I am as usual working myself up into a lather about the terrible injustices of the world. Presently it’s about the terrible personal injustice that there is so much wine out there, so highly priced, that I will never be able to drink it. Oh woe is me.
And it has me thinking. What has wine really become when even the most expensive wine which cost no more than twelve euros to produce can be regularly priced at six hundred or more euros a bottle? When did a luxurious product stray into the realm of such exclusivity? Was it ever thus, and what actually defines luxury anyway? Isn’t this leap into “luxury” more engineered than a true reflection of wine’s inherent worth?
So this morning I was thinking about Bordeaux’s 1855 Left Bank classification. For the Exposition Universelle of 1855, Bordeaux négociants were set the task of ranking the Medoc’s finest wines by quality and the prices they fetched. Now in theory, the first would have dictated the second.
In 2011, London’s Liv-Ex published a new Bordeaux classification, of the same wines (with one addition) based on average prices of wines sold, within certain parametres of scale (minimum production etc). They underline this classification is market led rather than by any épicurean value the wines may hold.
It strikes me that many of these wines have arrived in the promised land of luxury via an aspirational, rather than, meritorial route.
The modern world does seem very confused about what luxury actually is. The market dictates that a large production, branded handbag by Louis Vuitton constitutes” luxury goods” (say it’s made out of plastic – as they are – and you will suffer all manner of pathetic justifications), but can that really be classed in the same category as one made, very artisanly by Hermès’s saddlers?
Is a high production product ever really luxurious? Does a high quality reproduction Le Corbusier chaise longue merit the same price of an official LC4 from Cassina? Or vice-versa, more importantly?
A true luxury product is a luxury by its difficult attainability? White truffles are a luxury because they are very delicious, but above all because they are rare to find. That difficulty dictates their price. Anything less than the very greatest and rarest is just pastiche.
Likewise in wine, a bottle of Roumier Musigny or a bottle of Le Pin demand high prices for their brilliance, but above all by their rarity. Surely the likes of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, with a production 275 times, or more, that of Roumier’s cannot stake the same claim to exclusivity?
But in 2013 it is the chateaux and not the négoçiants who dictate the price of their wines. And so, surely they falsify the notion of their worth. As the Bordelais “Place” never sells their wine below opening prices (they have no interest to do so) the sale of just one case supports (and encourages) the chateau’s vanity. A single sale validates the opening price, it sets the prerogative, as it were.
I wonder how much these figures and classifications might change if the amount of unsold wine lying around the world from recent vintages were calculated as the true figure of a chateau’s desirability. I suspect there would be as many fallers as risers, and some would fall hard (Yquem, Ducru-Beaucaillou and friends. You know who you are!)
Indeed, Yquem’s 2011 arrival on the scene last Thursday, suggests a certain admission of “real market” on behalf of LVMH. Bernard Arnault is finally waking up to the fact that pricing your wine as an aspirational product is not enough, that aspiration is only justified once attained. And in any event, as this report from Liv-Ex illustrates, in the real world, you might as well buy 30 year old Yquem today, possibly even to drink (sic) than “invest” in the latest release which is unlikely to accrue much value. Sauternes show poor investment returns, across the board and across the vintages. I suggest 2010 Yquem only maintains its high market price because that is where the offer is, and that only because no one has actually sold any.
It is unfortunate that the clssifications of today can be falsified by a ideal of “luxury” rather than a true reflection of merit based on a wine’s inherent greatness. The one does not necessarily assure the other. Such is the power of communication, and specifically communicating an idea of brand, that some products seem to get, ahem, rather beyond their station…