Where’s The Outrage Over Burgundy Prices?
The Bordeaux en primeur campaign has finally begun in earnest. Bordeaux watchers generally assumed that the châteaux would be unmoved by pleas for moderation, and so far, that’s proving to be the case. The 2010 Montrose came out today at $192 per bottle, 22 percent higher than the 2009 and twice the opening price of the 2005—and then Montrose released a second tranche a few hours later at $217 a bottle! Lynch-Bages pegged its 2010 at $146, up 39 percent on 2009 and 102 percent on 2005. The 2010 Smith Haut Lafitte rouge hit the market yesterday at $112, a 48 percent jump on 2009 and 95 percent above the 2005. I’m especially struck by the increases over 2005. Since 2005, we’ve seen the worst global economic turmoil since the Great Depression, and U.S. demand for Bordeaux has contracted sharply—and in the face of these developments, the likes of Montrose, Lynch-Bages, and Smith Haut Lafitte have doubled their release prices? Interesting times.
It is fair to say that quite a few oenophiles are hoping, even praying that this year’s futures campaign will turn out to be Bordeaux’s Waterloo, an epic bust that scars the region for generations. To say that there is hostility towards Bordeaux at the moment would be putting it gently. Many grape nuts no longer regard Bordeaux as the gold standard of wine; instead, they see it as the Goldman Sachs of wine, a great vampire squid relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money (thank you, Matt Taibbi). Incensed by the greed, furious at being squeezed out of favorite wines, these ill-wishers would like nothing more than to see Bordeaux spend, oh, a decade or three choking on unsold inventory.
Although I wouldn’t be purchasing Bordeaux at any price—I’m on an extended break from wine buying, and if I weren’t sidelined, I would be spending my dosh on something other than clarets—I understand the frustration. However, one thing that I find intriguing is that amid all this rage over Bordeaux, there’s hardly a murmur about Burgundy prices. If you haven’t noticed, a lot of Burgundies have become pretty expensive, too. Prices for Mugnier, Dujac, Roumier, Roulot, Raveneau, and other superb producers have soared over the last decade or so (and let’s not even mention DRC and Leroy). Back in 2000, I was able to pick up the 1998 Mugnier Musigny for $80 a bottle in France; if I’m not mistaken, the 2005 version was trading for $1000 soon after release—and no, I wasn’t a buyer. That’s just one, particularly arresting example; I’ve been priced out of plenty of Burgundies in recent years, and I’m surely not alone. So why is it that only Bordeaux seems to kick up so much outrage?
I’ll take a stab at answering my own question. First, I think it is generally assumed that Burgundy pricing truly reflects supply and demand, whereas there is a lot of skepticism as to whether that’s the case with Bordeaux. To the extent that there is any gouging with Burgundy, I think people recognize that the domaines aren’t the culprits; instead, it is the middlemen—importers, distributors, retailers. If anything, the Burgundians tend to undercharge relative to demand. No one could ever accuse the Bordelais of that. I suspect, too, that this “indignation gap” is partly rooted in the cultural distinctions between Burgundy and Bordeaux. As I noted in a Slate piece last year, Burgundy is still a farming community, dominated by small, family-run estates. Bordeaux, by contrast, is an increasingly corporatized region, and it is a lot easier to feel animosity towards rich guys in suits than plucky artisans dressed in jeans and work boots.
But even if the Burgundians aren’t to blame for the fact that their wines have become so costly, that’s little consolation to fans of Mugnier, Roulot, etc. Yet, Burgundy buffs seem much more relaxed about price inflation than Bordeaux enthusiasts (and, no, it isn’t because all Burgundy drinkers are rich). Are we just a mellower tribe? What accounts for the difference in attitude? I’d love to get your take on this.