When we hear “Bordeaux” the image of something very luxurious and expensive comes to our mind.
Of course, this is only a myth. There are about 10,000 wine producers all around the city of Bordeaux and not all of them produce luxurious and expensive wine. The vast majority of Bordeaux wines are affordable.
My corner supermarket in Bordeaux sells local wines for 5 to 12 euros per bottle with sales tax. These wines come from everywhere around Bordeaux, many of them bottled by larger cooperatives and wine merchants from bulk.
Are Bordeaux wines the most expensive in France? No, the Burgundy producers are at the top of the price list. Domaine de la Romanee Conti and La Tache are famous for being the most expensive. How about a whopping $20,510 per bottle of the infamous DRC?
Recently though Bordeaux set a new record, getting ahead with the Graves’ Liber Pater created by Loic Pasquet. His wines are becoming the most expensive in France at over $34,000 per bottle for the 2015 vintage, of which he produced only 500 bottles.
Pasquet is unique in Bordeaux as he specializes in indigenous grapes from ungrafted vines and viticultural techniques from the 19th century.
Imagine tasting Bordeaux wines as if it was made in 1855? The demand justifies this price, as there are American, Russian, and Chinese buyers who appreciate this uniqueness.
I visited Loic Pasquet at his small cellar in the garage. He and his Russian wife are a hard-working family facing many struggles of regular winemakers including frost, diseases, and envious neighbors.
Older vintages of Liber Pater are not as expensive but still come with quite a price tag. For example, 2009 and 2007 vintages retail “affordable prices” of approximately $4,500 per bottle.
At Liber Pater with owner Loic Pasquet.
There are two types of wines in Bordeaux: fine luxury wine and everyday regular Bordeaux.
What makes the expensive Bordeaux wines sell at cosmic prices?
1. Prestige and exclusivity
Even though, as opposed to Liber Pater, Petrus and Chateau Le Pin use traditional grape varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and common winemaking techniques, prices for their better vintages are expressed in thousands of dollars.
What makes them so expensive?
The more recent Petrus vintages of 2015 and 2016 were given 100 out of 100 Parker points. These outstanding wines command retail prices of approximately $3,400 per bottle. You may expect to pay even more for older exceptional vintages. For lesser vintages, the price falls to $470–$670 a bottle.
Needless to say, the wines are of excellent quality, however, it is the fame of the wine that is responsible for the price. The brand value was mostly formed in the 20th century. In 1947, the bottles were served at the banquet to celebrate the marriage of Queen Elisabeth II. In the 1960s, when President John Kennedy said that Petrus was his favorite wine, the label became a status symbol in the US.
Later in the 1980s, Robert Parker, one of the most influential wine critics gave his 100 points to Petrus, and the wines produced in Pomerol, prices of all wines from the region increased.
These famed vineyards were not big enough to satisfy the growing demand from wealthy buyers of France, the United States, the UK, Germany, Belgium, and Hong Kong. Petrus produces only 30,000 bottles of wine per year on only 11.5 hectares (28.4 acres). Chateau Le Pin is tiny with only a 2.7-hectare vineyard.
Other wineries mostly in the Medoc area on the left bank, have been famous from at least the 18th century. American Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson appreciated Bordeaux wine.
In February of 1787, President Jefferson during his service as Ambassador to France, visited Chateau d’Yquem, Chateau Carbonneau, and Chateau Haut-Brion and left notes about the quality of wines he tasted in Bordeaux.
In 1855, the best wineries of the Bordeaux Left Bank were classified and ranked by price. This formed the Official 1855 Bordeaux Classification that still stands today. The 60 wineries classified in the middle of the 19th century are the most regarded in the Medoc area and the most expensive to this date.
Besides the wine’s undeniable quality, It is the long-standing reputation, centuries of winemaking experience, and exclusivity that attract wine lovers.
A collection of Petrus at a Saint-Emilion merchant.
View at Saint-Emilion from Chateau Canon standing on a limestone plateau.
2. Exceptional ‘terroir’
Winemakers often make remarks that it is the quality of the crop and not the winemaking techniques that make wine good. Wine quality begins with suitable soils.
‘Terroir’ identifies a natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.
In other words, the soils and the weather conditions of a particular plot of vineyards can be unique and produce wines with the best characteristics.
In the case of Petrus, the soil is a 40-million-year-old blue clay, which contains a lot of reduced iron, retains moisture needed for the successful performance of Merlot, and helps provide more nutrients into the vine. The blue clay soil is scattered over the Right Bank properties, but it is a rare type of soil.
In the Medoc, the most successful terroirs are on small slopes, close to the Garonne river. These soils are rich with gravel brought by the river from the Pyrenees. Gravel retains warmth and helps Cabernet Sauvignon ripen to its perfect maturity.
The terroir of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac is described as: “outstanding with well-drained soil and good sun exposure.”
During hundreds of years, the best plots have been owned by today’s top wineries and they rarely change hands. The California phenomena of new wineries popping up on the new plots and becoming successful is very foreign to Bordeaux. Instead, the properties are passed through generations.
Vineyard of Chateau Petrus, Pomerol.
3. Rigorous selection
As opposed to high-volume mass-market production, wineries in Bordeaux follow strict rules imposed by the appellations’ regulatory body with the purpose to achieve the quality of crop and produce wines in a specific style of Bordeaux.
Many of these rules cover selection, such as the rules on maximum yield allowed per hectare.
As a result, during the month of July, we see wineries reducing the number of brunches on the wine to only 5 to 8 in the process called ‘green harvesting’ to ensure the highest concentration in the remaining grapes.
Contrary to some high-volume producing areas, the Bordeaux winemakers do not use all of the grapes that they can produce.
In fact, the vines producing the best grapes are the oldest. For example, Chateau Mouton Rothschild has a plot that was planted over 100 years ago. Obviously, these old vines are not very productive, some only giving 1-2 bunches per year. However, they are cherished to maintain the high quality of the wine.
In addition, harvested grapes go through several sorting processes. An expensive optical sorting machine will take a little photo of each and every berry and reject those with any imperfections.
Petrus does not use any grapes that are not the highest quality. They only produce one top-quality wine, while the rest of the grapes are sold in bulk.
Manual sorting at Chateau Beausejour-Becot, Saint-Emilion.
4. Production Costs
Obviously, rigorous sorting impacts the cost structure. However, there are other significant costs involved.
Bordeaux wineries would generally age their wine in French oak barrels. Top wineries may decide to only use barrels only once. A new barrel costing around $1,000 will hold wine for 12-18 months and will lose almost all of its value after the ageing process is complete.
Imagine the investment required each year for wineries with 800-1,000 barrels in the cellar.
Besides, weather conditions in Bordeaux are optimal for their wines, yet very risky.
Spring frosts will damage buds and young leaves. Helicopters are the solution for well-off wineries. They would fly just above the most precious terroirs and mix cold air at the bottom of the vineyard with warmer air up above.
Other wineries use less pricy methods and often invest in insurance policies to avoid massive losses. In 2017, the April 27 frost killed 90% of harvest at many Bordeaux wineries.
Hail is a danger too in this climate. Chateau Gruaud Larose is one of the few in around Bordeaux to have invested in a hail cannon.
Wineries in Bordeaux are not allowed to irrigate their crop such that each year is a unique representation of Bordeaux climate and terroir.There have been years when severe drought would leave no chance to winemakers.
In addition, the production of high-quality wines requires manual harvesting. Only the health bunches will be harvested and delivered intact to the winery. Machine harvesting is not selective. Moreover, it would damage the berries and cause unwanted oxidation.
Fermentation and ageing stages are still done with a lot of manual labor as well. The manual process of racking and barrel cleaning keeps several people busy during the year.
Although wineries use traditional manual methods, many invest heavily in modern technologies such as temperature control systems, state-of-the-art pump-less winemaking of which the most impressive I have seen is at Chateaux Pedesclaux in Pauillac.
Come to visit a Bordeaux winery to see an amazing mixture of advanced technologies with traditional winemaking.
Traditional way to remove lees and sediment from barrels at Chateau Haut-Brion.
5. Investment opportunity
Excellent quality wines gain value with time. The top wines made in Bordeaux are made to age, meaning that their quality will not deteriorate, but rather they would develop unusual complexity.
According to academic research, over 1900-2012, “real financial return to wine investment (net of storage costs) [was] 4.1%, which exceeds bonds, art, and stamps.”
Wines that are made to drink soon will lose their acidity and tannins in a shorter time and they do not represent collectible or investment value.
Given all that, fine wines are a special product, not only a drink, and prices reflect this extra value.
How About Bordeaux Value Wines?
The less famous wines of Bordeaux can be excellent in the $18-$40 range. My favorite wines in this category come from ‘petits chateaux‘, small lesser-known wineries in Bordeaux. They take pride and care in what they do, innovate while keeping the tradition. In fact, many of the wines in this category are rated highly by top critics.
Indeed, there is a difference between wines from mass production hot areas, where volume is king, machine harvesting, and bulk production methods is used, and made with extreme care elegant and balanced wines of Bordeaux with an amazing fruit concentration and aromatic expression evolving over time.