Priced Out Of The Best French Wines

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - June 25, 2008
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I have just returned from a wonderful (and very expensive) trip to France, and am saddened to report that I think I may not be able to drink wine any more. As you know I try to find the best wines for the least money around. And I will still continue to do so, but the high-end hedonistic side of me that loves the great wines of the world is hurting from the prices that I have seen for all the top wines from France.

As I have written in the past, I have harbored fears of how high the prices for the finest wines of France can go. Those fears have now become a reality. I am talking more specifically about wines that are Premier Cru and Grand Cru in Burgundy, the Classified Growths of Bordeaux, limited production Tête de Cuvees from Champagne and even special cuvees from the Rhone Valley.

For example a Grand Cru from a particular domaine in 2004 was about $150 per bottle, which was already pretty expensive for me. The 2006 vintage of this same wine is now $250! That’s a 40 percent increase over only two years. Has your income grown that much over the same period?

First, it is obvious that this is not happening in a vacuum. The exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Euro is absolutely terrible! It hovered around $1.57/Euro during my stay. Compare this to $1.26/Euro exactly 2 years ago. We are definitely getting the short end of the stick. Second, even in Europe the price of energy and materials is climbing. One French paper’s headline read “No more!” because the price of gas and diesel is so high. We pay around $5.15/gallon for diesel here in Hawaii; I paid $9.42/gallon on this latest trip! One producer said he can’t do anything with 10E anymore. I bought a baguette sandwich and juice for 10E, but not Paris, in Burgundy. His point that the price of goods is rising and he has to increase the prices of his wines is well taken.

Another reason for much of the rise in price for many of these top producers is the Asian market. I was told by several producers that they could sell their entire production to countries like China, Vietnam and Korea. These markets have no trouble buying these wines as the amount of wealth that they are creating is being spent by those who have a love of great wines. The great producers are certainly not deserting the American market but they do know that if Americans are not buying, they have thirsty clients elsewhere. Emerging wine markets in China, India and Russia are scooping up these wines without blinking an eye.

And yet another motive for many of these top-notch producers to raise their prices is the auction market. The wealthiest individuals of the world are snatching up wines at record-breaking prices all over the world. At a recent auction in Hong Kong (where they have abolished any taxes on alcohol), a case of Domaine de la Romanee Conti 1990 went for over $242,000 - more than $20k/bottle! Wine producers aren’t dumb, and luckily most are not greedy. But they realize that someone is making money from their hard work and it ain’t them. I specifically asked one producer what he thought about his wines going for thousands of dollars above what he actually charged his importer for them. He said, almost embarrassed, he thinks it is “Crazy!” He is not making the big dollars from the wine. He and his family still farm every single vine of the domaine with their own hands. In fact, he was in the field spraying when I came to visit him, because he had to. He didn’t have anyone else to do it for him.

There are still plenty of affordable good wines to drink from France and elsewhere in Europe. I will continue to scour the ground for them. Just know that if you want to play in the arena of the highly collectible wines you’d better have lots of money or you will be sorely disappointed.

Recommendations: 2006 Il Ghizzano ($15) This organically grown wine is delectable blend of Sangiovese and Merlot from Tuscany. It is soft and delicious enough to gulp but has enough structure to pair with a grill. Excellent value! 2006 Domaine La Gramiere Rouge ($19) just like a great Cotes du Rhone this Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault blend is beautifully full and spicy with a soulful finish of cassis.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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