Are ultra expensive wines worth it?

I was asked a question by a journalist today:

Our readers want to live vicariously: What does a $30,000 bottle of wine taste like? Do wine experts appreciate them significantly more than, say, a $10,000 bottle of wine? If not, what exactly is one paying for at that level? Do ultra-expensive bottles of wine generally delight or disappoint once they are uncorked?

My answer:

Once you get to this price level, you are entering a different world of wine appreciation. You are paying for age and rarity. Yes, the wines have to be excellent, but with old, rare wine, the liquid in the bottle is only part of the story. It’s a world where much of the interest lies in the back story – the history of the wine, and its perceived value in the eye of the collectors. I have tried many old, rare and incredibly valuable wines. They have frequently been profound experiences. But they might not have been profound experiences if I’d drunk them blind, without knowing their origins. For sure, I might have raved about the qualities of the wine – the elegance, the complexity, the amazing flavours that develop with age. But it’s only once the identity of the wine is revealed that I can be sure that it is truly a special, remarkable wine.

I’d say there isn’t necessarily a huge difference between a $10 000 and $30 000 bottle of wine. Once you get to this level the price isn’t necessarily dependent on the ‘quality’ (however you define it) of the liquid in the bottle. And with very old wines, no two bottles are alike – you get good examples, not so good examples, and even dead examples. But the wine has to be intrinsically good. A rare wine that is essentially dead and past its best wouldn’t fetch huge prices.

See also: a post I wrote a while back – Do you like old wine?

9 comments to Are ultra expensive wines worth it?

  • Hi Jamie,

    Interesting piece – I’ve always suspected that it doesn’t really matter what the quality is at that point – you’re essentially buying the bottle and a promise that what is inside is authentic, but not necessarily “good.”

    That’s where I get confused by your second paragraph – you say on one hand that the price isn’t dependent on the quality and on the other hand that the wine must be intrinsically “good”, which seems like a bit of a contradiction to me. Perhaps for $10-30k bottles the quality is uniformly good, just not differentiable within the group.

    Cheers from Virginia,

    Greg

  • I would assume that many 10-30K wines would never be opened, they would be cellared and passed on at auction 7-20 years later for maybe more money, they become a commodity that ends if opened.

    Now 3-5K bottles get opened and enjoyed, or not, all the time, this is where the value may crater based on reports of 4-5 bottles of a specific producer and vintage that were found to be dead on arrival so to speak.

    As you said it’s the back story, a 2K bottle and a 5K bottle may be due to availability and not quality as most of these wine sell at auction, so it’s whatever someone will pay, so does that make it a 5K wine.

  • I think the price isn’t dependent on quality, in a strict correlative sense – but the wine must still taste of wine. Once it has become dead wine, and people have no experiences of this particular vintage being drinkable, the value of the wine will inevitably drop.

    Of course, as Lee points out, many super-expensive wines are just traded and not drunk.

    Even many expensive wines suffer this fate.

  • Keith prothero

    In last ten years ,I have bought at auction a number of great wines including 61 La Chapelle,61 Latour and 61 Palmer. All however were bought for my charity dinners,and fortunately all of the bottles opened so far have been fantastic.
    Still have one bottle left of 61 La Chapelle ,with great provenance ,and having noticed that a similar bottle sold for the equivalent of £15000 in HK in December,I cannot see that I will ever drink it !!
    For the super rich however,this wine will maybe be worth drinking at this price,as a similar bottle was undoubtably the greatest wine I have ever tasted,and there are of course very few of these bottles left !!

  • Andrew Halliwell

    I have limited experience of drinking hyper expensive wines, but for me it’s definitely diminishing returns. It’s true that the best wine I ever had was a 1982 Petrus, which was I think about £2000 / bottle at the time, but I’ve sometimes been disappointed by other star wines, such as Bordeaux 1st growths, Grange etc on value terms or even on absolute terms.

    I’m a bit out of touch with UK pricing but personally I would have thought about £30-£50 is all you need to pay for top wines. Above that it increasingly becomes like art collecting. Certainly getting back to the original question I wouldn’t expect a $30,000 to be any “better” then a $10,000 bottle and if you opened it, there’s a fair chance it would be complete crap. Nice back story for sure and great to try a piece of wine history, but not necessarily what you’d actually like to drink.

  • Tim Carlisle

    I think its always clear that these ultra expensive wines are not ‘worth’ the extra based on taste. But in the same way Lafite 2009 is not worth the premium over say Leoville 2009 or even Angludet 2009. Yes the wine is better, but not THAT much better.

    The minute we hit the upper echelons we’re talking more and more about whether the people with money are prepared to buy it and how much they will pay for it. It’s more about economics than anything. To fetch high prices it must be rare and be from an estate with reputation (or be a wine with reputation) if there is plenty then however good it is the price drops. If people don’t believe it might be good then the same applies.

    There is an increasing element that says that the name is also worth something – in the same way that Calvin Klein jeans are more expensive than Levi who are more expensive than say Next – the prestige also pays an important element in the pricing.

    Sadly the absolute quality of the contents of the bottle is probably tertiary in importance. That is why Leroy 2002’s are hugely expensive, but Gouges LSG 2002 have sold recently for less than £40 a bottle. The juice isn’t that different – but the name, prestige are.

  • Henri Vasnier

    Two comments on this intriguing subject. Ten days ago, we took a friend to a mutual favorite restaurant for a birthday dinner, a venue where bringing one’s own wine is well accepted. We enjoyed two excellent bottles of Champagne, one excellent (although slightly too young) bottle of red Burgundy. Two tables over, two couples came in, also bearing wine; one of the gentlemen was the recently retired chairman/CEO of a local Dow Jones 30 company, whose publicly reported compensation was in nine digits (US $) his last several years. Wines on that table: 1990 Dom Perignon Rose, 2004 Didier Dagueneau Pur Sang, 1969 Comte de Vogue Musigny, 1955 Figeac. Issues of executive compensation levels aside, one must applaud folks able to find that sort of thing in their own cellars, and willing to go ahead and enjoy it instead of saving it to sell at the next auction.

    For our own consumption, we find there is so much spectacular current-release wine available at US $60 and under that we almost never spend more than that on a bottle. Leave it in a halfway decent cellar for 8-12 years and you won’t have to gamble on whether those expensive bottles you bought at auction were genuine. Yes, that puts the Rousseau Chambertin we used to buy out of reach, but for one bottle of that we can have a case and a half of really well selected premier crus; which of those choices will produce more enjoyment?

  • William

    Henry Vasnier,
    I liked your comment. It is worth reading.

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