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July 07, 2010

The Price of Wine - David Womersley bemoans the fact that first-growth clarets have become so expensive that they are no longer affordable to the merely well-off

Posted by David Womersley

First-growth clarets have gone the way of Knightsbridge houses and Francis Bacon's - they are only affordable to the super-rich. Oxford professors will no longer be able to admire and enjoy the extraordinary skill employed in the making of such wines.

The unadorned facts alone are enough to provoke a sharp intake of breath. In 2005, if you wanted a case of Ch. Ausone, you had to part with 8,500; in 2009, that will be 14,000, thank you. A bit too steep? What about Cheval Blanc, which was a modest 4,500 in 2005. This year, however, it will be 8,750. Lafite was almost bargain-basement in 2005, at only 3,900; but in 2009 it has been decisively "re-positioned" at 13,000. What on earth is going on?

Of course, some of this inflation is attributable to speculative buying. But even speculators in the end need a genuine buyer to sell to, and they must believe that they will be able to find some who will eventually be prepared to pay a good deal more than these opening prices. They may well be right. It is clear that the very finest wines of Bordeaux - or at least those with the reputation of being the finest - are now being priced on the same basis as works of art or vintage cars: that is to say, on a basis which has nothing to do with questions of utility, or even (in any normal sense of the word) of quality. At this level, wine has ceased to be a drink. It has become a trophy, to be listed, discussed, displayed - but not consumed.

From the point of view of the wine-drinker, this is not all bad news. In the old days (that is to say, when the price of first-growths was within a reasonable distance of "normal" claret) you had to buy first-growths to be sure of getting something drinkable after the years of cellaring necessary for it to mature. Now, thanks to the widespread use of temperature-controlled fermentation tanks (those large stainless steel cylinders you often see by the roadside in France), even ordinary French wine is likely to be at least sound. It won't display the wonderful union of contradictory qualities you get with the very best wines, but it will be satisfying. Even in as exorbitantly-priced a vintage as 2009 Bordeaux, there are plenty of very good wines for sale at prices equivalent to, say, a premium New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

How will this inflation end? For the past thirty years or so, Bordeaux prices have been on a steady upward trend, following a jagged line in which the peaks are the various "vintages of the century" (it's worth bearing in mind that we have had three of those in the last ten years - 2000, 2005 and 2009). If 2010 is merely an ordinary vintage, these prices can be expected to drop back a bit. But not by much. Short of a really effective health-scare, the finest wines of Bordeaux have now disappeared from the experience of all but billionaires and a small group of wine journalists. Poorer or less well-connected devotees of French wine will begin to look even more closely at other regions, such as the Loire and the Rhone. Even grand cru Burgundy now looks, in comparison to first-growth claret, like everyday drinking.

The great beneficiaries of this inflation would seem to be the chateaux which can command these astonishing prices for what is, considered in one perspective, a simple agricultural product. The inflows of capital are extraordinary, for some of these properties are very large and produce thousands of cases of wine. But if the economics are thrilling for the owners, the workers who actually create these wines have reason to be more pensive. Like scribes producing illuminated manuscripts in a language that no one can read, the skill they expend on these beautiful but unconsumable wines has become pointless.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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