Super-Premiums, Wine Wankers and the joy of $20 wines

How on earth did we end up with thousand dollar bottles?

Not so long ago, even the best French wines were affordable. In the early eighties, you could buy third-growth Bordeaux like 1978 Chateau Montrose, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Pichon Longueville de Lalande for around $30. Good Burgundies cost a bit more, and great Sauternes & Barsacs a bit more again – about $60/70 for a full bottle of Rieussec. Expensive yes, but not ridiculous.

Chateau-pichon-lalande-pauillacChateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande in Pauillac

In the early nineties, that all changed when US brain surgeons and Wall Street types drove the prices of French wines up, in a Robert Parker-induced frenzy. Parker is to wine what Steve Jobs was to Apple. Then the Hong Kong Chinese got into the act, pushing auction prices at Christies and Southebys into the stratosphere. Bordeaux and Burgundies floated out of the reach of ordinary people, with the premier grand crus soon fetching up to a thousand dollars a bottle.

The Italians wanted a piece of the action and cranked up the prices and the marketing of their ‘Super-Tuscans’, reds made from Cabernet and Merlot rather than the prescribed traditional varieties. Sassicaia and Ornellaia are 2 examples. The government even created a special classification for Super Tuscans: Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT).

In California’s Napa Valley, wealthy Americans built chateaux to rival the biggest in Bordeaux and spared no effort to produce super-premium wines. Robert Mondavi teamed up with Baron Eli de Rothschild (Chateau Mouton-Rothschild) to create a new luxury brand: Opus One. Some of our makers down under followed suit, dusting off old labels or creating new ones, such as Wynns Michael Hermitage and John Riddoch Cabernet, Penfolds Yattarna and RWT, Clarendon Hills Astralis and Petaluma Tiers. It didn’t take long for $100 price tags to become the norm for premium wines.

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Barossa Burning

In his book Wy the French Hate Us, Campbell Mattinson describes a Barossa Valley covered in a smoke haze from burning vines. It wasn’t a bushfire, but a government-sponsored vine-pull scheme. It was the mid 1980s and Aussies had yet to discover the virtues of our big, warm, cuddly reds. Shiraz muffins and Cabernet confitures just couldn’t shift the surplus. Barossa shiraz from old vines brought $275 per ton, grenache $190.

A couple of visits from Robert Parker changed all that for Shiraz to fetch $3000 a ton. When he gave close to 100 points to Duck Muck from Heathcote, the on-sell price went over $1000 a case.

In the first decade of the new millennium , the asking price for Grange shot up to $500, followed by Hill of Grace. Mount Edelstone, a wine I used to buy for $5, shot up to $100. In Bordeaux, Chateaux Petrus and Le Pin stormed past $1000 a bottle.

Super-premiums

Many of the super-premium wines had the entire book of winemaking tricks thrown at them, from the ripest fruit available to micro-oxidation for maximum flavour extraction, and loaded up with toasted oak. Southcorp had ended up with most of our hallowed wine brands – Penfolds, Lindemans, Leo Buring and so on. It was a miracle that decades of acquisitions, raids and takeovers by corporate barbarians hadn’t quite managed to destroy these old brands. When Southcorp bought Rosemount for a super-premium of $1.5 billion in 2001, Bob Oatley laughed his head off while everybody else scratched theirs.

Penfolds Luxury 2012

Nectar for the Gods

Many of the wines I used to buy had simply become more expensive, not more enjoyable, and the new wines that popped out of the fancy new boutiques of the Yarra Valley, the Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania came with  fancy new price tags as well. Our wine writers gushed about new designer labels as if they were manna handed down from heaven – expensive manna – and a new generation of serious sommeliers with sharp features and sharper haircuts made you feel like they were allowing you into very exclusive clubs where you were privileged to be offered wine and food that was made for Gods by semi-gods.

Boom, boom!

There was a lot of $10 wine around in the early naughties, as our big wineries were trying hard to beat the cheaper Frogs and Italians in the UK and US markets. No one seemed to care about the quality or the price since we were shifting boatloads of wine. The drought was a bigger problem, as it put the brakes on production in our irrigation areas. More, more, more was the mantra, until the bubble burst (or was it the giant bladder?).

The other end of the market was collapsing as well, since too many winemakers had got in on the super-premium act. Some makers cut their prices. Wynns chopped the prices for John Riddoch and Michael almost in half. Overnight.

DSC01953Photo courtesy of Wino Sapien

The Sting in the Yellow Tail

A few years ago, we were staying in a friend’s house over Christmas, and I saw the new face of Aussie wine in his fridge and drinks cupboard: Yellow Tail, any way you liked it. Red or white, Cabernet or Chardonnay. Like most punters out there, my friend is confused by the vast numbers of wines that fill up the shelves of our grog shops. It was an easy decision to buy a brand that provided easy drinking wines that were also easy on the pocket.

He didn’t know that the export bubble had burst, that the Argentinians and Chileans had beaten us in the overseas supermarket price wars, and that he was drinking the same wine Americans used to buy at half the $9 he’d paid. The giant worm had turned on itself, at a time when we had an excess of 100 million cases of wine in this country. The Casellas in Griffith had installed the world’s fastest bottling line at the height of the boom in Griffith: it could handle 58,000 bottles an hour.

Return to Sanity

The downside for the wine industry was an upside for consumers. All that excess grog drove prices down across the board, most of all in the under $20 segment. You could buy Annie’s Lane Rieslings and reds for $10, Jim Barry Riesling for $12, and Pewsey Vale for $14. Even a boutique red like the Teusner Riebke Shiraz was only $17, and I remember buying Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet 2009 (the old black label) for $20. James Halliday gave the 2010 Teusner Shiraz 96 points so I bought lots of it and, everytime I open a bottle a big smile of satisfaction comes over my face.

A new generation of young Turks had set up shop in South Australia, or added a winery to the vineyard that used to supply grapes to Penfolds and others. The Kalleskes and the guys at Turkey Flat were joined by Hewitson, Sons of Eden, Maverick and many more. Even Margaret River suffered from the grape glut, and you could pick up very smooth Cabernet Merlots for $20 from Woodlands and Cape Mentelle and others.

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As I shared my finds with friends, one of them suggested I should set up a website focusing on wines under $20/25. He isn’t short of money but he made the point that most people spend no more than $20 – $25 on a bottle of wine unless it’s for a special occasion. Other friends I checked with said they spent $10 a bottle on wines they drank every day, and could I help them find better wines at that price point? That’s how Best Wines Under $20 was born,

Postscript

The GFC slowed down the demand for fancy frog grog in the USA, but a new generation of affluent Chinese soon picked up the slack and bought any wine as long as it had Premier Grand Cru Classé on the label. Spending more than a grand on a special gift bottle was the norm, and Penfolds launched its first >$1000 wine in Shanghai in 2008 rather than its home country. The next release from Penfolds came out with an $1800 price tag, and it still wasn’t enough.

‘Some of the Chinese super rich are getting tired of Lafite,’ Georges Tong, a prominent Hong Kong wine collector, told The Telegraph. ‘Presenting a bottle of Lafite as a gift is not as fashionable as before. Gift recipients are now demanding Domaine de la Romanee Conti.’

It all changed in 2014 as the Chinese were either worried about their slowing economy or tired of fancy wines and fancy prices. The same year saw the biggest wine scam ever, in the form of the infamous Rudy Kurniawan, who was this year sentended to 10 years jail. The scam was so big it will poison the auction market for rare Burgundy and Bordeaux for years to come. Few people can tell the scams from the real thing, and most of them are still out there.

Kim