Vintage year for futures

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There was something different about Christie's auction of fine claret this month. The sale was entirely devoted to the much-hyped 1995 Bordeaux vintage, which is still maturing in cask in Bordeaux and won't be bottled or shipped until next summer.

Bordeaux is bread and butter to the auctioneers, but selling futures of the new vintage (or en primeur, as it's known) has always been the province of the traditional wine merchant. Since brokers and merchants have latterly been trespassing on Christie's territory, Christie's thought it was high time to get one back on the opposition.

If you blinked before you opened this year's voluminous merchant offers of Bordeaux 1995, the five blue chip First Growths (Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild), had sold out of their limited allocations at pounds 600-plus a case (pounds 520, if you were one of the lucky few, at Majestic Wine). Fresh quantities were soon being touted to bemused customers at grossly inflated prices.

The spectre of speculation in futures of fine wines is back, but there is a different twist to it since the heady 1980s. With good vintages curiously getting scarcer, pick the right one and you no longer have to sit on your case of claret like an outsize hen clucking over the due date. The vintage buzz may be instant, as it was with 1982 and 1989, or it may grow steadily over time, as with 1990.

In the absence of a great vintage since 1990, pent-up demand for 1995 has been fuelled by two further factors. Far Eastern consumers have entered the market for the first time. And speculation fever has been orchestrated from Bordeaux. The normal reward system favours loyal customers, but this year, allocations were cut back by 30 per cent.

As in 1990, Chateau Latour has been this year's most in-demand blue chip, followed by Margaux and Mouton Rothschild. Tucked in behind the First Growths, the select band of properties known as superseconds can pull away from their own peer group if the quality is there. This year's fastest vanishing superseconds have been Pichon Lalande, Leoville Lascases and Ducru Beaucaillou, while Calon-Segur, a Third Growth, has surpassed itself.

The polarity between the top wines and the rest is becoming increasingly marked. According to Hugo Rose of Lay & Wheeler: "There's a surplus of demand over supply for top 20 wines. We're seeing a sharp focus on a narrower range of wines than before." This is partly due to the pronouncements of Robert Parker, the American critic whose 100-point scoring system sent prices into orbit in the best vintages of the 1980s.

Access to Parker's Maryland shredder would be the wine lover's five numbers and the bonus ball. 1983 Chateau Palmer, a Parker 94/100, was offered at pounds 120 a case, and this year fetched pounds 990 a case at auction. More spectacular still, 1990 Chateau Montrose, offered by Averys at pounds 144 in 1991, achieved a perfect 100/100 Parker score and sold this year at auction for pounds 1,430 a case.

Parker scores have fuelled demand for a clutch of fashionable but relatively tiny properties in Pomerol led by Chateau Petrus and Le Pin. The latter, dubbed "exotic and kinky" by Parker, is now posting record auction prices. Parker originally gave the 1982 a 91/100 score, but revised it to 99/100. At Christie's this year, it sold for pounds 9,130 a case. The 1983, after revision from 87 to 95/100, achieved pounds 12,100; the 1985, scoring 94, reached pounds 11,550 and a case of the 1990, a 95 score, pounds 11,440.

Pomerol comets include Lafleur, Clinet and La Conseillante with L'Eglise Clinet and L'Evangile the pick of the fashionable 1995s. Meanwhile the 1995 vintage of an as yet untried and untested wine, De Valandraud, a 700-case St Emilion put together in wine merchant Jean-Luc Thunevin's garage, is fetching pounds 1,000-plus on the strength of Parker's description of it as "the Le Pin of St Emilion".

Despite the popularity of New World wines with consumers, the big New World breakthrough has yet to occur at auction. Reflecting the disparity between what gets drunk and what's collected, only about one-third of the top 100 wines listed in the Wine Spectator, the American consumer magazine, were European, with not a single Bordeaux in sight.

Demand for top New World wines at auction is limited to a handful of well-known names such as Heitz Martha's Vineyard, Stag's Leap, Robert Mondavi Reserve and Opus One feature from California and Australia's Penfolds Grange Hermitage.

With history behind it, the snob value of a Bordeaux name makes it the fashionable name to impress. "Seventy-five per cent of wines appearing at auction are still claret," says Paul Bowker, director of Christie's Wine Department. Jonathan Stephens of wine merchants, Farr Vintners, says California won't happen for a while.

"They may scramble for them in California," says Stephens, "but demand from our customers isn't there. We took a position on the 1990 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, which scored a Parker 96/100, but at pounds 295 a case, it wasn't selling. If it had been 96 for a claret, it would have sold in 24 hours"