I am often, and increasingly, struck by the large and usually unjustifiable gap between the prices of different wines, often from the same region and which sometimes, when tasted blind or without any pre-conceived ideas, appear to be very close to one another in terms of their qualities. If one looks at this question without glasses that are strongly tainted by the weight of historical reputations, current marketing spiel and selling prices, one has to ask the following question: why on earth should two wines from the same region and vintage, made with the same grapes and produced with very similar techniques, be sold at prices that can often differ by a factor of between 5 and 10?
I will concentrate most of this article on wines from Bordeaux, but the same procedure could be applied in various degrees to several other wine regions in the world. I will not return to the ridiculously excessive case of the Bordeaux wine Liber Pater (here is the link to my article in French…..https://wp.me/p34cc9-dMo) about which I wrote recently, but will try to take some more pertinent examples from wines that are readily available in many markets, since they are produced in reasonable quantities from various parts of the Bordeaux region. And the vast majority are sold at prices far less stratospheric (and often even reasonable) than the above-mentioned example that is aimed solely at the happy (at least very rich) and possibly stupid few.
I will start by taking a cross section of classified growth wines from Bordeaux and looking at their average market prices in France (one has to take one market as a reference to avoid distortion). I will explain what I have done here to obtain such an average as, although classified growth wines only represent about 5% of the region’s production, their price range is actually quite wide and they are not all to be put in the same overpriced basket. I have chosen to take as a sample group for these top end wines classified growths from the Médoc’s biggest « village » appellation, which is Margaux and the five communes that make up this appellation. Using the 2016 vintage as a constant, I have taken one classified growth from each of the five official 1855 classification levels, then looked at the average retail price of each wine (thank you Wine Searcher!) as well as their average collated markings on the 100 points scale. I then simply calculated the average price between these examples. Of course the presence in this selection of a single 1st growth (Château Margaux), produces a huge distortion as you will see. So I have also calculated the average price of the other 4 wines to be a little fairer. Here we go….
Château Margaux 2016: 554 euros (average mark 95/100)
Château Rauzan Segla 2016 : 84 euros (average mark 94/100)
Château Lascombes 2016 : 68 euros (average mark 92/100)
Château Prieuré Lichine 2016 : 36 euros (average mark 92/100)
Château du Tertre 2016 :35 euros (average mark 92/100)
The average (theoretical) price between the 5 above wines is thus 283 euros per bottle. If one removes Château Margaux from this calculation, for the 4 other wines it comes to 56 euros. Now my aim is not to make any comments on the relative qualities of these wines, few of which I have tasted anyway. The markings from those who have tasted them would seem to indicate that they are not very far apart in terms of perceived quality, and also that the historical hierarchy of the 1855 classification is pretty well respected, with a flattening out towards the bottom. But we all know that this can vary quite a bit depending on which wines, and in which vintage, one selects. This is just a general example taken to show something else, so please read on…
Very recently I went to a tasting of red wines from the two « basic » red wine appellations of Bordeaux : AOC Bordeaux and AOC Bordeaux Supérieur. All the wines were from the 2016 vintage and all were tasted blind. I tasted a total of 32 wines that morning, which gave me a pretty good idea of the overall quality of this vintage. I would qualify it as excellent, with, on the whole, very good balance between fruit, acidity and tannins and clearly mostly very healthy fruit as the raw material. These wines retail at prices between 5 and 15 euros and I found myself marking the best (to me) of them at 15,5 16,5 or even 17/20. If one converts these markings into the 100 point scale, which is not an exact science, this would give, as far as my ratings go, marks between 86 and 92. Now I quite agree about the limitations of any points system of marking: it is merely a guideline to situate relative appreciation levels. But still, one also should remember that the average prices of these wines were close to, and in some cases less than 10 euros.
Above is part of the selection from previous editions of this comparative tasting of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines. Interestingly, at least two of them were also selected this among the best year, showing the regularity of these producers.
As to the taste profiles of these wines, these were not just pleasant little « fruit bombs » that will fall down after a couple of years. They were true to the Bordeaux type with structure and good acidity to back up the ripe fruit, all of which together should enable them to age well for quite a few years if needed. But one also has to ask how many people will be cellaring this type of wine ? Probably very few, so they should be good to drink now, and they are that!
I am not saying either that all classified growths are overpriced. Just look at the examples shown above: the last two in particular are very reasonable for this type of label and such quality levels. We are talking about estates that have been producing good to excellent wines for a long time, and so have earned their reputations and are continuing to invest in quality. What I am saying and underlining is that one should never tar a whole region with one brush, and also that there seems to be a problem here with the market’s incapacity to pay, say 20/25 euros for a truly excellent wine from appellations like Bordeaux Supérieur when they are indeed worth that. All of this has three major implications for the buyer:
1). The producer is always more important than the appellation.
2). Buy on taste, wherever possible, and never on price (whether because this is high or low).
3). Bordeaux, in these two appellations as well as in the « Côtes de Bordeaux » collection, is producing some of the best-value red wines in France.