Understanding Price: Behind The World’s Most Expensive Wines

expensive wines

Chateau Lafite wines are some of the most sought after and expensive in the world. | Image source: Flickr CC user Richard Moross

Sometimes wines of the same vintage and varietal can vary significantly in price. This leads even collectors to ask: what determines a wine’s price? What is the difference between a $30 Pinot Noir from California and a $2000+ Pinot Noir from Burgundy? What makes a wine special enough to be worth $10,000? For collectors, understanding the logic behind wine pricing can help them determine which wines are truly worth investing in.

After wine has spent some time maturing, some wineries release it right away, while others allow it to age for years. Aging reduces tannins and acidity in red wines, allowing them to achieve a rounder, smoother flavor. If you love to collect wines that age well, I recommend Bordeaux and Barolo.

Finding Your Terroir  

We all have a favorite terroir. For example, I love Italy, and this makes me very partial to Italian wines. My love of Greece always makes me curious to discover great Greek wines, even though Greece is not considered a top-tier wine region. On the other hand, no collector can ignore the quintessential tradition of French wines or the uniqueness of the Iberian Peninsula’s reds. Really though, you can have a penchant for any terroir; it is not place that determines the price of wine, but the balance between climate, soil, terrain, and tradition.

To make great wines, one must grow great grapes. Winemakers have discovered that vines which yield a smaller amount of fruit make better wines because there is a greater concentration of flavor in the grapes. Therefore, a soil that is too fertile may not be what’s best for a vineyard; an arid hillside may yield richer grapes than a green stretch of land by a river. The highest quality wines tend to come from regions that offer the best conditions for growing the right grapes for each type of wine in small production. Pair those natural conditions with substantial aging of the wine, and you’ve got a high-end wine in the making.

The Allure of Rare Wines

Since the beginning of time, man has been attracted to things that are hard to find, from the ring of the Nibelungen to the golden apples of Aphrodite. Rare wines can sometimes seem as coveted as these mythological treasures. I have seen many bottles that can’t be bought; their value to the collector that owns them is simply too high. For example, the late Christian Vanneque, who started out as the youngest chef sommelier at a Michelin star restaurant in France, once paid over $100,000 for a bottle of 1811 Chateau d´Yquem, mainly because he had discovered the winery in his youth, and its vintage wines had a certain sentimental value for him. Vanneque once had the greatest wine collection in Indonesia, and he occasionally showed  it off at his Bali restaurant. The 1811 Yquem was one of only 10 bottles of the vintage that are still in existence.

Wines can also become ultra-rare when they have the perfect balance of the natural conditions I described. There are few such bottles in existence. Once word spreads that the wine is fantastic and hard to come by, the market drives prices even higher. In 2012, when an employee sabotaged caskets of aging Brunello at Gianfranco Soldera’s estate in Tuscany, much of a great vintage was lost. This instantly drove prices through the roof. Paradoxically, the saboteur may have helped Soldera, because even though an estimated $6 million worth of wine was lost, the incident brought so much attention to the winery that the remaining bottles have been sold at a great premium.

Do Expert Ratings Matter?

Some experts, like Robert Parker or James Suckling, can also influence the prices of wine. For example, if a $40 dollar bottle receives a 100 rating from one of the experts at Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator, demand will rise, thus pushing prices higher.

However, some experiments have raised doubts about how experts differentiate cheap wines from expensive wines. A researcher based in the US offered the same red wine from two different bottles to a set of expert wine reviewers. One of the bottles had an expensive French wine label, the other read “vin de table” (table wine). The 50 experts invariably gave the wine a higher score when it was served from the fancy bottle and a lousy score when it was perceived to be a cheap wine.

In the world of fine wine investments, however, expert ratings are of the essence, and the world’s most renowned experts usually develop a consistent approach to wine that can help collectors navigate the waters of new and old gems, based not only on their tasting experiences, but also on their expertise and knowledge of winemakers, terroirs, winemaking processes, vintages, and more. From my perspective, as a collector, you must also trust your own taste and preferences. A fine wine collection should have a perfect balance between sheer personal preference and expert ratings.

Most Expensive Wines in the World

Based on secondary market records, the most expensive wine in the world today is Henri Jayer’s Richebourg Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits, with prices starting at about $10,000 a bottle; the 1970 Richebourg is at about that price today. On the other hand, the 1962 vintage has almost doubled its price since 2013, starting at an average retail price of about $16,000 that year and reaching an average of $28,000 in 2015. When a wine is that expensive, there is often a certain mythology that contributes to the price. Henri Jayer’s rags to riches story is a perfect example. A certified enologist without any land, Jayer offered his services to a rich landowner in exchange for half of the grape yields. He ended up becoming one of France’s top winemakers and the creator of some of the greatest Pinot Noirs in history. To make his famous wines, Jayer developed innovative weeding, filtration, and vine-growing techniques. It also helped that he kept production very low at about 300 cases a year.

Among the world’s most expensive modern wines there are also Petrus 2000, a legendary right-bank Bordeaux, a magnum bottle of which you can have for $11,500, and a 2004 Domaine de la Romanee Conti from Burgundy, available for $10,500. The latter is arguably the greatest Pinot Noir on the planet.

The Most Expensive Ancient Wines

Even the greatest, aging-friendly wines cannot maintain their qualities for much longer than half a century. There are some notorious exceptions, including some wines by Chateau d´Yquem and other select Bordeaux, Port, and Madeira. But even when wines are past their prime, they may still be valuable for other reasons. Prices, in this case, depend solely on the market, but judging from how dynamic it is these days, a sought-after 18th-century bottle of wine from Bordeaux or Burgundy may turn out to be a great investment.

In 2010 three bottles of Chateau Lafite’s 1869 sold for $230,000 each at an auction in Hong Kong, making this vintage of Lafite the world’s most expensive, standard-size bottle of wine. Speaking of fabulous prices for historic wines, an imperial bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc fetched $304,375 from a Geneva-based collector at an auction in 2010, setting a new world record.

The Pleasure of Collecting Wines

Collecting wines can yield great pleasures. Whether you long to hold in your hands a piece of wine history, make a few thousand dollars by auctioning a great buy, or enjoy one of the world’s most beloved elixirs, you can probably find what you are looking for at Vinfolio. Vinfolio offers you the choice of buying collectible wines directly or through online auction, allowing a collector at any stage to access the rarest and most diverse wines in existence. The connoisseur understands that, just as no one factor makes up the taste of wine, it is a highly personal combination of internal and external forces that determines price. In a way, it is those very factors that make the wine market as dynamic and exciting as it is today.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.

At Vinfolio, we help our clients buy, sell, store, and manage their most treasured bottles of wine. But in our spare time, we’re just a group of passionate and slightly obsessed oenophiles--we love sharing a great glass of vintage Champagne, followed by a Burgundy, and then a Bordeaux, to get things started. We’re always obsessing over the latest (and oldest) vintages, and we want to share that knowledge and passion with our readers.