Richard Hemming: Outsmarting the overpriced

Imagine if the recordings of the Berlin Philharmonic, the works of Monet  or the performances of Usain Bolt or Cristiano Ronaldo became the sole preserve of the ultra wealthy, kept out of the sight, sound and reach of 99% of the world’s population.

Fans of music, art and sport would be deprived access to the masters of their craft. critics would lose defining points of reference. Other artists, musicians and sports people would be denied aspirational figureheads.

Drawing a comparison between this scenario and the reality of wine is not original, but it is more apposite than ever, considering the recent Oxfam headlines claiming that 1% of the population will own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016.

In that context, it’s perhaps somewhat crass to bemoan the fate of wine. Then again, if our collective love of wine makes us think about how wealth is distributed, maybe a greater good is at stake.

The present reality is that the world’s most famous wines are now priced way beyond the reach of most of us working in the industry, in whatever sector – and the likelihood is that prices will only inflate as the rich get richer.

Therefore, most wine professionals will now never get to taste these legends. Bordeaux and Burgundy boast the most obvious examples, but the icons of Australia, Champagne, Italy and elsewhere are increasingly unaffordable.

For off-licences, that presents two particular problems: how do you sell something you’ve never tasted, and how do you accumulate true expertise without reference to the lodestars of the firmament?

Perhaps the answer is simply to look elsewhere, sourcing wines that are the very best within lower price brackets. This is neither a simple nor quick process, but should already be a fundamental objective for any self- respecting wine merchant. Taste widely and often, look beyond the usual suspects, and there are great producers waiting to be discovered whose wines have a quality-to-price ratio that makes a mockery of the most famous names.

Such wines become more and more relevant as most expensive alternatives become less accessible. In fact, it’s not unthinkable that within the trade the importance of DRC, Pétrus and their like could actually be eroded by their spiralling unaffordability. As they turn into luxuries for a tiny minority of people, they effectively become cut off from the majority of the wine community.

It’s remarkable how quickly this is all happening. In the 1960s and 1970s, grand cru Burgundy commanded a fraction of what it now costs. Even as recently as the 1990s, cru classé Bordeaux were many times less expensive than the en primeur prices that are now quite rightly bemoaned by the trade every April.

As long as the ultra-rich exist, these wines will retain their stratospheric prices. So let’s redouble our focus on the pleasure and satisfaction found in all the great wine out there whose price remains at ground level.

Related articles: