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Decantress advises a reader with auction curiosity.

June 27, 2016

Dear Decantress,
My parents' friend has a wine collection and regularly spends $100,000+ at auctions. What is he buying? And whatever he's buying, does a bottle of wine that costs many thousands of dollars actually taste that much better than, say, a $500 bottle? –Concerned Skeptic

 

Dear Skeptic,

It sounds like your parents’ friend has a pretty serious affinity for the fine and rare, which are the sorts of wines that luxury auctions tend to deal in. There are a handful of producers—most notably from France’s Bordeaux and Burgundy regions—that fetch record prices year in and year out, and those prices skew even further upwards if the vintage happens to be legendary. Take 1947 Château Cheval Blanc, for example, or 1978 Henri Jayer Richebourg, which sold for over $23,000 per bottle at a Sotheby’s London wine sale this spring. That’s a ton of cash to shell out for a single bottle, but before you go passing judgment, it’s worth defining the category a little and thinking about these wines through the prism of another auctionable item: art. 

Taste, as we all know, is subjective. It’s also not the only factor in determining a wine’s monetary worth. The “fine” in “fine and rare” refers to the quality and repute of the producer, and names like Jayer and Cheval Blanc might sound to a collector very much like the names Picasso and Manet do to an art buff. Do the works of one look better than the works of the other? What about the street artist you scored a $25 canvas from that you swear is going to be a big deal in, like, 10 years? There are way too many variables at play to say whether or not that $23,000 bottle of Richebourg tastes better than a $500 bottle of wine. It’s even hard to say whether it tastes better than a $500 bottle of wine in the same category (i.e. Grand Cru Burgundy). It will, however, taste different, and part of the price discrepancy can be chalked up to pedigree.

These wines are also expensive because of their relative scarcity. Only a fixed number of bottles can be made per vintage (year), and no two vintages of a same wine will taste exactly alike. Plus, most wines that end up in luxury auctions are small-production wines to begin with. That is, they come from from small, delimited vineyards in prime real estate, where growers keep their crop yields purposefully low (to get a smaller amount of concentrated, flavorful grapes instead of a larger amount of less interesting ones). That number only decreases over time, as bottles are consumed, driving prices up. Bottles that remain on the market will appreciate with age also because the actual liquid inside changes. A wine that might start out tannic, tight, and tart-fruited on release will become softer, more open, and more savory at two decades-old. 

All of these factors should help explain why some wines are unfathomably expensive, but I also hope they explain why price doesn’t directly correlate to taste. If you prefer the fruity impact of Beaujolais to more delicate, earthy flavors, you might argue that a perfectly mature bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy isn’t better. I’m sure your parents’ friend did his fair share of homework (i.e. tasting) before bidding top dollar. He figured out what wines he most enjoys; and then he learned about the benchmark producers of those wines. If he spent more than you think advisable on a single bottle, it’s because he wants the very specific, unique—although not necessarily better—experience that bottle will give him. He also seems to have had a great deal of either luck or professional success to facilitate his habit. If you’re just starting to figure out what types of wine you like, I wouldn’t recommend shopping at luxury auctions. I have nowhere near that kind of capital to spend on bottles, and I manage to drink very well.


Have a wine situation? Send your questions to Food & Wine's Decantress at decantress@foodandwine.com