Spätburgunder – the price of confidence


Known in the home country as Spätburgunder, German Pinot Noir has come a long way since the days of the anaemic and insipid beverages that used to appear under that name (see, for example, Jancis recently on German Pinot Noir does itself a favour). From the 1990 vintage onwards, we began to be treated to some quite respectable wines, and over the years they continued to improve to such an extent that today the best of them are often compared to Burgundy grand crus in terms of quality.

Fortunately they did not reach the staggering price of their French counterparts, but if one particular recent price increase becomes a precedent, the days of value-for-money fine Spätburgunder could soon be over. For the 2009 vintage of his premium Pinot Noir Wildenstein, Bernhard Huber (pictured) from the Baden village of Malterdingen has raised the bar to a massive €120 (£102/$161) per bottle, up a healthy €55 from the price charged for previous vintages.

What is all the more surprising is that this mega-inflationary increase has been implemented by a grower with a reputation as one of the most modest men in the business. When I received his list, I thought at first that €120 was the charge for a magnum but as I continued to read, I realised this was not the case. Now, it is indisputable that Huber's Wildenstein is one of Germany's top Spätburgunder wines, and has been for several years now. I have always put it up there with the very best, competing for the crown with the finest that Rudolf Fürst, Friedrich Becker and one or two others could produce.

However, a price increase of almost 100% from one year to the next deserves some scrutiny. It is quite obviously a development that those of us who constantly promote the outstanding value of fine German wine find hard to swallow. Even more perplexed that such a move had been made by a man who has never sought the limelight, I felt compelled to get his explanation on the matter.

Bernhard Huber told me that the 2009 Wildenstein is the best wine he has ever made, and by setting this new record price he wanted to express his confidence that it was one of the finest Pinot Noirs not just in Germany but in the whole world. Many's the time that the Wildenstein and his other Grosse Gewächse have been compared to burgundy grand crus of the highest calibre and received very favourable ratings in blind tastings, where they were pitched against the best of the rest (of the Pinot Noir world).

I told him that I did not doubt the credentials of the Wildenstein as I had personally raved about his 2005, 2007 and 2008 vintages from that site but for that very reason I could not possibly imagine that the 2009 was twice as good as its predecessors. He put forward the very credible argument that some of his German competitors charged more for their premium Spätburgunders than he had done so far. This cannot be denied, but I know of only one who has (only just) broken the treble-figure barrier. Other Pinot Noirs which are near that mark have been put there by auction bids, not by the choice of the respective producers. Huber reiterated that his intention was to express confidence and charge a price reflecting the recognition of the Wildenstein's status as a cult wine.

From the wine enthusiast's and critic's point of view, there are arguments that speak against such a drastic hike in price, and I put these to Huber. His move will surely have alienated a significant proportion of former buyers. Some, who regularly bought previous vintages, will simply not be able to afford the Wildenstein at the new price. Some may be able to afford the wine even at the inflated price but will not do so because they consider themselves taken for granted. So will it still sell? In all probability, yes, but there is a fair chance that the Wildenstein will appeal to a new kind of customer, the money-no object type who buys famous names and labels. Will he or she be a long-term and experienced lover of Spätburgunder? Unlikely. Or will he or she be attracted by the newly found reputation of the Wildenstein as a truly great – but also the most expensive – Pinot Noir from Germany? I wonder.

Bernhard Huber admitted that he had not considered that aspect and did not seem too comfortable with these deliberations. As a final throw of the dice, I argued the special and often long-standing relationship many German growers have with their customers, mutual appreciation, even loyalty. He said he would think it over. He did. When I rang his office at the beginning of December and inquired about the price of the Wildenstein, I was told €120.

I still think that Bernhard Huber's Spätburgunders are world class. I would not dream of advising anyone against buying them. On the contrary. Looking at my Grosse Gewächse review of the 2009 reds, I gave the Hecklinger Schlossberg 19 points, the Bombacher Sommerhalde 18.5. The first wine costs €55 (£47/$74), the second €40 (£34/$54); incredible value for that kind of quality. The Wildenstein isn't!