The Price of Provenance

In June 2005 I bought a bottle of Krug from what was then Oddbins on Guildford High Street.  I’m fairly certain that it had been there for some time, standing up, in the light, at the top of the shelf.  The argument is that if you’re going to drop £100 on a bottle of Champagne, probably the most delicate of wines, then you should buy something that has been treated impeccably well since it was bottled, something that had been in dark and cool professional storage or similar.

As it happens this was the best bottle of Krug I’ve had.  The moment may have had something to do with it, but I can still remember the meatiness, the ripeness to this bottle.  It tasted mature, complete.  My theory is that the less than perfect storage conditions (i.e. standing up for a year or so in direct light) had accelerated the development of this particular bottle.

Eight years later, Ch. Latour release 1,200 cases of the 1995 vintage of their grand vin.  Wine that has not moved from the chateau since it was bottled.  With a prooftag and a back label stating the date of shipment from the chateau, these wines have what one might describe as bulletproof and perfect provenance.  The price is £4,950 per case of twelve bottles in bond, with UK merchants making around 10% of that, depending on how much they paid for their euros.  The premium on this ex-cellar stock from Latour over non-ex-cellar stock is just under 20%.

The commentary on this release has been mixed in terms of the opinions expressed.  Some merchants have bigged up the release, some have ignored it.  Some say the premium is a bargain, others say a waste of money.  One merchant has rather impressively taken both points of view, albeit through different channels.  I’m actually rather impressed by this lack of integrity, because integrity has nothing to do with this release, indeed I say it’s the opposite.  To distil this, here are three questions:

How good are the storage conditions at Ch. Latour?  All the way back to 1995?

And are they better than, say: Octavian, London City Bond, etc, etc?

And – this is starting to get tricky – if one is better than the other on paper (eg: storage facility X moves between twelve and fourteen degrees celcius three times a year whereas storage facility Y does the same once a year and storage facility Y is bang on thirteen day after day), which one actually tastes better, and to whom?

Now clearly some sort of tasting is in order and you can easily lock me and a dozen other wine geeks in a room with five bottles of 1995 Latour from different sources.  We’ll have a ball and will descend into horrific wine geekery and be coming up with words like “depth”, “poise”, “focus”, “delineation”, “precision” and “energy” just for starters.  What we won’t come up with is consensus: the jury will be split.  And after an hour or so Mr M. and I will be talking about the kids, Mr B. and I about the football.  The point here is that I like coffee and Mr B. likes tea.  Taste is not uniform.  There is no best.

One of the UK wine trade’s more charismatic figures once said to me: “everything is ex-chateau”.  And he was right.  So why all this provenance focus?

One of my favourite phrases is: “it is what it is”.  It’s a softened “THIS is THIS” from The Deer Hunter.  The 2013 release of 1995 Latour (and 2005 Forts de Latour and 2009 Pauillac de Latour) is what it is.  And it’s this:

Drinkers don’t really give a monkey’s about where a bottle has been or what it looks like – they’re more concerned with what’s in it, and how it tastes.  An example: if you have a damp cellar the labels will fall off your bottles and the wooden cases will rot, but the corks of the bottles will be moist and therefore elastic and will do their job efficiently.  Therefore, maybe, rotten boxes and bad labels indicate good wine.  Serious wine guys know this.  But try selling a case of 1982 Lascases with the labels at the bottom of a mouldy case.

 “Provenance”, and its rise, is not about drinking.  It’s not about pleasure.  It’s not about the million-petalled flower that a bottle of wine can be.  It’s about money, it’s about dirty paper.

Latour’s decision to withdraw from the en-primeur market and to release wines “at maturity” is a commercial one.  It’s about making more money out of what they’ve got.  And merchants are on to this new spin: if you’re selling what is essentially the same kit as your competitors then how do you sell it for more?  Ah … provenance.  And you’ve no shortage of wine geeks who’ve never even tasted a bottle of Latour backing you up in their weirdy-beardy forums.  And the marketing guys are salivating over this new angle … a bunch of marketing guys who drink WKD on a Saturday night and whose Sunday Roast comes with prepared vegetables.

Latour is a special place.  I’m a Latour nut.  I can taste the soil in it.  I can taste the breeding, the fact that it has character.  I can taste the patrician arrogance of it, the regal class.  Ex-chateau release?  Prooftags?  I’m not entirely convinced and, whilst Bordeaux has been a commodity for quite some time now, it saddens me a little that the 750ml of grape juice inside a bottle has become less important than, or at least sidelined by, a sticker on the back of it.  But it is what it is, and Bordeaux is what Bordeaux does, and what Bordeaux lives off, what Bordeaux smells of, and sniffs out, is money.