Even in tough economic times, the prices of the world’s most sought-after bottles have remained stubbornly highby Barry Smith / May 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
How many of the world’s truly outstanding bottles of wine will never be tasted? Too many of them. They become trophy wines, valued not for the purity of their fruit and the development of their tannins, but for their ability to deliver a guaranteed return for an investor. Even in tough economic times, the prices of the world’s most sought-after bottles have remained stubbornly high. As the financial crisis led to a decline in demand for fine wine in the west, Russia, China and India became important regions for collecting and trading.
It is not just collectors and speculators who have put these vessels of desire beyond the reach of ordinary wine lovers. High-end restaurants adorn their lists with trophy wines that serve more as status symbols than real choices—although, of course, some people have deep pockets. A city trader once told me that he’d had a wonderful wine at his favourite restaurant. What was the wine, I asked. He thought about the wine list for a moment, then said, “Bottom right.”
How are trophy wines created? Paradoxically, it is the desires and appreciation of wine lovers that help to make legendary bottles—such as the 1990 Chateau Margaux and 1961 Chateau Haut Brion—so sought after. The higher critics rate them and the more we long to taste them, the more they will be snapped up by investors and planted in dark cellars to grow in value. Sadly, many of these bottles will never be opened. They become too valuable to drink and will be repeatedly traded until they are well past their best; a heart-breaking outcome for those who laboured lovingly on the vines and in the cellar.
Bordeaux wines are sold every year “en primeur”—an age-old system where wine merchants buy the wine before it is bottled, tasting it unfinished from the barrel. In the past, the idea was to secure an early allocation of the best wines at a reduced price. However, the system is now close to collapse as current opening prices are unsustainable and buying en primeur is no longer a bargain.
What sets the price of each vintage? Cynics say hype, but it is critics’ ratings. Assessment from the barrel is hard: the wines are young and tannic, and it used to be difficult to convey the potential of a given wine to a prospective buyer. Then came Robert Parker, a US critic who rose to fame when commodity trading was at its height in the 1980s. Traders did not know how to assess or describe fine wines, but Parker gave them an easy index of quality based on a 100-point system. With his exceptional ability to taste from the barrel he predicted that the 1982 vintage would be outstanding, even though others considered it over-ripe. Years later, when re-tasting the wines, experts came round to Parker’s opinion and the markets soon followed him. It is thought that some of the Bordelais even started adapting their wines to attract high Parker Points—a trend that is gradually being reversed. Ironic, then, that Parker helped to create such a frenzied wine market when he saw himself as democratising wine for the ordinary consumer through his simple scale.
Parker had less influence in Burgundy. The wines are less easy to comprehend or enumerate. Few vineyards are singly owned and top producers can turn out very small quantities of wine. Inevitably, handmade wines from small vineyards lead to high prices: the combination of scarcity and quality ensures it. Ordinary wine lovers should worry that wealthy Chinese are now taking more interest in red Burgundies, potentially driving up prices further. But, where in the past the Chinese bought mainly as a sign of prestige, many have now developed a genuine appreciation for these wines. We may not be able to taste them, but I hope that someone will.