At a time when there is so little life in the economy that there’s talk of the high priests at the Reserve Bank administering last rites, it’s bizarre to discover that new wines are being released at such stratospheric price points you could probably buy a decent house in the platteland for the cost of a case. That there is even life in the rarefied atmosphere in which these statement wines trade is an indication that for many consumers wine has long ceased to be a beverage. Instead it has joined fast cars, contemporary art, and complicated watches on the trophy shelf of the super-rich. It was not always thus: as recently as the 1970s even the world’s most highly regarded wines could be found in middle class homes. Dom Perignon – and for that matter Chateau Lafite Rothschild – retailed for around R15-00, ten times the price of a bottle of Nederburg Cabernet (so not a trifling sum), positioning them as special occasion bottles, rather than an alternative to paying school fees.
With this transformation in its meaning (the drink is secondary to the status it conveys) has come many changes. For a start, the top international brands are now profitable. In the 1960s even the Bordeaux First Growths under-recovered on their running costs. As a result, the quality of the best wines has improved. Site is only half the battle in producing a decent drink: ample supplies of labour, the discretionary ability to ditch poor fruit, premium oak barrels and high tech cellars have all contributed to enhanced quality. Whoever laments the bygone era of the classic wines has clearly not sampled any for a very long time.
However, as wine has become commoditised – even in its most elevated echelons – the burden of reputation has actually increased. In part this is due to more overt performance criteria. Parker ratings assumed an almost unassailable status forcing producers to refine what they were doing in order to obtain scores higher than their immediate competitors. But the other, more substantial, reason is that the moment wine ceased to be wine and instead became a luxury consumable then issues such as brand management, positioning, and status became as important as the contents of the bottle. When you buy a First Growth today the transaction requires the same prudence as a contemporary art investment – including a background check on the dealer and research into the provenance of the wine.
Take away brand, and what you are left with is an enjoyable drink. It’s hardly surprising that producers of good wines which don’t yet have the reputation of the top-end examples pitch their offerings alongside the established icons and then propose a price which is less than the more famous example, but still steep in comparison with what is available in the market. Luddite’s Niels Verberg, working with Elgin Ridge’s Brian Smith, has just released a delicious Cabernet Franc under the The. brand. He was happy to serve it sighted next to Chateau Margaux and Chateau Mouton Rothschild (both admittedly from the deeply unprepossessing 2013 vintage, and neither containing much cabernet franc). It was certainly easier to drink than the Mouton, and more substantial than the Margaux.
Both of the First Growths sell for between £250 – 300 in the UK, which would put them on shelf here for between R8k and R10k. The. Cabernet Franc is being released at R5k per bottle – but you have to buy a three bottle case. There are 900 bottles, and Verberg is hoping that rarity will add the value that the brand still lacks. Other than his investment in his own success, he is hoping that The. Cabernet Franc (three barrels from a single site) will contribute to elevating the image and price of the top Cape wines. It’s a brave endeavour, but I fear he hasn’t understood that in this new world of wine, brand trumps rarity (and what’s in the bottle) by a factor of ten, and not two.