by Andy Neather

Just Another Luxury Product?

This year’s Bordeaux En Primeur campaign has attracted much controversy over release prices. But while a number of leading châteaux have made substantial cuts on what they charged for the 2022s, that is unlikely to alter a more fundamental shift in the fine wine market, already under way for more than a decade. This has important implications for wine criticism.

Most producers of premium wines – of which there are now far more around the world than ever – today price them with reference to what the international luxury market will bear. That marks a change from the traditional Bordeaux approach, where each vintage’s prices were effectively a herd response to critical judgments on varying vintages.
It is a strategy first developed in Champagne. Joe Fattorini recently unearthed the intriguing history of how Dom Perignon was first invented as a luxury brand, in 1932, by its then owner deliberately charging above market prices to give the brand an air of exclusivity.

Premium brands also price with preference to other such products. In this respect, crazily expensive Bordeaux has done a service to other high-end wines: critics opine that a certain cuvée is a relative bargain compared to top Bordeaux – in the same sort of way that a Mercedes S-Class is a snip at around £90,000 compared to a Ferrari costing three times that.

Take Chile’s Seña, whose 2021 vintage (98+ points) was released last September at £112/bottle: compared to the 2023 Mouton Rothschild, which even with a reduction on 2022 of over 30 per cent is £339/bottle, they’re practically giving it away!

Still, it is a relatively new strategy for the top Bordeaux châteaux – since the late 2000s – to position themselves as luxury products, with the according freedom to determine price points. This strategy means it matters little that St-Emilion star Château Angélus has cut its 2023 price by 25 per cent: aside from that still being higher than the 2021 release price, its target market was clearly signalled by 2022’s limited-edition bottle inlaid with 20 carat gold and mother-of-pearl.

Ultimately I don’t really blame these successful agribusinesses for maximising their profits. However, what it means for wine criticism and journalism is more uncomfortable.

Last week wine writer Jamie Goode was blunter about the dilemmas than most, in a piece titled “Some wines are beyond criticism.” He effectively pronounced criticism of premium wines such as Penfold’s Grange or top Bordeaux dead.

“If you taste them and don’t like them very much, it’s probably best to stay quiet,” Goode advises. “Only you can lose if you publish a negative note” – by being blacklisted by the producer concerned and thus denied access to the wines, since you presumably won’t have the means to buy them.

Not all premium wines are quite the same in this respect. Decanter magazine’s Champagne correspondent Tom Hewson pointed out last week that, in Champagne, a 93 isn’t necessarily a bad score – although in plenty of places in both Old World and New, it would earn a critic complaints, if not blacklisting. Nevertheless, the normal relationship between critics and the object of the criticism – of art, theatre, food – has been turned on its head. The producer has all the power, ending critics’ ability to make any judgment deemed even mildly critical.

However significant the difference between 97 and 98 points, it is not large enough to risk putting any such wines in a blind tasting, as producers well know.
So how come critics with such highly developed sense of smell cannot detect the bullshit here? Theirs is not criticism – let alone journalism – in the normally accepted sense of the term: who would bother to read a theatre critic who only ever praised plays to the skies?

Rather, high-end wine criticism exists to help market these luxury brands to an international elite – in much the same way as, say, lifestyle magazine puff-pieces of high-end watches or yachts. In this way, in this century it has become essentially an adjunct of the luxury goods industry.

It wasn’t like this before Robert Parker, though the celebrated US critic can hardly be held responsible for the economic shifts that have powered the rise of the global fine wine market over the past four decades. He happened to go into business in the 1980s at the point when the power of international finance capitalism was on the rise, freed of much regulation by the right-wing governments of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and their successors.

The rewards this brought to the new international elite were vast – and created a market for new classes of assets as well as older indicators of wealth and power. Forget the tiny plutocratic elite in the UK and US who snapped up the first Dom Pérignon releases in the 1930s: since the dawn of this century, fine wine producers have been able sell luxury cuvées to Chinese entrepreneurs, Russian oligarchs and Silicon Valley tech bros, never mind British City boys making vastly more money that their genteel stockbroking forebears ever did. Parker’s successors service that trade.

I don’t begrudge such critics a living. But what they do is neither completely honest nor does it have much to do with the wider world of winemaking. And the dishonesty is ultimately corrupting: think of the knots that some fine-wine people tie themselves in when a counterfeiting scandal surfaces.

This year in Bordeaux, we have at least seen what can happen when a large part of the wine trade and media calls out the arrogance of the top châteaux. But without a lot more honesty in the way we write about fine wines, critics will surely drift into irrelevance except for a relatively small international clique of producers – and the very wealthy they serve.

Andrew Neather blogs about wine and food at; photo by Kent Lâm on Unsplash

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