Given there is no objective, precise way of measuring wine quality, it’s hardly surprising that producers and promoters can be tempted to overstate their case.
My favourite sales pitch recently was sent on behalf of “The Hérmes [sic] of Wine, proprietor and visionary Lawrence Fairchild [who] takes a page from art and fashion to create the centerpiece of wine cellars (clients have literally designed cellars around his bottles)…”
What followed was this cunning suggestion: “Lawrence never sends sample bottles and I know he would for you if you are interested!”
The email went on: “The coolest dressed wine alchemist in Napa, Lawrence’s cult-following collectors of his eye-catching designed bottles and unmatched wines (always rate 96-100 points by Robert Parker), are released for purchase only five times a year, and sell out in minutes.” This is intriguing since Robert Parker doesn’t seem to have rated any wine for the past four years.
Fairchild’s wines are released in limited editions of handblown bottles. Only 350 bottles of his Perrarus 2 Cabernet were made, for instance, priced between $3,500 and $8,500 and sold by lottery. Limited to one per person, naturally.
But these are bargains compared with a new wine from Spain’s La Mancha, until recently regarded as the country’s least glamorous wine region. Hilario García is offering his 250 bottles of Aurum Oro red at €25,000 each, proudly proclaiming it the most expensive wine on the planet. He claims it is made from 200-year-old vines and will never spoil because he has treated them with ozone.
Señor García clearly hasn’t heard of Liber Pater, a 2015 red Bordeaux launched last year at €30,000 a bottle. Unusually, the vines were planted directly into the soil as opposed to being grafted on to the phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks that became de rigueur throughout much of the wine world in the wake of the phylloxera plagues towards the end of the 19th century. Even more unusual is that the wine is made from ancient grape varieties long disappeared from Bordeaux vineyards (although sometimes there are good reasons why certain varieties are abandoned).
I’m not thrilled that prices for the established trophy wines of France, Italy and California have skyrocketed in recent years, putting them out of the reach of most wine drinkers, but I understand why: they are in relatively short supply and there are more and more billionaires in the world who need billionaires’ drinks.
But it does stick in my craw to see four- and even five-digit prices on bottles with hardly any reputation at all. In my four decades writing about wine, I have seen most of these hopefuls come and then go. It seems to me that wines ought to earn ambitious price tags.
Yet there are also well-established wines with equally imposing price tags that I wouldn’t dream of buying either — though clearly someone must.
An obvious example is another red bordeaux, Carruades de Lafite, the second wine of first growth Ch Lafite. The similarity of its label to that of its posher cousin, as well as Chinese wine buyers’ reverence for the name Lafite, means that Carruades — even from the weak, shortlived 2013 vintage — fetches about £300 a bottle, which is four times more than equally good and sometimes better wines from neighbouring vineyards without the Lafite cachet.
Another example comes from Krug. I am a huge admirer of Krug Grande Cuvée, the multi-vintage blend of champagne that so much work goes into each year. The single-vintage version can be almost as good but tends to be priced higher simply because the tradition in other, lesser houses is to sell their non-vintage blends at lower prices than their vintage-dated champagnes.
These glorious blends sell for between £100 and £250 a bottle and I can just about understand why. But I cannot comprehend why Krug’s two single-vineyard champagnes, the all-Chardonnay Clos du Mesnil and the all-Pinot Noir Clos d’Ambonnay, cost many multiples of this — about £800 and £1,500 a bottle respectively. Krug is all about blending, in my book.
Still in France, there is an increasingly popular sort of Châteauneuf-du-Pape known as Cuvées Spéciales. Some seem to be souped-up versions of a wine that, with its exceptionally high alcohol, tends to be pretty souped-up already. They can have alcohol levels way in excess of 15 per cent — and be five times more expensive. Too many exaggerate a certain facet of the appellation rather than present a balanced expression of the many grape varieties and terroirs that go into a fine Châteauneuf such as that of Clos des Papes. This estate eschews special cuvées and simply makes one great red and one great white every year — each astonishingly age-worthy.
Then there is Provençal rosé. I have to take my hat off to Sacha Lichine and his team for establishing the Whispering Angel brand, now blended from multiple sources all over Provence, from scratch to world — or at least US — domination. Yet with his top bottling Garrus he seems to have triggered a decidedly unhealthy competition for who can make the most expensive example of what began as a casual holiday lubricant.
Let us pass lightly over the Armand de Brignac Ace of Spades champagne decorated with Swarovski crystals and cross the Atlantic to California, where the market still seems to be able to bear prices most European producers can only dream of. Yet even in this inflated market, there are wines that stand out because their prices are simply barmy.
I have never understood the cult status of Sine Qua Non wines, which strike this European palate as way overdone. I call as chief witness the Sauvignon Blanc white wine made by the team responsible for Cabernet Screaming Eagle, the iconic red wine that regularly breaks records at charity auctions. Top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon can continue to mature for decades and often appears on the secondary market.
Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, particularly one grown somewhere as warm as Oakville in the Napa Valley, is generally a much simpler drink for early consumption. Yet Hedonism in London is currently listing Screaming Eagle’s Sauvignon Blanc 2014 at £6,180 a bottle. A bottle waiting for a thirsty oligarch?
Mind you, Bordeaux also has a couple of wines with quite a dollop of Sauvignon Blanc that are pretty ridiculously priced, simply because of their rarity value. The whites of Chx Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion regularly sell for hundreds of pounds a bottle, even more than their great and much longer-lived red stablemates.
And finally, a not-quite-wine whose prices are also a reflection of rarity rather than value: Tokaji Essencia. This viscous grape juice from Hungary is only just alcoholic and only just thinkable in terms of its price, which can be over £500 — for a half-bottle.Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
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