Why are Some Wines So Much Dearer than Others?

Andrew and Jane Mitchell recently attended a promotional tasting at Sydney’s Wine Ark, where their $27 Mitchell Clare Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was rubbing shoulders with $100 Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon (tastings) and $100 Yarra Yering Dry Red No.1 (a cabernet blend) (tastings). Jane shot a quizzical look at Andrew. She whispered: “So… err… where did WE go wrong!” The Mitchell cabernet is a consistently good wine. It’s been on the market since the mid-1970s, at least as long as Moss Wood. And it’s sold as a five-year-old, while Moss Wood is sold at three years. Extra age should be worth more.

It begs the question “What makes one wine worth four times the price of another?”

A number of high-priced Australian reds which enjoy icon status have been released recently, underlining the question.

Let’s look at Margaret River, which has had two outstanding cabernet years in 2007 and 8, now in the shops. Cullen‘s Diana Madeline (tastings) is among the highest priced of the cabernet sauvignon and cabernet blend category. The 2008 is already on sale, at little more than two years of age, and it’s $105 a bottle. It’s one of my pet beefs that wines like this are released too young: however great they are, the Diana Madelines are never ready to drink at that stage and yet they go straight onto restaurant wine lists and into people’s mouths. Is it too much to ask what appears to be a prosperous family owned-winery to hold it back an extra year or two?

Just down the road from Cullen is Moss Wood, another icon cabernet producer established at much the same time but with an even more distinguished history for cabernet (tastings). It’s just released its ’07 (at $100). Moss Wood is typically a softer wine than Cullen and slightly more ready to enjoy in youth. Moss Wood, family-owned by Keith and Clare Mugford, should be prosperous but lately the owners decided to halve their staff, sell their house in Perth and move back to Margaret River to live, on account of tough times. You might think they should be rolling in folding stuff, but, says Keith Mugford, everyone is doing it tough; no-one is immune to the GFC; the suits in the cities are not buying expensive bottles like they used to. He also points out that – surprisingly – about 70% of Moss Wood’s sales are in cabernet-based wines, a category that’s been in decline lately.

At the other end of Margaret River’s main strip is Voyager Estate (tastings), also owned by a family, but a family of altogether different means. Owner Michael Wright’s father was Lang Hancock’s business partner and the family enjoys considerable wealth from iron ore royalties. It’s a fair bet that the financial pressures on Voyager Estate are different from the likes of Cullen and Moss Wood.

Voyager has a much shorter record of making fine cabernet merlot, but has in the last few years risen to be among the region’s best, with its two last releases being stand-out wines. It’s recently released its 2005 (tastings), at five years old, and $60 a bottle. I’d place it in the same league as Cullen, Moss Wood and Cape Mentelle. Steve James is manager of winemaking and viticulture at Voyager. He says Voyager will not release a 2006 vintage of this wine, because it wasn’t up to standard, on account of the very cool summer. While ’06 produced very good whites, it’s generally acknowledged as a sub-standard year for Margaret River reds. “We knew we wouldn’t have an ’06 when we were selling the ’04 (tastings), so we strung the ’04 out. And we’ll string the ’05 out as well (to make up for a 12-month period without a new release). Because of our low yields we can get cabernet ripe most years.” But not in ’06.

Moss Wood released an ’06 (tastings), as did Cullen (tastings) and Cape Mentelle (tastings).

Keith Mugford believes he made a very good wine in ’06, albeit not in the usual Moss Wood style – it’s more leafy and less fleshy. He went to some lengths in his note to his mailing list, to reassure his clients that the wine was up to par, despite what they might have heard about the vintage. Today, he admits the ’06 was slow to sell, for a combination of reasons, but picked up speed towards the end of the marketing year and in the end sold well. I think both the ’06 and ’07 Moss Woods are superb wines for different reasons: the ’06 is finer, lighter, more detailed and complex; the ’07 richer, fleshier, chocolaty, a classic Moss Wood.

Cape Mentelle produced less than half the usual quantity of cabernet from ’06 (priced at $84) (tastings), and makes no apology for the wine. It is a more elegant style than usual but has no greenness: a very fine cabernet indeed.

You might ask if corporately owned wineries, such as the Moet Hennessy-owned Cape Mentelle, or wineries of well-heeled owners, like Voyager Estate, are more likely to skip a sub-standard vintage to safeguard their reputations. The answer is, it’s not that simple. Fosters-owned Penfolds, for example, skipped the 1995, 2000 and 2003 vintages of Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon ($190) (tastings). But it released a 2000 vintage Grange (tastings), albeit a small quantity, which critics might say was a cynical exercise to appease the collectors and bean-counters.

To further puzzle Margaret River watchers, there’s Leeuwin Estate (tastings). Although the winery has a reputation for chardonnay second to none, its Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon (tastings) has been inconsistent. But the current release is probably the best ever. Together with Houghton‘s Gladstones (tastings), it’s older than any other current release in the region that I can recall, at six years (2004 vintage – tastings). It tastes as if it will live forever, and is relatively reasonably priced at $60. I suspect that if Leeuwin’s track record was as good as Moss Wood’s or Cullen’s, it might be up around the $100 mark by now, too.

So, why IS the Mitchell cabernet a quarter the price of those Margaret River wines? They might be finer wines – but four times better? It has a lot to do with fashion. Less-fashionable regions have always been great places to shop. You want value? Go to Rutherglen, Langhorne Creek, the Hunter, the Swan Valley. There’s some great value out there.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 13 July 2010.

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