In one of Hugh Johnson’s fabulous books, he advocates buying ageworthy wines by the case, so that bottles can be opened periodically, over the span of their recommended drinking life, to see how they evolve. Until recently, I would have judged this very sound advice indeed.
However, at least where Burgundy and Bordeaux are concerned, this just isn’t feasible for the average wine lover anymore. Even the most diehard fans of these classic cellar stockers are pulling back on bulk purchases. The wines have simply become too expensive for all but the world’s uber-wealthy.
With so many new, premium wines and wine regions popping up all over the globe, you might wonder how this is possible? Surely the increase in fine wine supply would equate to lower prices? Not so! Why is this? The reasons are manifold…
The cult of the wine critic in the 1990s and early 2000s led to certain wines developping such star power that well-to-do collecters, savvy wine traders and affluent status seekers flocked to them, driving prices ever higher. Massive economic growth in China from 2005 onward led to rash of seemingly overnight millionaires. Investments in luxury goods, including Grand Cru Bordeaux, ensued at an impressive pace. In Burgundy, a similar phenomenon occurred, and was compounded by regular poor harvests, and the scarce volumes of this comparably small vineyard region.
The cult of the wine critic in the 1990s and early 2000s led to certain wines to develop such star power … driving prices ever higher.
A 2011 Fortune article details the meteoric price escalation over the past 25 years, notably in Bordeaux. A bottle of Château Lafite Rotschild 1982 was listed at 84$ US in a 1986 fine wine catalogue, whereas the 2008 vintage came out at a whopping 1800$. Likewise, a Joseph Drouhin Echezeaux Grand Cru 1983 was on offer at 30$. The 2015 vintage sells for an average of 205$ US on price comparison sites like Wine Searcher.
Have these wines reached such lofty prices, that they now cost more than they are worth? Many in the wine trade would respond with a resounding YES! Retailers from the US and UK have tried various tactics in recent years from lobbying growers’ associations to boycotting purchasing to get the top estates in Bordeaux to bring down their prices.
In my opinion, the question of quality-price ratio is a deeply personal one. I would never spend upwards of 3000$ on a purse because it is adorned with crisscrossed LVs. However, many would argue superior craftsmanship, or simply the pleasure of owning an iconic item, to validate their purchase.
On the other hand, I have no qualms shelling out thousands of dollars on world-wide travel, and will happily pay ten times the price of a local bus for the convenience of jumping in a cab on a rainy day.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of fine wine purchasing is the hit-and-miss nature of it all. While the top estates still produce excellent wines in poor vintages, they are not a patch on their counter parts in fine growing years. The buyer therefore needs to arm themselves with at least basic vintage information. Prices do drop marginally in poor vintages (at least in Bordeaux), but rarely in line with the quality difference.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of fine wine purchasing is the hit-and-miss nature of it all.
Wine is a living thing, that evolves in bottle. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the drastically worse. It can be affected by cork taint, and smell sharply of wet cardboard. It can go through a “dumb period” early in its cellaring, whereby the aromatics are muted and the palate so firm as to give little pleasure. It can also age more rapidly than expected, appearing dried out; lacking in fruit and glycerol.
You just never know what you are going to get.
So why do oenophiles still clamour after these insanely priced, potentially disappointing luxury wines? Simply put, because when they are good, they are like nothing you have ever tasted before. A truly fine Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru, at the height of its ageing curve, is so complex, so elegant, so powerful and yet silky on the palate that you feel the sensations continue to play across your tongue long after you have swallowed. The experience bears no ressemblance to that pleasant, fruity 50$ Pinot Noir you carafed last week-end.
The same can be said for the top châteaux in Bordeaux, though you need to wait a little longer for the powerful Cabernet Sauvignon tannins to mellow. In their prime, these beauties offer a level of finesse, of balance and of sensuality, that is just incomparable with their more affordable brethren.
…when they are good, they are like nothing you have ever tasted before…
Whether you are able or willing to part with a chunk of your savings to have such an experience is up to you. With a little luck, you can find a generous sponsor or befriend someone in the wine trade with good connections! This has always been my modus operandi. I haven’t tasted a Romanée-Conti yet…but remain ever hopeful.