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finewine

Education Reviews Wines

IT IS WORTH PAYING MORE?

Is it worth paying more for fine wine

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.

Who am I to judge? Learn more about me here.

Life

THE DEATH OF JOY: Comparative tastings and the standardization of style

Comparative wine tastings standardization

It is human nature to want to compare; to establish a bench mark and then try to measure up. In our Darwin-esque “survival of the fittest” mentality, we are trying to survive by determining who is best and how to emulate them. We love to give out trophies and scores and proclaim that x is better than y, and that all should prefer x. And the supposedly genteel, refined world of wine is no different.

I regularly read articles on comparative tastings that look to rock the establishment with proclamations that new world, less well reputed vineyards are superior to their renowned old world counterparts. In a famous 1976 tasting dubbed “The Judgement of Paris”, Californian Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons beat white Burgundies and red Bordeaux in a series of blind tastings.   Just last week, an Australian publication proudly announced that the new wave of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers from the Yarra Valley and New Zealand are better than Burgundy, often for half the price.

While I understand that new regions, looking to gain in respect and notoriety from wine consumers, can help their cause by likening their wines to revered vineyards. And I relate to the need to set a goal and aspire to achieving the greatness we perceive in others… I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that the wine industry seems stuck in a comparison rut.

I love the freshness, the fruit purity and precision of a good Central Otago Pinot Noir. And I love the elegance, complexity, and structure of a Chambolle-Musigny. I especially appreciate the fact that both styles exist to compliment different meals and occasions. Why determine that one is better than the other? Who decides what the best criteria is to make such a choice? And why should we trust their judgement?

The writer that hailed Yarra Valley as better than Burgundy based his decision on “freshness, primary fruit and verve”. Burgundian winemaker, Benjamin Leroux, argued that the majority of his fellow producers were not looking to highlight those characteristics but rather focus on structure. Two different approaches and preferences, that ultimately both result in great wines. So why not simply celebrate the wealth of diversity in styles?

Yes, it is irksome to pay so much more for the supposedly great wines from fabled vineyards, than purportedly better wines from newer origins. But so far these constant comparisons have not resulted in significant price decreases for the former. They just drive up prices for the latter… Great for the grower, but not so much for the drinker!

Mark Twain once said that “comparison is the death of joy”.

Our obsession with determining a uniform best, rather than savouring well-made wines from around the world for their individual charms, is a glum affair.

In the 1990s/early 2000s, when winemakers in Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-pape saw that more extracted, oakier wines were receiving higher Robert Parker scores, there was a rush to replicate the style and a generation of copycat wines emerged. I for one would rather have a wealth of styles from the light, fresh and fruity to the big, bold and tannic and everything in between. For, as many different types of wine that exist, there are an equal number of different consumer preferences, palates, dishes to pair with and so on. In my humble opinion, that is the principle joy of wine.