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Billionaire Wines

Rioja Emerges as an Affordable Substitute for High-End Bordeaux

Discovering a new range of wines that 'make your knees give' — at a fraction of the price

Henry Jeffreys By June 1, 2021
A photo illustration by Allison Kahler of two wine glasses clinking on a background of diamonds and blue gradient swirl.
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

For the very rich who don’t mind showing it, there’s only one type of wine to drink: first growth Bordeaux. A single bottle of Château Lafite 2000 costs about $1,000, and double that in a Michelin-starred restaurant. 

Sure, Bordeaux has a storied past, and it’s always been on the expensive side. But the stratospheric sticker prices are a relatively recent development. What happened — and what are the options for the less-than-wealthy wine lover?

The rise of millionaire wine

First growth Bordeaux was the original luxury wine, created to tap into the new wealth of 17th-century London. It was pioneered by Arnaud de Pontac, owner of Château Haut-Brion in the subregion of Graves. His wine was a cut above ordinary Bordeaux, but his real skill was in selling it.  

“In 1660, he started marketing the wine of his estate as a distinct brand at a substantial premium,” writes Hugh Johnson in “The Story of Wine.” At the Sign of the Pontac’s Head tavern in London, a bottle of Haut-Brion cost seven shillings, about four times the price of everyday Bordeaux. It became the talk of the town. Contemporary writer Samuel Pepys called it “Ho Bryan” and wrote of its “peculiar taste.” 

In 1707, according to Johnson, “new French clarets” arrived in London. They were from Châteaux Lafite, Margaux, and Latour. Ever since, these four, along with Château Yquem, a sweet wine from the Sauternes subregion, have been the wines of choice for the fabulously wealthy. In 1855, the wines of Bordeaux were classified by price, with the four enshrined as the region’s so-called first growths. They were joined by Château Mouton Rothschild in 1973.

They may have appealed to millionaires, but at the time they were also bought by doctors, lawyers, and even writers. A 1909 price list from London wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd has a 12-bottle case of Château Belgrave selling for 21 shillings, or $108 in today’s money. The list shows the 1905 Haut-Brion at 60 shillings, or $325 — triple the price, but still within reach.

Nowadays, a case of Belgrave 2016 costs around $450, whereas Haut-Brion from the same vintage will be around $7,000. 

Stratosphere wine

Matt Kramer, an American wine critic, cites the 2000 vintage as the turning point. “That was the starting gun of ‘unaffordability’ by the less-than-wealthy,” he says. “First growths sold retail for $400 a bottle. The market professed outrage and then promptly lunged for the wines.” It was a great year, no doubt, but prices were hyped up by merchants trading on the cachet of the millennium vintage.  

By the release of the 2005 vintage, prices were edging north of $500 a bottle. Then came the 2009 and 2010 vintages, when Chinese collectors took notice, sending prices even higher. 

Top Bordeaux is now a commodity, and traded as such by people with no interest in drinking it. Evan Goldstein MS says that top Bordeaux wines are like fine art: “Once in a rare while they are consumed. But more often than not they are treated as you would treat any masterpiece you were fortunate enough to have in your possession.”

Barring a worldwide financial catastrophe, these wines will never be affordable again.

So where should the non-billionaire wine lover go? Those looking for some of the pomp, history, and sheer quality of Bordeaux should head south, over the Pyrenees.

Rioja at its best makes your knees give and provides amazing pleasure but at a fraction of the price of entry.

Head for Rioja

This was the journey that many Bordelais took during the phylloxera crisis in the late 19th century. The grand estates like La Rioja Alta and López de Heredia were based near the railway stations so the wines could easily be sent up to France, where it would be sold as authentic Bordeaux.

Eventually phylloxera reached Spain too, but Rioja survived and thrived. Certain practices that are no longer followed in Bordeaux, like long barrel aging, are still practiced there. Rioja is essentially 19th century Bordeaux made with Spanish varieties and aged in American rather than French oak. 

“Rioja at its best makes your knees give and provides amazing pleasure but at a fraction of the price of entry,” says Goldstein. Even a cult wine like Viña Tondonia from López de Heredia can be found for around $60 for the 2008 vintage. Other bargains include Viña Ardanza from La Rioja Alta; the 2012 vintage is phenomenal for a wine that’s less than $40. And the 2018 Bodegas Lanzaga LZ is under $17. Rioja truly is the people’s fine wine.

There are hundreds of brands but there’s no going wrong with the founding producers: La Rioja Alta, CVNE, Marqués de Murrieta, Marqués de Riscal, López de Heredia, and Muga

Even unshowy Rioja can last for decades. Goldstein recommends going to the Rekondo restaurant in San Sebastian in Spain, where the waiter will say, “‘Tell me the year you were born and I’ll find you a bottle… no matter how old you are.” Marqués de Riscals from the 1940s and ’50s are still vigorous and fresh.

The great traditional wines are blends of varieties and vineyards, often made from purchased grapes, which is why they are so affordable. Although Rioja is also changing, with a move towards single-vineyard wines, Matt Kramer thinks there’s little chance that investors will move in as they have done, for example, in Piedmont. “The reason is supply — small in Barolo and Barbaresco, abundant in Rioja — and demand,” which is, as he says, “intense in Piedmont, faint in Rioja.”

Which is bad news for Rioja producers, but good news for those who don’t happen to own a tech company.