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Some high wine prices justified, others not
2015-01-08
By John H. Isacs

ARE expensive wines really worth their lofty price tags? The simple answer is sometimes. In this week’s column I’ll take a look at wines that are clearly overpriced and others that merit their cost. Let’s first take a look at legitimate reasons why some wines are expensive.

Justified costs

Certain wines cost more than others for good reasons. Making a good or even great wine necessitates better ingredients, technology, manual labor and time.

The cost of cultivating and harvesting grapes may range from US$700 per ton to over US$15,000 per ton, depending on the region, vineyard and yield. Premium regions, better situated vineyards and lower-yield plantings are all factors in making better wines. These factors also make a wine more expensive.

Depending on the variety and region, a typical vine may have numerous bunches of grapes but when making a premium wine the winemaker culls all but three to five of the bunches.

Older vines that may be 40, 50 or even over 100 years old have superb quality grapes but they also produce far fewer grapes than younger vines. All these factors lower the yield and result in higher costs.

Many of the world’s great wines come from highly rated vineyards that are situated on slopes or at altitude and are more difficult to harvest.

Grapes used for top wines are almost always harvested by hand and are picked over time. I know several growers who may have 20 or even 30 different pickings in one harvest, each time picking only the optimally ripe grapes.

Modern winemaking is also very technology-dependent and the best machines for pressing, fermentation and bottling all cost money.

Almost all great wines need significant aging in oak barrels, stainless steel tanks or in the bottle before release.

The best red wines are often aged in oak, and new barrels cost up to US$1,250 each.

Aging wines for several years before release is a further legitimate cost. Better-quality bottles, closures (high-quality cork, for example) and packaging also push costs higher.

Finally, there’s the cost of doing business in different regions and countries. The cost of making wine in Bordeaux and Napa Valley is significantly higher than in Argentina and South Africa. This doesn’t mean the wines are better, but the cost of land, labor and taxes makes the higher costs of wine from certain regions understandable.

Very rare or old vintage wines may also legitimately cost more because of their scarcity.

Dubious costs

Just as there are legitimate quality-related reasons that some wines are expensive, there are also reasons that have little to do with quality. Foremost among these are excessive overhead costs, primarily marketing. Many large wine producers spend enormous sums on marketing and promotion, and this makes their wines more expensive without making them any better.

When you buy a wine hyped by a famous singer, actor or other celebrity, you’re paying for advertising, not wine. So even if you adore their songs or movies, I strongly suggest avoiding the wines they promote.

An extremely controversial factor in the cost of wines is the influence of ratings. Historically, the great wines of the world were considered great because they had a long track record of being consistently excellent for many decades or even centuries. This long-term performance-based cost premium is understandable, but many of the most expensive wines today are overnight sensations propagated by superstar critics and modern media.

Therefore smart buyers shun 100-point cult wines and instead opt for more reasonably priced boutique and garage wines of similar quality.

Just saying some expensive wines are worth their price isn’t enough. I also need to name names. So here are some of the best expensive wines that are worth every yuan they cost.

The world of white wines is replete with great values. Perhaps the best value of all is Chablis, in particular Premier and Grand Cru Chablis wines.

Smart premium purchases

Unlike many of their overpriced cousins to the south in Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune, these exquisite Chardonnays from the far north of Burgundy are often fantastic bargains. Premier and Grand Cru Chablis may cost upwards of 800-1,000 yuan but they deliver one of the world’s greatest dry white wine experiences. Producers to look for include Domaine Laroche, Louis Michel and Chateau Grenouille.

Cheap Champagne doesn’t exist and the overall quality of most Champagne is quite high. Having said this, I’m compelled to point out that some Champagnes are much better values than others.

Avoid the major houses that spend titanic sums of money on marketing and promotion and gravitate toward smaller houses that put all their investment in the bottle. The single greatest factor in making great Champagne is the grapes and the vineyards, so buy lesser-known Premier and Grand Cru Champagnes from houses like Duval-Leroy, Gosset, Bruno Paillard and Louis Dubrince.

If you’re a Bordeaux red wine lover, skip the most famous first growth and right bank wines and instead pick lesser-known but often equally good Grand Cru Classe alternatives. On the left bank, I recommend Chateaux Cos d’Estournel, Montrose, Calon-Segur and Phelan-Segur from Saint Estephe and Chateaux Gruard-Larose, Branaire-Ducru and Lagrange from Saint Julien. Great right bank picks are Chateaux Haut-Brisson, Canon and Magdelaine.

Italy and Spain offer a plethora of extraordinary red wines that are among the best in the world. Even better, many of them are eminently affordable. Top Chianti Classico Riserva wines from Barone Ricasoli, Mazzei, Castello di Querceto and Guicciardini Strozzi made from Italy’s indigenous Sangiovese variety are some of the world’s most distinctive red wines. The largest premium red wine region in Spain is Rioja and there are thousands of reasonably priced premium wines. Pick Reserva and Grand Reserva wines from Marques de Riscal, Muga and Marques de Murrieta.

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Space limitations prohibit detailing all the expensive premium wines that are well worth their high costs, but there are many. They are worth a financial splurge because drinking them creates a treasured memory that lasts a lifetime!

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