A Guide to Wine, Food & the Good Life


John Tilson • 5/29/12        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share



“Wherefore art thou?” This is the plaintive cry as merchants struggle to sell the 2011 Bordeaux vintage which is one of the  recent Bordeaux vintages NOT proclaimed “vintage of the century.”  Let’s see. With 90% of the century to go we have already had 3 “vintages of the century”?  Hmm. How does this work? That means there should be at least 30 by the time we turn the page into the 22nd century. Caveat emptor! Maybe we are in a period of detoxification. Consider this commentary from an east coast wine merchant:

“Let’s face it, Bordeaux is in a tight spot. Not that many care, since they have made plenty of money in the last ten years, but it is still difficult to find a market direction, and appeal to consumers, after creating difficult precedents.

In 2011, they have apparently fashioned wines that Mr. Parker has found similar to 2001. Nothing wrong with 2001, as wines are delicious and were fairly priced. Unfortunately, the prices for 2011 are similar to 2005, one of the many vintages of the century and the best ever tasted by Mr. Parker (of course until the next one comes along). So, consumers are once again treated like a bunch fools by indiscriminate merchants who are trying to pass 2011 along as a bargain. It does take balls to do that, and I guess we don’t quite measure up. The big guys in Bordeaux have tried to look like heroes by lowering prices 30%. Wait a minute.  30% off 2009/2010 prices? Not impressive at all. Of course, they can’t lower prices to 2001 levels because that would be damaging to their reputation for luxury and exclusivity. There are no other reasons, as the cost of making a bottle of classified growth Bordeaux is still probably only $10-12.

So, as always, consumers are better off waiting it out, looking back, and making decisions based on quality in the bottle and market opportunities at a given time.”

So live by the sword. Die by the sword. To say that the 2011 Bordeaux futures market is sluggish is an understatement.  Some have called it a “dismal failure.”  Many merchants have reportedly sold only 10-15% of what was sold last year. Of over 200 wines released for sale so far,  it seems only a handful have sold out or are close to being sold. Pontet Canet, Leoville Barton, Lynch Bages and a few others are in this category. The reason is simple. They are over achievers and the wines offer relatively good value. The problem with most of the 2011s is the price, where they are priced against the much better 2010s. And, they are also expensive relative to other similar recent vintages like 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008 that are still on the market. Some expect the futures campaign to close after the Hong Kong Vinexpo (May 29-31). If this event does not trigger a wave of buying, there likely will be a huge unsold inventory of 2011s added to the remaining stock of other recent NOT “vintages of the century”.

For now the current Bordeaux market is in disarray and this is compounded by the sorry state of the European economy. Not to mention the decline in the value of the Euro which may very well continue for some time. Yet another reason to be wary of 2011 futures. But, maybe what is happening goes well beyond the current campaign? The market for Bordeaux has changed in recent years. With many more very well heeled Chateau owners not needing immediate cash flow, the markets are moving away from negociants. Chateaus seem to be holding more inventory. Chateau Latour has announced that 2011 will be the last year that they offer futures.  In recent years, Bordeaux prices have moved to historic highs. Another troubling sign for the Bordeaux wine market is the recent entry into the market of “wine investment trusts”. These are speculative vehicles investing largely in the perceived best of the classified growth Bordeaux (i.e., they are buyers of the “vintages of the century” and not vintages like 2011) and created on the promise of a steady increase in prices. If the price increases do not happen, then look out below. (To read my article on that subject click here)  And, to be sure, the more of the market that goes into these pools (creating a larger supply), the bigger the risk and the harder the fall. In recent years the Bordeaux market has increasingly been driven by “vintages of the century”. If  there happens to be a vintage that is not a “vintage of the century” (like 2011),  then the sell through is difficult. Looking forward, the channels of distribution for Bordeaux wine are likely to remain in flux. In this environment, there seems to be a desire of the producers to control the market. If so, good luck. The historic economic road is scattered with the skeletons of those who have attempted this in the past in many other types of markets.



So as a wine consumer you need to decide. Are you a buyer who is buying to cellar the wine and drink it later when it is mature? Or are you a buyer who is “investing” hoping that the price will go up? In my view, when it comes to the 2011s it makes no difference. Under either circumstance the answer is to wait. As was stated above…“consumers are better off waiting it out, looking back, and making decisions based on quality in the bottle and market opportunities at a given time.”  I believe this is sage advice and it is coming from an unlikely source – a wine merchant with historical ties to the Bordeaux market. Here we are simply saying “pass.” My guess is this is also a view that is shared by many of the participants in the Bordeaux trade who, for obvious reasons, are less willing to speak up.


In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson

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  1. Learning about wine and winemaking is a new adventure for me. If my questions seem uninformed know that they are formed with the proper humility of a novice. Are Bordeaux wines not traditionally designed to age? Why would anyone make a sweeping pronouncement about last year’s vintage so early.
    Fortunately my customer’s purchase wine based on the fact that I never sell a wine I have not tasted and we seldom even mention Mr. Parker’s impressions.
    I read articles like the one above in hopes that something useful can be gained. Instead what I get is that the wine industry is filled with puffed up numbskulls. This is not what I find when I meet growers and wine makers. They are humble, steady souls who understand that patience is required to find real value in most things worth aquiring.
    By the way, Elisabethan English “Wherefore art thou” does not mean “Where are you” it means “Why are you.” Check it out in Shakespeare for Dummies.
    Cheers Mate,
    David Mott

    Posted by David Mott | May 29, 2012, 8:54 am
  2. A feudal classification system, a Byzantine distribution maze, and royalty that rules by Divine Right. Apparently the French Revolution never made it to Bordeaux. Add to all of that, annual pronouncements made at the end of each harvest by an honored and feared guest based on barrel samples specifically provided for him. And an expanding world market screaming “Gimme the best, I got the money and I want it all.”

    Yes, the 2001s are delicious, and still affordable. Ready to enjoy, along with 1988, 1994, 1999. I’m still buying those, so maybe I’ll try some 2011s in ten years or so.

    A votre santé!


    Posted by Mort Maizlish | May 29, 2012, 11:30 am
  3. Hi David,
    You only learn through experience. Bordeaux wines have historically been some of the longest lived wines on the planet. And, for most their history they have been sold through brokers, called negociants, who act as middlemen to sell the wines. But, as I mentioned, the Bordeaux market is changing. The idea that everyone sits around waiting for some one to declare the quality of the vintage and then have everything priced off of this is something I find peculiar. I, for one, am suspect of a lot of the big numbers. I buy wines based on my experience and palate and based on advice from people I know and trust. I have never bought a wine based on a number and I am not about to start now. This is the advice I give everyone. Buy based on your knowledge and experience and based on advice from people you trust. And, yes it is true humility is not an attribute of many of the people who are proclaimed as “experts”. I would rather communicate with the producers and the people who represent the producers.I also find them more knowledgeable and a lot more interesting.
    And, regarding your advice on my Wherefore art thou? comment, let me shed a little more light on that. I don’t have Shakespeare for Dummies and do not need it. Since the 16th century we have come a long ways. Shakespeare may have meant one thing but the comedic side over the years has been in another direction. In fact, there is an old joke. It goes like this: Juliet: “Romeo, oh Romeo, wherefore art thou? Romeo: I’m in the rose bushes. The ladder busted.” In the case of the Bordeaux market, it may too be busted. And, the question regarding the Bordeaux market and greed very well might be “Where are you?” or “Why are you?”. Both seem appropriate to me. RIP Shakespeare!
    In Vino Veritas,

    Posted by John Tilson | May 31, 2012, 4:14 pm
  4. Hi Mort,
    All true. It is bizarre and things may have finally reached a tipping point. Has greed killed the goose that laid the golden egg? Vamos a ver!
    Agreed. No real rush to buy up young stuff that you can’t really enjoy for some time unless you think there is a scarcity and the price will go up substantially. There was a time when I thought that was true. I was a lot younger then and the market was a lot different. Today I feel the opposite.
    In Vino Veritas,

    Posted by John Tilson | May 31, 2012, 4:18 pm
  5. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot
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    Posted by his latest post | May 21, 2014, 6:52 pm
  6. Thanks. I have not written a book, but I did publish the Underground Wineletter for over 15 years and you can read the retrospective reviews as well as the entire issues on the website. I have also been drinking, collecting, and writing about wine for some 40 years and would encourage you to subscribe to be notified whenever a new article is published. And please pass the word along.
    In Vino Veritas,

    Posted by John Tilson | May 21, 2014, 11:18 pm

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