If you’ve recently scanned the Cellarit Wine Market you may have noticed that a bottle of 1990 Château Pétrus is available for $4,700. It’s not the most expensive bottle on the list. That honour belongs to a 375 ml 1952 Penfolds Grange signed by Max Schubert and available for $12,500. But nevertheless the price does seem extraordinary for an item that, after all, is designed to be eventually consumed! (Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate, who scored the 1990 Pétrus 100 points, gives a drinking window of 2014 – 2054, Wine Advocate # 183 June 2009.)
But a look at the price history of the wine clearly suggests that it is on an upward trajectory. Wineprices.com, which records wine auction prices, shows that the average price at auction for a Pétrus 1990 in 2003 was US$1250.98. 2011’s average auction price (42 lots to date have been sold) is US$4,095.35. That’s a 225% price appreciation in eight years.
As widely reported in the press, the Asian wine market is booming. Almost every Hong Kong wine auction sets a new record and mainland Chinese buyers, in particular, can’t seem to get their hands on enough quality Bordeaux. (see The Two Speed Wine Market, Cellarit Wine Blog, 19 October 2010).
Price appreciation for the Pétrus 1990, however, pre-dates the Asian boom of the last two years. Between 2003 and 2008 the price went up by approximately 188%. During the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the price fell approximately 33 per cent before recovering and then eclipsing its pre-GFC highs – a performance that certainly looks better than most Blue Chip stock charts (especially in recent days)!
So why does this wine in particular command such high prices? We hear the terms ‘cult’ or ‘icon’ bandied around a lot in reviews or discussions about wine. But in the case of Pétrus the descriptors are well and truly deserved. Pétrus represents the pinnacle of Bordeaux, even though it originates from the small Right Bank Pomerol appellation, which has no official wine ranking or classification.
Pétrus won a gold medal at the prestigious 1878 International Exhibition in Paris, but its rise to prominence really began in the 1940s when the négociant Jean-Pierre Moueix went into partnership with the proprietor of Pétrus Madame Loubat. In 1947 the wine was served at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. It was also a favourite of the Kennedys.
The estate was acquired outright by the Moueix family in 1964, and from 1970 to 2008 Christian Moueix was in charge of making Pétrus. Well before it became fashionable, Mouiex was an absolute believer in the importance of terroir. As wine writer Margaret Rand notes, “His quest for perfection in its expression has made him an inspiration to winemakers around the world – and to consumers, for whom he is proof that trends are not everything in wine.” Passionate about pruning, in 1973 Moueix started a program of crop thinning to improve the concentration of flavour in his grapes. While the practice is now de rigeur, at the time he was denounced as a radical! (Bordeaux: Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrus – Decanter Man of the Year by Margaret Rand, Decanter Magazine, 11 April 2008).
Pétrus has some of the oldest vines (the average age exceeds 45 years) in Bordeaux. Its original 11 hectare (28 acre) vineyard, which sits at highest point of the Pomerol mound, consists of soil rich in clay – considered perfect for growing merlot, the only variety in the wine. Neighbouring vineyards have more gravel and sand in their soils, and many believe that Pétrus’s extraordinary concentration and depths of flavours and aromas can be attributed to the richness of its clay soils.
Pétrus is one of a trio of outstanding Right Bank wines, the others being Château Le Pin and Château Ausone, but Pétrus is by far the most famous. Only 2,500 cases of Pétrus are produced each year. A miniscule amount to hit the secondary market, especially considering that at least a few of the bottles surely must get drunk! So, yes, I think you could definitely argue that it’s worth the price!