Think you're spending a lot more for your French wines than you did in 1986? It all depends on which ones.

By Fortune Editors
December 9, 2011

By Gregory Dal Piaz, Snooth

I complain about wine prices. A lot. Maybe I’m just jaded, or spoiled since I’ve been buying wine for so long, or perhaps my standard of living has simply eroded. Then again, I’ve grown more mature and understand the actual value of things and how hard I’m willing to work for them like never before.

No matter what the cause, it seems to me that wine prices have gotten totally out of hand, forcing many of my favorite wines out of the realm of ordinary drinkers. My being a somewhat ordinary drinker, as opposed to taster, probably is the root cause of my frustration.

So am I on to something or is emotion distorting my perspective? There is only one way to find out: By looking at wine prices 25 years ago and today. We’ll compare the same bottle of wine in both years, as well as for the same wine in corresponding vintages. I’ve dug into my stash of old wine catalogs and found the fall 1986 Crossroads catalog for reference. Let’s begin our journey back to the 80s with a look at France.

Chateau Prieure Lichine

Then: It can be argued that Bordeaux has been the most aggressive region in pushing up pricing over the past decade or two. In 1986, the glorious 1982s were not yet so widely praised and the 1983s had just hit the market. I was a buyer at the lower end of the spectrum then and have not regretted it since even rather modest wines from these vintages have aged well.

Back in 1986, I purchased both vintages of Chateau Prieure Lichine for $13.89 at Crossroads. Today, factoring in the rate of inflation, Prieuere Lichine should cost about $27.25.

Now: Prices today for the wine look like this:

1982 average price = $115 (820% appreciation)

1983 average price = $110 (785% appreciation)

2008 average price = $45

It looks like both the 1982 and 1983 vintages have worked out well as investments, and the 2008 is less than twice the price of those earlier vintages. I expect we’ll find that Prieure Lichine is still a relative bargain in the world of wine.

First Growth Bordeaux:

Then: I didn’t buy any first growth Bordeaux back in 1986. I was both too poor and too stupid to know any better. Chateau Lafite Rothschild has been the poster boy for wild price escalation over the past decade, so it’s very interesting to see what has happened with their pricing. In 1986, the 1982 Lafite was a lofty $83.99 while the 1983 was only $49.50. At these prices, Lafite was between 3.5 and six times the price of Prieure Lichine for the two vintages.

Now:
1982 Lafite Rothschild average price = $5,500 (6,548% appreciation)

1983 Lafite Rothschild average price = $1,100 (2,220% appreciation)

2008 Lafite Rothschild average price = $1,800 (more than the ’83? You have to be nuts!)

Talk about runaway inflation. Those $83.99 1986 dollars should translate into roughly $173 with inflation. The 2008 is selling for over ten times more! And the Lafite sells for 40 times the price of Prieure Lichine these days? Oh the horror!

Burgundy

Then: Admittedly, I was a small player with Burgundy back in 1986, just beginning to explore the wines of the region. My purchases were rather limited, both by what I could afford and what I was comfortable buying. I relied on the big names then and that was a perfect route to take for a bit of regional exploration. Domaine Drouhin had a great reputation even 25 years ago, and while I was not able to afford their 1983 Echezeaux ($30.15) I did buy both their 1983 Beaune “Clos des Mouches” rouge ($19.99) as well as their 1983 Pommard ($18.79).

Now: 1983 Pommard average price = $80 (This seems ambitious — 426% appreciation)

1983 Clos des Mouches average price = $80 (400% appreciation)

The real question is how much those current releases cost. In inflation-adjusted dollars,they should cost about $38 and $41 respectively. But look at that Pommard below — the price hasn’t really changed in 40 years. I guess that just goes to show you that the cost for producing many wines has stayed relatively steady in the intervening years. Increased demand is playing a big role here.

2008 Drouhin Pommard = $40

2008 Drouhin Clos des Mouches = $80

The Loire

Then and Now: The Loire has few wines that rise to the level of investment grade, so comparing prices for the same bottle in 1986 and today is problematic. Would you actually pay anything for a 1985 Muscadet? Okay, yes I know which producers you might pay for, but I’m talking about wines that are a little more mundane. Shocking that these wines — wines that have never been better — are actually getting cheaper with time! Consider these examples:

1985 Muscadet Sauvion Cleray $6.89
2009 Muscadet Sauvion Cleray ($14.24 in 1986 dollars) $12.99

1985 Muscadet Ch de Chasseloir $12.99
2010 Muscadet Ch de Chasseloir ($26.85 in 1986 dollars) $11.99!

That doesn’t mean that prices for all Loire Valley wines have been moving in the wrong direction, at least if you are a producer. The dessert wines, in particular, have seen a surge in interest as of late, and the prices have begun to reflect this. Back in 1986, you could pick up a 1955 Huet Haut Lieu Vouvray Moelleux for $55.

Today, there is no 1955 on the market, but vintages of this wine from the 1940s and 1950 routinely trade in the $400 to $500 range — 750% to 800% appreciation. Those $55 1986 dollars are worth about $114 today. Once again, we can see that well chosen wines have been quite a solid investment over the years — if you store it perfectly and keep your hands off it, of course.

Alsace

Then and now: I’ve bought painfully little Alsatian wine over the years. I mostly drink Pinot Blancs and the like now, but that’s not to say that Alsace is not worthy of attention. As in most regions, there has been a split in pricing between those wines I refer to as “drink now” and the grand late harvest wines of the region. First, let’s take a look at some “drink now” examples and see what has happened there.

1983 Trimbach Riesling in 1986 = $5.99
2009 Trimbach Riesling ($12.38 in 1986 dollars) $18

1985 Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer $6.49
2009 Pierre Sparr Gewürztraminer ($13.42 in 1986 dollars) $17

Both wines have remained reasonably priced, which reflects both the rather low level of their original prices as well as the limited interest these wines find in the general market. So how would cellarable wines from Alsace fare?

When it comes to the great, age-worthy wines of Alsace, there are only a handful of standout names. Of these, Domaine Weinbach and Hugel were well represented in Crossroad’s 1986 catalog. And as an aside, while today thoughts of Alsace may begin with Riesling, Gewurztraminer was still the grape of the region in 1986 and fairly dominated the listings. So what wines from 1986 were worth cellaring?

1985 Weinbach Cuvee Theo Riesling $19.29

1983 Hugel Gewurztraminer Vendage Tardive $33.99

And today:

2009 Weinbach Cuvee Theo Riesling ($39.87 in 1986 dollars) $35!

2007 Hugel Vendage Tardive ( $70.25 in 1986 dollars) $75

Looks like the “great” wines of Alsace haven’t even fared as well as the “drink now’”wines. In all fairness, this has something to do with the wines chosen, but it also is symptomatic of the world lessening appetite for sweeter wines.

The Southern Rhone

Then: The Southern Rhone has become my whipping boy for outrageous wine prices. I used to enjoy these wines very much and purchased them frequently because they were so cheap. Maybe they were too cheap. Perhaps that’s why the pricing increases seem so egregious, or maybe I’m mistaken. Let’s take a look and see where the truth lies.

In 1986 I bought the following wines:

1983 Guigal Gigondas $12.99
1983 Jaboulet Parallele 45 Cotes du Rhone $5.99
1983 Jaboulet les Cedres Chateauneuf du Pape $9.89
1983 Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf du Pape $8.99

Now: Today these wines cost:

2009 Guigal Gigondas ($26.85 in 1986 dollars) $25
2010 Jaboulet Parallele 45 Cotes du Rhone ( $12.38 in 1986 dollars ( $10)
2009 Jaboulet les Cedres Chateauneuf du Pape ($20.40 in 1986 dollars) $50
1983 Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf du Pape ($18.58 in 1986 dollars) $45

So some Southern Rhone wines barely budged in price while others have doubled, much like many other regions’ wines. For better or worse, this exercise is rather limited. I have excluded the co-called “big boys” here, and the super cuvees of Chateauneuf that have been the main drivers behind the explosion in pricing weren’t even a twinkle in the eye of the most forward thinking producer. But still, things don’t look that bad here, what about the Northern Rhone?

The Northern Rhone

Then: The Northern Rhone was always sort of expensive in the scheme of things, or at least that has been my impression. Prices for the best wines were always way ahead of those from the Southern Rhone and in line with many other regions that offered similar quality. Has that remained the same? Let’s take a look at what I bought in 1986.

1983 Jamet Cote Rotie $15.89
1983 Chave Hermitage $23.99
1983 Delas Frères Cornas $8.49

I still have some of these wines! Let’s look at how they did as investments.

1983 Jamet Cote Rotie average price = $185 (1164% appreciation)
1983 Chave Hermitage average price = $300 (1250% appreciation)
1983 Delas Frères Cornas average price = $60 (700% appreciation)

Pretty darn solid rates of appreciation for these unsung heroes, but that’s what happens with these sorts of low production wines. People drink them and what’s left become valuable as much for rarity as for quality. So what do Northern Rhone prices look like today?

Now: These all remain very compelling wines to this day, and the Chave and the Jamet are considered benchmarks for their respective regions. Yes, there are “better” wines out there, the super cuvees that to an extent trade in elegance and finesse for richness and impact, but no one I know is going to sniff their noses at any of these wines. Though it could be argued that they have been a little super cuveed themselves. So what do they cost today?

2008 Jamet Cote Rotie ($32.84 in 1986 dollars) $115
2008 Chave Hermitage ($49.59 in 1986 dollars) $200
2009 Delas Frères Cornas ($17.55 in 1986 dolars) $50

So Northern Rhone prices are up — way up in fact, if maintaining a fairly steady gap between the respective wines. I think I forgive these wines for their prices because they are so special. They are unique and compelling while being produced in rather modest quantities, but they nonetheless offer additional evidence that wines are simply becoming luxury items. That is sad.

A mixed bag

So what’s the real story here? If we look at average change in pricing from 1986 to 2011 by region in this rather imperfect exercise, the results are worrying and revealing.

Bordeaux: 65% above inflation
First growths: 2000% above inflation
Burgundy: 50% above inflation
Loire: 50% below inflation (hint hint, there are values here)
Alsace: 30% above inflation but not at the top levels
Southern Rhone: 0 at the low end but 250% at the upper end
Northern Rhone: over 275%!

So as it turns out, once you move away from the very top price levels, it looks like there is some factual support for my anecdotal disappointment and shock at the prices of Rhone wines. I am disappointed in the prices, but at least I can find some comfort that I know what I’m talking about.

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