Tim James: Some real problems of high world wine prices

By , 6 March 2023



A great vinous treat last week led to some sober and sombre reflections. No need to tell the full, complicated tale of the occasion (a smallish dinner at a good Stellenbosch restaurant), but it involved a lot of generosity, particularly that of a British fine wine importer, Zubair Mohamed of Edinburgh-based Raeburn Fine Wines. Hosted by David Trafford of De Trafford Wines, and another important British importer, Simon Farr, we were drinking a small selection of the excellent wines that Zubair takes into the UK.

Zubair’s infectious enthusiasm, and his and Simon’s deep knowledge, could only help in our appreciation of the large handful of wines, which we drank one after the other throughout a lingering dinner – this wasn’t a mere tasting, happily. The wines were, to different degrees perhaps and in their own ways, all wonderful. Again no detail, but before the worrying stuff, let me indulge myself in mentioning a few favourites.

In terms of sheer quality and delight it’s hard to beat that superbly alive, suave and refined Chablis, Raveneau Montée de Tonnerre, widely recognised as one of the world’s greatest chardonnays; we had the 2015, no doubt in the earliest stage of its maturity. But for fascination and suiting my taste to a T, my favourite was Gravner Ribolla 2010, made in Friuli by Josko Gravner, radical pioneer of modern “orange wine” and of Georgian kvevris (buried clay pots – see here for an account of some very good local kvevri wines); finesse as well as character, and a long-lingering finish; I suspect this wine will last forever.

The finest of the reds was certainly Soldera Case Basse Toscana IGT 2009 (the wine hasn’t used the name of the famous Brunello di Montalcino terroir since the 2006 vintage, in response to the activities of the “modernisers” there – Soldera is a firm traditionalist: no new barriques or varieties other than sangiovese  involved). Magnificent, with, if I may risk sounding pretentious, the most perfectly poised tannins. Then, for sheer hedonistic pleasure combined with seriousness, Roc d’Englade Réserva Especial (this was No.2), a lovely, multi-vintage cuvée of carignan, grenache and syrah, from what is arguably the best producer in the south of France.  I visited there some two decades back, with Eben Sadie and his then partner in Priorat – and we had a great time and tasting with Rémy Pédréno.

But most of the wines we drank that night I hadn’t tasted before. Most were far from commonly available, a few virtually impossible to get hold of unless you’re fortunate to be on an allocation list and can afford to pay a great deal of money; and from wineries that are essentially impossible to visit unless you have the right sort of contact (who will guard the privilege jealously). It’s not just money that’s involved, though you’d have to pay something like R20 000 for a bottle of the Soldera, if you could find one to buy. The Raveneau isn’t even listed as available for any vintage on wine-searcher.com (a little is brought into South Africa by Great Domaines, at some god-awful price, along with some other super-pricey stuff – but just try getting on the allocation list for a bottle or two).

Hence my sombre thoughts, with the delights of those wines still ringing in my tastebuds’ memory. Of course, as we all know, there have always been wines that are unaffordable to most middle-class wine lovers, and the situation has got much much worse (or better, if you’re a top, sought-after producer – at a lower, less urgent level the same thing happens in South Africa, though there’s nothing made here that’s not easily findable, really). Simon Farr remarked that evening (I can’t remember his exact formulation) that the most significant thing that’s happenied in the wine world in the last generation has been the phenomenal international growth of the luxury drinking/purchasing market.

But as a problem, it goes much wider and deeper than the failures of wine lovers to get to taste – let alone drink – most of the really good and great wines of the world. Or even of a more modest section of the world, like South Africa, where we know there are ever-growing limitations through access and (arguably) exorbitant pricing.

Thirty years ago, when I was belatedly starting out, and perhaps aiming to become a well-informed writer about wine, it was easy to get around all the Cape estates and be welcomed as a journalist by the winemaker and owner, and often be offered half a dozen old vintages as well as the current one. Furthermore, many very serious wines of the wider world ended up on the tables of one’s richer and more generous friends, and it was not so difficult to build up, even through some of one’s own purchases, a basic experience of, say, Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Mosel. I didn’t buy first-growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy, but I got to taste them sometimes and I even got to buy a few wines approaching that league (in the mid 1990s I did buy a bottle of 1981 Lafite at a restaurant for about R700 as I recall). No longer would that be possible for a young would-be wine critic. Where, then, are they meant to acquire the necessary perspective, or even a limited, parochial perspective on local wines? And if an opinion is offered on a local cabernet by a critic who doesn’t know anything useful about Bordeaux or Napa, how useful can that opinion really be? We’ll have to rely on an ever-smaller stock of international real experts.

In the wider world that applies too. Zubair Mahomed considers Soldera to be one of the greatest wines in the world – and he has built over many years a basis on which to make such a call. He’s, let’s say, middle aged; how are young people ever to gain such expertise? Even now, the small, dwindling cohort of wine writers in a wine market as important as the UK’s seldom can get to taste a wide range of truly fine wine in depth. Tastings of current releases, perhaps, but seldom a revelation of what maturity can bring. There’s a tiny handful of ultra-privileged critics, that’s all. More importers, distributors and retailers do get the chance (though often of a fairly delimited specialisation), and their expertise is vital. But if wine lovers of the future don’t want to have to rely on the not-disinterested views of the trade or the vapid gossip of social media, they’re going to have a problem.

Even more problematical it seems to me is the effect of outrageous prices and non-availability on those growing and making wine. How are winemakers to learn about fine wine if they have increasingly limited chances of drinking it? Not through the occasional bottle bought by a friend, or even the possibilities of a good tasting group – and, frankly, I’d be surprised to learn that most South African winemakers (let alone viticulturists, or those offering themselves as expert critics) go to a lot of bother or expense to learn what they can about the great wines of the world.

The best and keenest of young winemakers do travel, working and visiting abroad. They can make contacts, and mingle in the fraternity of other more-or-less youthful winemakers. No doubt there’s a vast amount of useful tasting from barrels. But most winemakers anywhere do not have the authority, or any kind of capacity, to go opening the older bottles in the cellar that will reveal the full potential of a fine but youthfully raw and primary wine.

It’s not a problem that’s unique to wine, however. Our world is, after all, one where privilege and deprivation, increasingly dependent on money, are stretching further away from any mid-point.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


10 comment(s)

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    Colin | 7 March 2023

    I am sorry, but the reference to Great Domaines pricing is absurd. Do more research and do better Tim. I travel in Europe at least 3 times a year and I seek out fine wine wherever I go. I can assure you that nowhere in the world – not even (and especially) at the source – will you pay as little as what GD sells their Burgundy wines for in South Africa. We get a massive discount on Burgundy thanks to Derek and Co. The same goes for Champagne. Also, not sure where you get the R20k Soldera price from. I bought a single bottle about 3 years ago from the self same Great Domaines for R6k. It’s a magnificent wine indeed, but hardly R20k. Again – before complaining, do some proper research.

      Tim James | 7 March 2023

      Hi Colin – If you would bother to actually read what I write before rushing to make insulting comments, it would be useful. In my reply to Derek Kilpin I specifically say that Great Domaines would probably be charging less than others for Raveneau, and that it is “consistently very generous with pricing fine Burgundy”. As for the pricing of Soldera, wine-searcher.com indicates 750ml bottle prices for the latest 2017 as ranging widely from R11 434 (excluding tax) to an admittedly extreme example at R23 594 (plus tax).

        PK | 8 March 2023


        I don’t envy your job at all. As consumers we need and want wine content, we need it so we can make comments from time to time to show off a bit of knowledge or to comment on what we have had to drink lately or what we are buying at the moment. But as soon as that bit is out the way, we usually question or sometimes just blast the author. I don’t understand why we are so quick to draw the sword, rather than share in our passion for fine wine and thank the authors and from time to time question them on certain things to make sure they are also kept on their toes… but some of the things that gets written is just a little unnecessary from time to time.

        Playing the devils advocate here a little, but I am not sure Tim had a go at GD and their pricing strategy in terms of fine wines and especially Burgundy. I read it as more of a comment on the current global demand for these wines which has seen the world market go bonkers and pricing reach absolutely insane heights in the last 12-18 months. Working in fine wine investment as a buyer and market analyst, I can relate to the comment and unfortunately the reality is that these prices are not going anywhere anytime soon, perhaps even higher once the Asian markets come fully back online after an almost 3 year hiatus.

        In terms of the Soldera Case Basse Toscana IGT 2009 comment, Tim you are pretty spot on there as well. Again I am not choosing sides, but even though the prices for the ’09 has dropped on average by 10-13% in the last 3 months, of your looking at market average market prices and you manage to find a single bottle (mostly cases available, but I am missing the point a little sorry), you can probably come in around R20k VAT paid, bagged up and delivered to your home… hang on, no you are in South Africa and having to ship that bottle to your home, you are looking in excess of R20k probably. 3 years ago, is a long time in the world of fine wine and especially for the above mentioned bottle, which has seen a huge resurgence and increase in demand from collectors and buyers in the last 2-3 years and rightfully now sitting at the table with some of the greatest wines ever produced.

        Thanks Tim James, but next time do some more homework and less drinking fine wine… Haha.

        Also, let me know how to get on the GD list as I am sure that ‘god-awful prices’ are probably much lower than what I pay at the coalface in the London wine trade and secondary market.

          Kwispedoor | 8 March 2023

          To me, it’s also pretty clear that the article laments the stratospheric prices that fine wine has risen to – to the point where it’s now out of reach of most normal wine lovers. GD is simply mentioned because they are probably the #1 go-to place for fine Burgundy. It’s not their fault prices and scarcity have gone haywire, but it remains a sad state of affairs for wine lovers.

        Colin | 8 March 2023

        Then why throw the “godawful pricing” barb and mention them specifically in the first place? It comes across as snide and bitchy.

          Kwispedoor | 8 March 2023

          “a little is BROUGHT INTO South Africa by Great Domaines, AT some god-awful price”, not “a little is brought into South Africa at low prices and then marked up grotesquely by Great Domaines”. Add to that Tim’s comment that refers to GD consistently being very generous with pricing fine Burgundy – which was already posted when you made your comment, Colin. I’m uncertain how that can be interpreted as a dig towards GD’s pricing, but perhaps you could have asked Tim if you were unsure, instead of accusing him of not doing proper research and telling him to do better, which seems just a bit unnecessarily vitriolic. I guess I only responded because I would like to see more healthy debate without personal attacks here, and everywhere.

            Tim James | 8 March 2023

            Thanks, Kwispedoor. I hope that you’re not the only person here that can actually read properly. I can also point out that Colin, in his determination to resist any reply to his concern, is also wilfully misquoting me in saying that I wrote about GD’s “godawful pricing”. If indeed I had his criticism would be justified. But I didn’t. I wrote about the wine’s “godawful price”, which is entirely different – especially when, as you point out, I said that GD brought it in at that price level. Further, Colin, in response to your “why?”, please read my reply to Derek Kilpin in which I indicated that I mentioned the importer to indicate that the Raveneau is available in SA. I have been buying wines from GD (especially burgundy, though not at the godawful price-level) for about 15 years, and have always acknowledged their well-known customer-friendly prices.

    Derek Kilpin | 7 March 2023

    Hi Tim,

    Just a quick response and to start with, the world of fine and luxury wine has indeed risen to price levels where at lot of the great wines are unfortunately out of reach for many. Consumers can ‘box clever’ in terms of how and where they get access to some of these wines but it isnt easy and has indeed become harder. A sad reality.

    Your comment on the winemakers and their general lack of access to these wines- its worth noting that in our experience many of them dig deep and go out of their way to buy and get access to some of these bottles. It is often a pricey procedure but those striving to make the best and be the best often justify the purchase due to how essential is viewed.

    Lastly in terms of your reference to Great Domaines bringing in Raveneau at “some god-awful price”……I am not sure where you are getting your information and what you view as “god-awful” but we sold that 2015 Chablis Montée de Tonnerre for R950 a bottle which I think is pretty reasonable considering your reference to it being widely recognised as one of the world’s greatest chardonnays!



      Tim James | 7 March 2023

      Hi Derek – Yes, I have no doubt that both locally and internationally some of the richer winemakers do make sure they taste what they can of the best wines, especially current releases. (I know at least one that buys Raveneau from you.) I would still say that most don’t/can’t. As to Raveneau: I really just wanted to point out that it is theoretically at least available here, but severely allocated. I have now found it on wine-searcher.com, and the current release 2020 is offered internationally at closer to R13 000 per bottle. I’m pretty sure that the Great Domaines price would be less, as you are consistently very generous with pricing fine Burgundy, but I’m also confident it would be somewhat more than the R950 of 5 years ago..

    David K | 7 March 2023

    You make an excellent point regarding price Tim. I clearly remember in the late ’80’s, or possibly early’90’s, I was in Benny Goodman (Goldman?) liquor store in Johannesburg and seeing Chateau Palmer. I don’t remember specifically, but it would have been a vintage from mid to late ’80’s. The price was just under R10 a bottle. At the time I thought it was horrifically expensive.

    Fast forward to the mid’20s here in Japan, and I remember Chateau Mouton Rothschild (2001) selling for the about US$200 (equivalent)/ bottle. I thought much the same thing as before. Today one can buy the current Mouton Rothschild 2019 for about US$750 (equiv.) / bottle – and this is a “good” price.

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