A waiter is pouring generous rations of wine in the private dining salon of Chateau Margaux on the left bank of the Gironde estuary in southwestern France. Baccarat crystal schooners are filled to the brim with one of the world’s rarest liquid investments. The costly history of downing Chateau Margaux unfolds.
“Richard the Lionheart would drink anything from our vineyard,” says Corinne Mentzelopoulos, proprietor of Chateau Margaux and custodian of the 80 hectare Bordeaux vineyard’s luxury lore. “Friedrich Engels preferred the 1848 Chateau Margaux. Engels was pretty bloody bourgeois,” she adds with a grin, a question and a raised glass. “An endorsement from Engels. I wonder what the Marxists will make of that?”
The answer hinges on whether thirsty disciples of “Das Kapital” can afford Chateau Margaux prices that range from $225 to $2,400 a bottle. Credit Suisse’s 2010 “Global Wealth Report” suggests the workers of the world won’t anytime soon be uniting over a $29,000 case of 1990 Chateau Margaux.
According to the bank’s calculations, there are 81,000 people globally with net assets in excess of $50 million and 2,800 with more than $500 million on tap. As for billionaires, Credit Suisse figures a mere 1,000 folks have the capital required to saute their shallots with Chateau Margaux.
“You can’t fight against the market,” Mentzelopoulos laments, holding a decanter of her 1989 vintage against the sunlight. “The price is a sign of trust in Chateau Margaux, though anyone who’s speculating and not drinking this is kidding themselves. I’d like to think that there are a good number of winos among Chateau Margaux investors.”
The market cautions sobriety. Chateau Margaux “fell from grace” in the 1960s and 1970s, when lack of investment and the oil crisis hit the Bordeaux market, says Peter Lunzer, director of London-based Lunzer Wine Investments. “As a first growth, it fell the most, and had the most recovery to do,” he says.
While Chateau Margaux vintages improved from 1978, the year after the Mentzelopoulos family bought the rundown estate, it took a decade for the market to fully reflect the family’s dreams. “1990 was the watershed because that was when they achieved global recognition,” Lunzer says.
The 1990 vintage now rates among Chateau Margaux’s top four of the past quarter-century, listed on the London-based Liv-ex wine market at $14,900 a case, or slightly more than $1,200 a bottle. Awarded a perfect 100 points by Wine Advocate founder Robert Parker, it rose as high as 13,800 pounds ($29,012) a case at a Sotheby’s London sale in November 2007.
In the wake of the September 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and the ensuing financial crisis, Chateau Margaux 1990 last October still achieved $25,000 a case at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale, a sign that the market has recouped most of the losses.
“I hope Robert Parker lives for a very long time,” Mentzelopoulos says.
The 2000 vintage price peaked at Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction last October, when three cases sold for $28,000 each. Liv-ex’s data on merchant prices in Europe lists the 2000 vintage at a more modest $15,300 a case, while among other recent standout years 2005 sells in Europe for $13,000 and 2009 for $13,900.
Among the five left-bank, first-growth Bordeaux wines, Margaux typically trades for less than market leader Chateau Lafite Rothschild and its Pauillac neighbor Chateau Latour, while usually fetching more than Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Pessac-Leognan producer Chateau Haut-Brion.
Chateau Margaux is also under siege from one of its neighbors, Chateau Palmer, a third-growth claret popular with U.K. collectors that displays regional similarities to its more illustrious rival and sells for a quarter of the price. Palmer 1990 is listed at $2,800 a case by European merchants, according to Liv-ex, while its 2000 vintage sells for $3,500.
“We fill some 120,000 bottles a year, around 10,000 cases of Chateau Margaux,” Mentzelopoulos says of the bewildering market clout of investment-grade Bordeaux. “I’ve no idea how many of the people who buy prefer speculating over drinking, but I do worry about a Bordeaux slump that never seems to happen. Hey, if the grape is rotten, the grape is rotten. I make wine for drinkers.”
International Monetary Fund economists Serhan Cevik and Tahsin Saadi Sedik say investors might just as well be drinking Brent Blend.
Oil or Wine
“Although fine wine can be considered as an investable asset,” the economists wrote in their January research paper “A Barrel of Oil or a Bottle of Wine: How do Global Growth Dynamics Affect Commodity Prices?” “its behavior is not significantly different than other commodities and therefore may fail to enhance portfolio diversification.”
Mentzelopoulos ponders the notion in the IMF working paper of Chateau Margaux as a hydrocarbon.
“At least they didn’t compare us to gold,” she says. “If gold drops in price, there’s nothing you can do with it. Chateau Margaux is an asset that fortunately happens to be a drinkable commodity that improves with age.”
It has been that way since June 1705, when the London Gazette newspaper ran an advertisement with a typographical error that offered 230 hogshead barrels of Chateau “Margoose” for 60 pounds a “tun” at a time when the most precious Bordeaux fetched 18 pounds a tun. Chateau Margaux 66 years later again entered the history books by becoming the first wine put on auction by Christie’s.
A passage from William Styron’s 1979 bestseller “Sophie’s Choice” boosted the wine’s literary reputation. “Were a wine to be drunk in paradise,” Styron wrote, “it would be Chateau Margaux.”
Over at Sotheby’s, international-wine-department head Serena Sutcliffe evokes the 1990 vintage in winespeak. “This is true first-growth beauty, with its projection of silky, approachable fruit and sleek bilberry taste,” is Sutcliffe’s verdict in the catalog for the auction house’s September 2010 London sale. “Utterly tempting and full of black fruit, it has perfect balance and irreproachable class.”
Mentzelopoulos takes another sip and conjures up her own memories. “My dad and I first arrived at Chateau Margaux in a taxi in 1977,” she reminisces. “I thought I was Simone de Beauvoir. Dad owned the Felix Potin grocery chain and heard that the place was up for sale. We had lunch with the owners in a dark dining room and it was spooky. I’d never seen a grand wine cellar and dad had never tasted Chateau Margaux.”
As Mentzelopoulos tells it, Chateau Margaux drinkers never forget their first taste. “Chateau Margaux is a feminine wine, sexy,” she says. “I’d like to think that all those speculators are trading our wine in order to pay for what they’re drinking.”
Although Mentzelopoulos guarantees that Chateau Margaux is hangover free, there is one headache that won’t go away. “We can’t afford to go from exceptional to average,” she says while pruning a vine. “All of this can stop suddenly if the vintages aren’t good. What the businessmen don’t understand is that we are farmers and everything depends on the stupid land and the stupid climate.”
And on the risk of being eclipsed by Bordeaux rivals as they compete for high net-worth customers in China, Russia and the U.S. “Margaux as a style is lighter, more refined” than the heavyweight top wines of Pauillac, Lunzer says. While that helps define the wine’s characteristics, he says Lafite and Latour are doing more to woo the lucrative Chinese market.
Lafite last year put the Chinese figure eight on its 2008 vintage bottles, a lucky number in Asian culture, while Mouton, known for bottle art by a different artist each year, selected an image by Chinese artist Xu Lei for its 2008 label.
Mentzelopoulos says marketing maneuvers make her queasy. “Some experts from Harvard Business School advised me to brand other products with the name Chateau Margaux,” Mentzelopoulos says. “They failed to grasp that this would accomplish nothing but our losing focus and diluting the energy of Chateau Margaux. Can you imagine?” she huffs. “They wanted me to create Petit Chateau Margaux. What would come next, perfume and toiletries?”