We start hunting for the world’s most expensive wines in a place where prices only rise – or do they?
By Don Kavanagh | Wine-searcher Posted Thursday, 04-Jun-2020
Burgundy’s tiny production figures, the imminent rebirth of Riesling, the unstoppable rise of Napa prices and wine writers shoehorning tired cliches into their intros – some things never change in the wine world.
The current exceptional circumstances notwithstanding, there has been a certain realization dawning in the past 12 months that there are changes afoot for the wine industry.
New generations, perhaps not as deeply in love with wines as their forebears, price stagnation in a surprising number of regions and a more general tendency to ignore the received wisdom when it comes to wine have all been big trends this past year. The one that should perhaps be the most worrying for wine producers is the price question, especially in regions that have been accustomed to automatic premium status, like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo and the Mosel.
It used to be so simple there: semi-retire from your career in IT or investment banking, buy a piece of dirt, build a tasting room and employ a viticulturist to work out which grapes to plant. Then start producing Cabernet Sauvignon (or possibly a Bordeaux blend) and shift it via your mailing list for $150 a bottle. If you manage to amass a few high scores from the right critics, you can then start bumping your prices up and life is a breeze. However, the wind seems to have dropped in recent times.
Yes, prices are still healthy (from a producer point of view at least), but the very top end is running into the wind and looks likely to hit the wall in the near future.
This isn’t simply a Napa issue, of course; it’s worldwide. Looking at our database for the world’s most expensive wines would suggest that many consumers have reached a threshold beyond which they are reluctant to venture, and that reluctance has been reflected in a slowing of the previously runaway average price increases that top wines were achieving.
That’s certainly the case in Napa, where the price ceiling has proved curiously stubborn over the past couple of years. Just take a look at the current list of the region’s most expensive wines, based on the global average price per bottle.
Napa’s Most Expensive Wines on Wine-Searcher:
|Wine Name||Score||Ave Price|
|Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc||96||$6339|
|Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon||96||$3572|
|Tusk Estate Cabernet Sauvignon||93||$846|
|Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon||95||$803|
|Screaming Eagle The Flight||94||$800|
|Realm Cellars The Absurd Proprietary Red||95||$744|
|Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon||95||$623|
|Levy & McClellan Cabernet Sauvignon||94||$617|
It says a lot about the stagnation of Napa’s top price echelon that the only difference between this year’s list and last year’s is that Realm’s Absurd red has slipped past Promontory on global average price. That’s it, everything else is exactly the same as it was back in 2019; the list of Napa’s most searched-for wines (which is similarly unchanging) even managed two changes this year, a flurry of excitement by comparison.
The big difference between the corresponding list for 2019 and this one is price. Last year, after several consecutive years of double-digit price hikes, the top 10 only managed an aggregated increase in average price of just 1.24 percent, and we posited the theory that the ceiling had been reached. This year, that is slightly better but, at 3.5 percent, it is still a long way off the 2018 list, which had increased by 13.2 percent on the previous year.
That 3.5 percent rise is made to look a lot better by a 7 percent hike in the average price of the Screaming Eagle Sauvignon, which jumped by $416 a bottle, from $5923 last year. The other two Screaming Eagle wines also had modest rises ($5 a bottle for the Cabernet and $50 a bottle for the Flight), while Harlan added $34 to its average price, a lift of just 3.2 percent. The other wines to rise were Scarecrow (1.1 percent) and Realm (8 percent). The rest dipped slightly.
Consider this however: the global average retail price for all Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa is currently $98 a bottle, up by a very healthy 12.65 percent since last year, and the average price for a Napa Bordeaux blend has risen by a whopping 22.5 percent to $218 a bottle. Compare that to the increases for the very top-end prices and you can see that the willingness to pay whatever price for a particular wine simply isn’t there anymore.
Perhaps the wine world finally is changing after all.