Why are wines from Bordeaux so expensive?
Katie Mather counts her pennies
Wednesday 02 February 2022
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One of the first things I ever learned about wine from Bordeaux was that it was out of my reach. This wine was the pinnacle of sophistication, and that meant that it was expensive, and not for me.
It wasn’t until I began gathering more interest in winemaking and tasting that I realised only a select few hundred wines out of hundreds of thousands are truly outrageously-priced. I could ignore them, if I wanted to. But they fascinate me, these treasure-wines, hoarded in caves, glowing gently in the dark.
My good friend and WSET tutor Maureen Little told me on one of our first meetings that it was one of her favourite styles of wine. It struck me; perhaps it wasn’t so out of reach. If Mo had drunk enough Bordeaux for it to become a firm favourite in her house, surely I might get to try some too?
Of course, there’s Bordeaux and then there’s capital-illuminated-gold-leaf-sent-by-the-case-to-Guangzhou-Bordeaux. As we tasted wines together I began to see that there’s more to the cost of a pricey wine than meets the eye.
What’s Actually In a £4000 Bottle?
“In 1855, the left bank decided that they wanted to classify their wines, so there were and still are only 61 châteaux that are classified as Grand Cru and Cru Classe,” Maureen begins. “So immediately people see that as a mark of quality. And in the beginning it was.”
Think about this: In 1855, people were calling Bordeaux wine “claret”. This image of old, rich people drinking claret wine in the draughty-mansion olden days has sort-of stuck. Basically, as Maureen explains: “You pay more because it was worth more, historically.” It is spenny because it is.
“But also there’s reputation,” she adds. “If you go way back, those top chateaux in the first two or three groups produce outstanding wines: we’re talking Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, we’re talking Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour… they’re all first growth, which is the pinnacle of Grand Cru classification. That’s why they can command such high prices.”
So, on top of this ornate idea of historical importance or prestige, there’s the heavy damask of esteem to add weight to the price tag. And then, of course, there’s a dusting of fame.
“Who’s drunk it? That really seems to matter,” says Maureen. “The Queen drank it at her coronation, President Kennedy drank practically nothing but Bordeaux, so the people in Bordeaux at the time thought, hey, we’re onto a good thing here. And the rest of the world thought, if people like that drink it, it must be good.” Influencer marketing in wine. It’s not a new thing, evidently.
The terroir of Bordeaux, to give it its dues, is exceptional. On the left bank especially it’s a prime location; the gravelly soil ripens the grapes even more effectively than even the right bank of Bordeaux.
“You can’t get a better terroir,” says Maureen. “Top wine writer and critic Jancis Robinson, for example, will tell you that this terroir is unbeatable. And then those critics’ reviews of it affect the price. 99 points against 91 points can really make all the difference. It’s a lot of power for a palate to wield!”
Growing stately and serene in that most kingly of terroirs are some of the oldest vines in France. This is also a factor in the pricing of a wine. The older a vine gets, the less productive it is, but it tends to produce higher quality grapes, so immediately you are gaining a lower yield and therefore pushing those prices up.
“Grape varieties matter too,” Maureen reminds me. “Cabernet Sauvignon on the left bank has really high tannins and high acidity, and therefore holds superior ageing potential. This all comes together to create a product that has a lot of value.”
Product. Not a word many winemakers like to use, but which leads us neatly to another word we all know in business terms: Scarcity. Scarcity and demand means a higher premium can be fetched. It’s here where we start thinking about other factors aside from the quality of the wine itself. Product has, in this case, become the correct word to use.
The rarity of these top-level grapes continues, as Maureen explains. “Within that region there is rigorous selection. The regulatory body of Bordeaux has really strict rules that cover the selection of the grapes — on maximum yield per hectare, for example, which adds to the scarcity. You’ll find that after the véraison — when the grapes set on the vines— the vineyard owner will remove some so they don’t overstep the limit, which is time consuming. And it’s all done by hand for these top classified wines.”
On top of all this, there’s vintage variation from year to year because of how the weather affects the growing and ripening of the grapes. This all knocks-on to the amount that can be made into these exceptional grand cru classé and cru classé wines.
So to price your exceptional wine, you need to take into account it’s terroir, its ageing potential, its scarcity, whether it is famously drunk by royalty or top level celebrities, whether the year’s weather has been kind to your rows of old, hand-harvested vines, and how critics receive its flavour, aroma, intensity and ageing potential.
What’s interesting, in a depressing sort of way, is that this means the wine’s value is being created by attributes that the buyer may not even care to experience for themselves.
“A bottle of wine is really only worth what somebody is going to pay for it,” says Maureen. “Some of this reminds me of Tulip Mania back in the 1700s, when people paid ludicrous sums of money for rare tulip bulbs. Why? It was a commodity. And in a similar way, a lot of people look upon Bordeaux wine as an investment rather than as a bottle to pour with dinner.”
Are people actually drinking these superbly expensive bottles of Bordeaux?
“There must be some people somewhere who have the money to crack open a bottle,” says Maureen, hopefully. “But the vineyard owners probably don’t think of it as being a shame that nobody’s drinking it, they’re making £4k a bottle.”
How to buy affordable Bordeaux!
Bordeaux does not have to be expensive, you just need to look at the label.
“Forget the Grand Cru Classe, the Cru Classe — you’ll never afford it,” is Maureen’s advice. “Look instead for Cru Bourgeois, and Superieur, which you can get in some supermarkets for about £15. For good old Bordeaux AOC, you can probably pick up a bottle for less than £6.”
“Of course it can be a bit hit and miss, you pays your money and you takes your choice.”
Don’t just go chasing classifications though. Maureen’s advice is to get a bit natty about Bordeaux.
“There are an awful lot of growers and makers in the Bordeaux region putting two fingers up to the classification system because they want to grow organically, or because they don’t care about it, or because they simply know their wine is good and don’t want to be stuck in a time warp,” she says.
“They want to branch out, innovate, experiment — and there are some cracking innovative wines out there from Bordeaux. In my opinion, if a maker is dedicated to making organic or natural wine, they husband the soil properly, so they obviously care deeply about making quality wine. So these are also wines well worth looking out for — just do your research first, and go into it with an informed but open mind.”
But before you go forth and search the world of accessible Bordeaux, have a rummage through this month’s wine box. There are some stunners in there to get you started!
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