A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it made “cents” to pay for wine up to two years in advance.
Those were heady times, and the equation was simple. It was found in nearly every wine book I purchased back in the 1980s and early ’90s. It went something like this:
“Buy two cases. Cellar one and sell the other after it’s appreciated in value. It’s like drinking for free.”
Back then, I never really had enough money to spend like that, but I dabbled. I bought six bottles of 1988 Château Poujeaux, a reliable estate in Moulis-en-Médoc, for $54. In that same vintage, I shelled out $180 for 12 half-bottles of Château Climens in Barsac.
The next year, I went big, spending $210 for a full case of 1989 Château Léoville Barton from Saint-Julien. After all, a famous critic had scored a barrel sample of it 96–100. How could I go wrong?
That was the last year I bought Bordeaux futures. I must have blown my meager wine budget, because I remember being put off by the “high” prices asked for the 1990 Bordeaux the following year. Or maybe I was just saving every penny possible, trying the scrape up enough for a down payment on a house.
In retrospect, I probably should have invested that down payment money in 1990 Bordeaux. Although I would’ve had to pay capital gains on the sale, the return on my $12,000 would’ve been far greater than the 20 percent we made on the house when we sold it 11 years later.
Only four of the vintages from 2005–2014 have yielded positive returns (the highest was 2008, at an average return of 39 percent).
First growths like Château Margaux and Château Haut-Brion initially sold for as little as $600 per case ($50 per bottle). Today, a single bottle of 1990 Château Margaux costs $900 or more. But if those were the best of times for Bordeaux buyers, the present day must surely be the worst of times.
Liv-ex, a London-based wine exchange, released a 10-year retrospective of the Bordeaux market in March. Only four of the vintages from 2005–2014 have yielded positive returns (the highest was 2008, at an average return of 39 percent). That means present-day buyers could pay the equivalent of the futures price or less for six of the 10 years. Returns were negative for five of the last six years, including the highly lauded 2009 and 2010 vintages.
Even the high quality of the 2015s is no guarantee that an investment in the wines will pan out. For the most part, prices for 2015s are up 20 to 60 percent over 2014. The biggest price hikes came from first-growths, like Château Margaux and Château Haut-Brion.
To purchase those wines for delivery in 2017 (wines that will then likely be cellared for another 20 years), buyers can expect to pay $540–$650 a bottle. When beautiful, mature wines like the 1985 Château Margaux ($500) and 1995 Château Haut-Brion ($480) are available for less, I find it difficult to justify buying the latest releases.
To bring us back to affordability, consider these price comparisons from K&L Wine Merchants (klwines.com, June 30):
Château Chasse-Spleen Moulis-en-Médoc
- 2015: $30
- 2005: $40
Château Ducru-Beaucaillou Saint–Julien
- 2015: $165
- 1989: $170
Some wines are released at en primeur prices low enough to make them attractive even when compared to previous vintages. Château Léoville-Barton is always outstanding in this regard. The 2015 ($77) compares well with the 2009 ($130) and the 1990 ($250).
Outside of the wines from a few tiny Right Bank estates, Bordeaux offerings are widely available, either through auction or regular retail channels, until they’re at least 10 years old (and often longer). So today, there’s no need to buy in advance. Savvy shoppers will continue to purchase back vintages and drink the wines without having to wait two decades for them to mature.