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Hugh Johnson November 2010 column

What price luxury?

I’m hearing real resentment from claret-loving acquaintances about what one of them calls the ‘greedy chancers’ who doubled the price of their 2009s. Some merchants are trying to pretend it’s business as usual in Bordeaux; in other words that opportunistic gouging is all you can expect. But this is only one corner of the picture. First growths at £5,000+ a dozen may make you see red, but how about good, sound Médoc at £10 a bottle? It’s still (just) there.

Price differentials are a fascinating subject. Even in everyday life you have only a vague sense of what you get for the extra money. The free-range chicken is, let’s say, twice as much. How much of that is for the freedom, how much the range, how much the margin? You suspect (and are probably right) that reassurance is a significant factor when people decide to pay more. I once heard a man buying socks asking ‘Don’t you have anything more expensive?’ Deep down we all know the entire luxury goods market is founded on the same psychology.

So should we be surprised that wine brands that have spent centuries and fortunes manoeuvring themselves into the luxury goods sector have twigged on the strength of their position? If I have followed the BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders correctly, a finite supply in an expanding market only has to keep up deliveries for its price to rise. A mere 20,000 cases in a market that suddenly includes Asia does not have long to wait.

It’s not a trick you can pull off overnight. Aspirants for promotion need impeccable dress and manners. A foreign accent does not exclude – or not for long. Confident pricing can work wonders. To the first growths and the DRC, the hereditary old guard, you can add, as relative parvenues, Le Pin, Coche-Dury, Vega Sicilia, Grange, Henschke, Pingus, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Krug’s Clos Champagnes and those Napa Cabs that never even reach these shores, so eagerly are they grabbed (by the insecure?) in their own country.

If you accept footballers’ salaries as a fact of life – and what alternative do you have? – you must accept the fact that cars, real estate and art are the default resources for flaunting it, and that wine has joined their number. But the fact that someone else is driving a Bugatti has never spoiled my enjoyment of my modest tourer, nor does my Château Batailley or Cantemerle (£240 a case each), Chasse-Spleen, Poujeaux, or indeed Beaumont or Lanessan (at considerably less) taste any less deliciously satisfying because there are sleeker models with more horsepower on the road.

The real challenge to my habitual glass of claret these days (and every year it seems to grow more deliciously satisfying) is not even its stylistic rivals from the southern hemisphere. It is its hereditary competitor on the other side of France. What can Bordeaux do to kindle the sort of excitement sparking down in the cellars of the Côte d’Or?

Written by Hugh Johnson

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