Château Cantemerle 1996
In one respect at least, petrol and wine are the same; I know what the price is, or perhaps at least what I think the price should be, of both. There are many things I buy, most groceries in particular, where I haven’t a clue not only how much I paid last time, but also (as a consequence) how much I should be paying next time. How much is a lime, for instance, or a can of baked beans or a packet of dishwasher tablets? I don’t know. But petrol? For some reason the price sticks in my mind, and I quietly grumble to myself as I pull in at the pumps and see, yet again, that the price has risen by a fraction of a penny.
So it is with wine, and this week’s wine is perhaps the one bottle in my cellar that best illustrates to me the scale of price rises that wine and in particular Bordeaux has seen over the past decade. Purchased in case quantity (in the days when a case was twelve bottles rather than six) when in bottle and released (so a couple of years after the initial primeur campaign), the 1996 from Château Cantemerle set me back a little over £13 per bottle, including duty, VAT and delivery. It arrived with a six-pack of 1997 Poujeaux, another old favourite which has long-since all been drunk. But I still have a trio of the Cantemerle remaining, even after this week’s bottle has been drained.
That £13 figure has stuck in my head over the years, and naturally it popped up afresh late last year when I encountered Cantemerle 2005 in a retailer’s bins, the asking price being around £20, give or take a few pence. My first thought was that this price increase seemed very steep, especially over such a short period of time. Then, on reflection, I realised that eight years had passed between the two purchases (yet another example of how quickly the years seem to pass these days, as I mentioned in my Liberty Wines tasting last week); is it still fair to expect Cantemerle to be £13-15? Over a near-decade inflation will have had an impact on wages and the cost of living. How can we tell what is a fair price today?
Perhaps the best way, in the UK at least, is to take a look at the retail price index (RPI), something I have done once before many years ago, in my (now very dated) article on the price of Bordeaux. The UK Office for National Statistics regularly publish this guide to changing retail prices, data which over the years records the increasing cost of living; there are many elements to the dataset, and I chose one that takes into account not only retail prices but also mortgage payments. Tagged to a figure of 100 for January 1987, by September 2000 – when I purchased the 1996 Cantemerle – the RPI was at 171.7, indicating a 71% rise in the cost of living over the intervening thirteen years. By September 2008 – when I bought the 2005 Cantemerle – the figure had risen to 218.4, an incredible 118% rise on 1987, but more relevant to the matter at hand a rise of 27% from 2000, using 171.7 as a baseline. Projecting the same price rise onto the £13 bottle of Cantemerle, a price of £16.50 – up just £3.50 – would be appropriate. The true rise is double that (accepting that this is comparing an off-the-shelf bottle price with a case price, but remember that the latter included a delivery charge). No doubt many would argue that such a high price is warranted by the quality of the 2005 vintage, but let us not overlook the fact firstly that, on the left bank at least, 1996 was also a superlative vintage and, secondly, the prices of many wines have been similarly priced in the 2004, 2006 and 2007 vintages.
Will the price of Bordeaux ever fall again? I doubt it; there have been occasional corrections over the past few decades, but the inevitable trend is upwards. One such correction, albeit a very minor one, has been and gone with the 2008 Bordeaux vintage, but I suspect this is to be a short-lived phase and that prices are set to rise again (after Robert Parker’s scores, some already are). If this upwards trend continues to climb at a greater rate than inflationary rises, as it has done in the past ten years it seems, the wines will become increasingly more expensive (in both real and relative terms), and are set to become luxury products for occasional consumption by the few, rather than giving pleasure to many. What a tragedy that will be. My own personal purchases of Bordeaux have certainly tailed off dramatically in recent years, and I am sure I am not alone.
The wine that prompted this reflective train of thoughts, the 1996 vintage of Château Cantemerle, was opened and left to stand for an hour or so, and then briefly decanted before serving. Remarkably, it is more than three years since I last tasted this wine, and yet it still seems as delicious today as it did back in late 2005. The colour is maturing, but there is still plenty of rich, deep pigment here. The nose has a lovely, bloody, meat and iron aroma, tinged with elements of leather, all of which together sings of elegant maturity. On the palate it is firm, savoury, refreshing and yet full, and the endpalate shows a lovely, spicy, crisply defined character. There is balance, substance, texture and a violetty, perfumed edge to the fruit. This is delicious stuff; well stored by me over the last nine years, and well worth every penny of that initial £13. Very good indeed. 17/20 (25/5/09)