (rated a perfect 100 by Robert Parker) sells for about $3,000 a case right now. But a case of the 2000, which hasn't even been bottled yet, goes for $4,500.
It may not make much sense that wine can be bought and sold when the physical product is still aging in French cellars. But like everything else about Bordeaux, the way its wines are sold is unique: through the en primeur system, known in the U.S. as the futures market. Wine futures work a little like financial futures: You buy a certain amount at a fixed price, years before it's ready. If the wine goes up in value between then and the time you take delivery, you're happy. If it goes down in value, you're stuck. The most prominent chateaus put about 90% of their wine on the futures market before it's ever bottled. Initially the wine gets sold to negociants, or middlemen, who then sell it to importers and distributors; then it goes to retailers, and finally it gets to you, the consumer. At each step someone has to make money, which is why prices can escalate more than 200% from cask to uncorking.
The futures game has great benefits for the chateaus, which play it expertly. In fact, they're really commodities brokers that see to it that their wines are distributed in every major market in the world at least two years before their release--and at ever-increasing prices. Even if there isn't much consumer demand for a not-so-good vintage, the vineyards are assured that the negociants will still buy their wine in order to guarantee an allocation in the next "hot" year. In turn, the negociants do the same to the importers, who pass the favor along to distributors and retailers. Top U.S. wine stores often have to take quantities of lesser vintages just to gain the privilege of paying ever-rising prices for the most coveted wines.
Of course, the futures game is much harder for consumers. If you want to buy futures, you have to check in with reviewers almost as soon as they taste a new vintage, typically in the spring following a fall harvest. (Reviews of the 2001 vintage are out now; you can find them in wine periodicals like Wine Spectator or on its Website, winespectator.com.) Prices for the wines appear in May, and the futures campaign begins in earnest in June, when consumers are finally allowed to buy. In exceptional vintages, like 2000, the rewards for buying early are often better than the stock market--especially recently. I purchased a case of Leoville-Barton 2000 for $600 last July; today that same case sells for $1,600. Even greater returns await those who can be patient. Consider the historic 1982 vintage, unequivocally one of Bordeaux's best. A colleague of mine bought futures on a case of Petrus for $595 in 1983; cases of that wine now sell at auction for more than $14,000.
Unfortunately, while you can still buy 2000 Bordeaux, you'll probably have a hard time finding great bargains. The wine has become a little like an overpriced tech stock--many people want some, and they're willing to pay whatever it takes. If you're desperate, you can travel to Bordeaux and try talking some vintner out of a few choice bottles. But a more realistic solution is to stick with some of the lesser-known chateaus (see box). As I said, 2000 was a great year from top to bottom, and as long as you avoid the most bid-up cases, you'll probably be satisfied with what you get.
Keep in mind a few caveats. First, realize that early, unaged Bordeaux can sometimes be difficult to predict. All those differing aspects of the wine--fruitiness, acidity, etc.--develop at different stages and are rarely in balance early. So there's always a chance a bottle that's expensive now might not age well and might not be worth as much later on.
Also, understand that when buying futures, you get nothing for your money but a receipt for future delivery. So you should stick to reputable shops that have experience dealing with Bordeaux. Some safe bets are Morrell & Co. (morrellwine.com), Sherry Lehman (sherry-lehman.com), or Acker Merrall & Condit (ackerwines.com) in New York; Sam's (samswine.com) in Chicago; or Wally's (wallywine.com) in Los Angeles. Most of those stores will let you buy online.
Another strategy is to look ahead, to the 2001 vintage. As I write this, the reports coming out of Bordeaux are already promising. Some chateaus are comparing the Bordeaux of 2001 to those of 1986 and 1988--not as good as 2000 but still well-respected vintages. And since the coming futures campaign won't be as intense as 2000, you should be able to find some great wines at slightly less inflated prices.
Chris Wilford is the wine director at Triomphe, a restaurant in Manhattan.