We all worry about ageing. We spend a fortune buying miracle creams and potions which promise to hide our wrinkles, keep our skin young looking and stop our hair from greying … and that’s just men. Vanity is a powerful motivating force, even though we know that in the end there’s no fighting nature. Tempus fugit – time flies!
But the impact of ageing is strangely inconsistent. Not everything gets more valuable as it gets older. Some cars become more valuable, though the vast majority start depreciating the moment they’re driven off the dealer’s forecourt. Some paintings become more valuable, but that’s usually because the artist wasn’t “discovered” until he or she became older. Some household furnishings become antiques – while others end up on the rubbish tip.
And then of course there’s vintage memorabilia, a multi-billion-dollar market in the United States that’s now catching on here in Europe. Marilyn Monroe’s signature was worth less than nothing when she was an out-of-work starlet looking for a break. Then she met JFK, sang “Happy birthday, Mr President …” and, hey presto, today her scrawl is worth tens of thousands of dollars.
So what’s the secret? Why is one person’s collectable another’s laughable? Why is one person’s “distinguished” another’s “extinguished”? Why is one person’s worthless another’s vintage.
Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of “vintage” is “wine made from a season’s produce of grapes”. And perhaps wine is, indeed, the best illustration of why ageing sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t: it’s simply because some things age well and others don’t. And when they do, we’re willing to pay through the nose for them.
Take, for instance, the case of Château Pétrus from the great 1982 vintage which sold at auction recently for just shy of $50,000. A case of Château Lafite-Rothschild from the same year went for a tad under $20,000, while a single bottle of 1943 Romanée Conti – from Domaine de la Romanée, the smallest appellation contrôlée in France – sold for $3,000.
If you’re a lover of Sauternes, you’d probably have been bidding for a bottle of 1948 premier cru Château d’Yquem, which sold in the end for $11,000. And in the case of Château d’Yquem, you start to understand why wine can become so valuable.
Reputed to be a favourite of Queen Elizabeth II, Chateau d’Yquem is a premier cru supérieur – the only Sauternes wine to be given that rating in the official Bordeaux classification of 1855. It’s made from individually hand-picked grapes to ensure the highest quality, which means that each vine, on average, produces just a single glass – yes, that is a single glass – of wine each year.
It was also a favourite of American President, Thomas Jefferson, who visited the château while US Envoy to France in the eighteenth century. His private letters show that he subsequently wrote to the de Sauvage family, who then owned the vineyard, requesting 250 bottles of the 1784 vintage for himself – as well as a few extra for his friend, George Washington.
A characteristic of Château d’Yquem is its longevity. An exceptional vintage – every year is a “good” vintage almost by definition – will only begin to show its qualities after a decade or two of cellaring, and with proper care it will keep for a century or more.
It’s the perfect instance of a product that’s vintage in both meanings of the word – “from a season’s produce of grapes” and “of the highest quality”. No surprise then that the majority shareholder in the vineyard is the French luxury goods manufacturer, Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH).
Those of us familiar with the rarefied lifestyle typified by LVMH will know how difficult it is sometimes to cope with the rough and tumble of the workaday world.
So here’s a horrifying little story – a vintage tale, in fact – of what happens when something as special as a bottle of vintage Château d’Yquem meets an environment as unforgiving as the check-in of a certain “no frills” non-vintage Irish airline.
A friend returning to Ireland from France packed the precious bottle in her carry-on bag recently, only to be told – of course – that it was included in the ban on “liquids”. By then it was too late to return to check-in and she had no choice but to hand the fine wine over.
“When I realised I’d really have to leave it behind, I even appealed to the security staff to take it and drink it themselves … but they insisted it would have to be destroyed, and I suppose it was”, she told abcMallorca. “I still can’t get over it.”
There’s no particular moral, unless perhaps that even vintage wines can have bad days – not all of them end up being sold at auction for exorbitant prices!