Ever seen a $100 or $1000 bottle of French wine and wondered why are French wines expensive? Wine collectors quickly spend thousands of dollars (and more) on rare vintages. Yet, you can find inexpensive wine from France, Chile, and other countries.
There are eight reasons why French wine is expensive. Reason 1 is that French wines have an excellent reputation for quality historically and in terms of awards. Reason 2 is that French wines have been loved by famous people for centuries. Read on to find out the other reasons why French wine is expensive and often well worth the price. In the end, you will find a few tips to find affordable, high-quality French wines.
1 French Wine Has An Excellent Reputation
To answer why are French wines expensive, we need to start with the fundamentals: French wines tend to be high quality, so the price charged reflects that reality. For example, fine red wines from Bordeaux can be aged for many years and can develop in exciting ways over time. In addition, French wines have won high ratings and rewards for a long time. Despite what you’ve seen in the movie “Bottle Shock” (i.e., the time when American wines “beat” French wines), French wines largely remain the benchmark for the world’s wines.
Let me prove it with some recent wine rankings. Let’s look at the wine awards 2020 from Decanter.
- Platinum Awards: 34 wines from France in 2020 (i.e., 19% of 2020 Platinum awards) and 32 wines in 2019 (i.e., 22% of 2019 Platinum awards).
- Gold Awards: 107 wines from France in 2020 (i.e., 20% of total Gold Awards in 2020) and 101 wines in 2019 (i.e., 21% of total Gold Awards in 2019)
- Silver Awards: 1178 wines from France in 2020 (i.e., 23% of total Silver Awards in 2020) and 927 wines in 2019 (i.e., 22% of total Silver Awards in 2019).
This data shows us that French wines are winning high levels of recognition in the past few years. However, you might be wondering how long French wines have been well regarded. Let’s take a look at the people who have loved French wines over the centuries.
2 Many Famous People Prefer French wine (Presidents, Billionaires and More)
Celebrities, politicians, and rappers all love French wine which adds social status to French wines and makes it easier for sellers to charge high prices. Here are just a few of the famous people through history known for their passion for French wine.
- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1823). The American President served as a diplomat in France for several years and later amassed an extensive French wine collection. According to the Last Bottle, Jefferson may have been the first to import French wines to the United States. Jefferson’s favorite wines include Sauternes (a well-regarded French dessert wine). As the New Yorker points out, a bottle of wine thought to be owned by Jefferson sold for $157,000 in 1985 (i.e., $168,309 in 2018 dollars according to Measuring Worth). Curious to hear more about the above wine story? It was chronicled in fascinating detail in the classic wine book: “The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine” by Benjamin Wallace.
- Winston Churchill (1874-1965). It’s no secret that Churchill loved his drinks. With a multi-decade career, including time in the army, writing books (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953), and serving as Prime Minister, Churchill enjoyed many French wines. Of particular note, Churchill enjoyed champagne (and he might have even enjoyed champagne alternatives on occasion). According to The Drinks Business, Churchill’s favorite champagne was Pol Roger, and he is thought to have consumed over 42,000 bottles. Find out more about how Churchill paid for his expensive champagne habit in “No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money.”
- Sir Alex Ferguson CBE. Best known as the manager of Manchester United, one of the most successful football clubs globally, Ferguson has been a wine collector since the 1990s. His passion for French wines date dates back to a visit to Montpellier. He has since started to collect Château Pétrus. When his wine collection was sold by Christie’s in 2014, a methuselah of Romanée-Conti, fetched £94,815 (i.e., over $130,000 U dollars at current exchange rates). A Methuselah is a vast wine bottle that holds three liters of wine, equivalent to four conventional bottles.
- Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). As the first British Prime Minister, Walpole had a cellar of Bordeaux wines, including Margaux and Lafite.
- Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990). The American billionaire publisher famously spent a six-figure sum to acquire a bottle of French wine in the 19980s. For the full story, I recommend the book “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” by Benjamin Wallace.
- Rap and Hip-Hop’s Passion For Champagne. Rap music has had a multi-decade love affair with champagne. In 2014, Jay Z bought an interest in Armand de Brignac. Other artists like Nas’ have specifically mentioned champagne brands like Moët in the 1990s. Jay-Z’s music has mentioned brands like Louis Roederer’s Cristal champagne. For more on this fascinating story, check out “The History of Champagne in Hip-Hop.”
- Sir John A MacDonald (1815-1891). Canada’s first Prime Minister is known to have enjoyed champagne throughout his life and many other drinks. For more insight on MacDonald, I recommend Richard Gwyn’s excellent biography, “John A: The Man Who Made Us” by Richard Gwyn.
3 French Law Makes Wine More Expensive
French wine laws and regulations aim to increase the quality of French wine. In addition, those laws and regulations are one of the key reasons why are French wines expensive.
- Exclusivity. For more than one hundred years, the French government has advocated strongly to protect the word “champagne” to refer exclusively to the sparkling wines made in the Champagne wine region. As a result, the champagne wine region has become synonymous with quality sparkling wine.
- Trade Deals. Centuries ago, Bordeaux established a monopoly on selling French wines to Britain. As a result, the English have long had a profound appreciation for Bordeaux wines. While this trade has ebbed and flowed over time, Bordeaux wines have secured significant trade deals for distribution over time.
- Production Methods. French methods to produce wine combine tradition and innovation. Take the cost of oak wine barrels. French wine barrels can cost between $500 to $2000, while American oak barrels only cost $200 to $300 per barrel, according to Sommailier. Further, French labor practices are relatively good, so winery workers are paid well. That expense means France is a more civilized country and its wines are more costly.
- Barriers To Entry. Relative to other industries, French wine laws and regulations make it challenging to start a new winery. As a result, there is less competition from new winemakers in France. For example, take the example of buying land in a well-regarded French wine region. Forbes points out that buying an acre of Champagne wine country could set you back one million euros.
In addition to France’s legal requirements, the European Union also sets standards that influence French wine production. The positive effect of these laws means you can have confidence in the quality of French wines, especially at the higher quality levels. The negative effect means higher costs.
4 Transportation & Importing Costs Make French Wine More Expensive
Assuming you live in a wine-producing country, you will probably notice a difference between the price of domestic and imported wines. The cost difference is a significant factor for all imported wines, not just those from France. However, low-priced French wines (i.e., French table wine) tend not to be exported. Let’s take a closer look at factors that influence why are French wines expensive compared to other countries.
- US imposes tariffs on French wine. In early 2021, the US government imposed a 25% tariff on French wine (and other wines from Europe). Alas, French wine and other European products are now suffering because the US government is upset with European Union subsidies for Airbus. During the Trump administration, the French wine industry suffered significant setbacks. As the New York Times reported in July 2020, some French wine producers started to make hand sanitizer. Fortunately, it looks like these tariffs may eventually disappear, so we are back to the business at the usual level of barriers on the wine trade.
- Shipping Restrictions. Even if you are legal drinking age, there are countless restrictions on alcohol in Canada and the United States. According to Wine Spectator, six US states prohibit wineries from shipping directly to consumers (i.e., Utah, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Delaware, and Rhode Island). Further, the US Postal Service doesn’t accept alcohol for transportation which means you have to use other providers like UPS and FedEx. In Canada, some regulations make it difficult and expensive to transport beer and wine within the country.
- Transportation Costs. Safely transporting wine over long distances adds expense. First, the wine seller has to carefully pack the wine bottles to keep them safe during transportation. Second, the wine seller has to pay transportation costs. Third, tariffs and other fees are imposed on the wine. Fourth, some wineries translate some or all of their wine labels to English. All of these expenses add to the cost of French wines. Transportation costs for individuals in some cases due to regulatory issues (e.g., USPS will not ship wine, so you have to use a different provider like FedEx an
5 France Has A Tradition Of Small Wine Producers
In the modern world, there’s constant pressure to seek economies of scale. For example, a car factory that produces tens of thousands of cars per year can afford better equipment, better processes, and more skilled workers than a factory that only makes a few dozen vehicles. In some cases, there is a similar dynamic in the wine industry.
As one of the world’s largest wine-producing countries, France is home to wineries and vineyards of many different sizes. At the large end, you will find organizations like the Vinadeis, which represents 1600 growers who produce more than 28 million cases of wine annually. In some ways, these large wine organizations obscure the reality of French wine producers.
The average size of a French vineyard is about 8 hectares, according to Terroir-France. The existence of relatively small vineyards in France is partly due to the country’s law. French inheritance law requires that an individual’s children receive an equal share of the inheritance. Thanks to this requirement, which dates back to Napoleon, a 100-hectare winery could be cut in half if the owner had two children. As a consequence of this inheritance law, larger wineries tend to shrink over time. This tendency is partially counteracted by wine cooperatives and other organizations that foster cooperation in the wine industry.
6 Collectors & Investors Drive Up The Price of French Wines
Most people buy French wine because they want to drink it. Some people look at French wine differently. Investors see the potential to make a return on a scarce commodity. Let’s look at some examples of price appreciation in French wines.
- 2000 Bordeaux Vintage. When first released, many of the finest Bordeaux wines were priced at £1580 in London. By 2020, one of these vintages, a Mouton Rothschild 2000, sold by £19,000, according to Decanter. Assuming one bought at £1580 and sold at 19,000, you would have made a 12 fold return on your money. In contrast, the S&P 500 generated a total return of 86% from 2000 to 2020. Many wines do not increase in price like this, so exercise caution when considering this example.
- 2005 Vintages. Several high-end Bordeaux vintages like Haut-Brion (74% price gain from 2005 to 2020) and Lafite Rothschild (83% price gain from 2005 to 2020) have gained.
- French Wines Dominate Sotheby’s. Auction company Sotheby’s list of the top 10 best-selling wines and spirits in 2020 includes multiple French wines such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild, and Haut-Brion. A single case of 12 bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti sold for $483,413 in Hong Kong. Bordeaux wines also continue to command high prices like a 12-bottle case of Château Cheval Blanc 1947, which sold for $290,182.
Alas, the prospect of making a lot of money through wine has led to fraud in some cases. Check out the documentary “Sour Grapes” to see one of the recent years’ most spectacular wine frauds. For a different take on French wine, check out the 2013 movie “Red Obsession,” which documents the rise of Chinese collectors for Bordeaux wines.
7 France Has Relatively Higher Labor Costs
No answer to why are French wines expensive is complete without exploring labor costs. Along with the cost of land, transportation and other business expenses, labor has an impact on the price of the bottle.
Compared to some other wine-producing regions, France has relatively higher labor costs. A recent OECD estimate reported in World Population Review found that France has the third-highest minimum wage ($11.66 US per hour) globally (only Luxembourg and Australia are higher). In US dollar terms, France’s minimum wage is $2.25 per hour in Chile or the OECE average of $6.36 per hour.
The minimum wage is not the only factor at play with French wines. France is also home to many of the world’s best-educated wine professionals who have invested significant time and effort to learn their profession. As a result, it is no surprise that these professionals expect to earn a significant income. That said, a large group of approximately 300,000 seasonal workers plays a role in the French wine harvest. For years, these seasonal workers have received fewer benefits than other French workers.
Unlike the United States, France does not share a border with another country with much lower labor costs. While immigration is a reality in France, it seems less significant than in Canada and the United States. For example, migrant workers play an essential role in Ontario’s wine industry.
8 French wines Are Dominant In Pop Culture
Aside from collectors and economics, people love to talk about French wines. To fully answer why are French wines expensive, let’s take a look at how these excellent wines have been celebrated in pop culture.
- Movies. For example, you can feature film-length documentaries about specific French wine regions like “A Year in Burgundy” and “A Year in Champagne.” There are also wine movies like “Bottle Shock” that involve French wines competing with American wines. It is not just wine history that has made it to film. There are plenty of wine-themed stories to make it to the big screen like “A Good Year” (starring Russell Crowe and based on the novel by Peter Mayle), “A Heavenly Vintage” (2009), and the upcoming movie “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” (based on the best selling book – I can’t wait to read and review it!)
- Books and Novels. On Amazon.com, there are more than 20,000 books about French wines. Whether you are interested in the history of wines or wine pairing, you will probably find a good book on the book. For example, I am currently reading the excellent guide “Wine for Normal People: A Guide for Real People Who Like Wine, but Not the Snobbery That Goes with It” by Elizabeth Schneider. In the past, I have read and enjoyed both of Natalie Maclean’s excellent wine books: “Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass” and “Unquenchable!: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines.” While each of these books covers many territories, it is notable that French wines are always featured.
- Music. Rap and hip-hop artists like Jay-Z are well known for singing the praise of high-end French wines, especially champagne. Wine and music have a long association. There are modern pop songs like “Red Red Wine” by UB 40. Research reported in the Wall St Journal in 2005 found that playing French music in a wine store may have caused French wine to outsell German wine.
French Wines Are Not Just For The Rich: 3 Ways To Find Good Wines
You’ve learned eight reasons why are French wines expensive. If you want to spend thousands of dollars on every bottle of wine, there are French wines to meet that side. Yet, French winemakers also realize that most of the world’s wine drinkers have more modest budgets.
In my experience, it is easy to find good bottles of French wine for $30 to $50. The most expensive French wine I’ve ever bought was around $100 – it was a bottle of rose champagne, and it was terrific. There are three ways to give yourself a tremendous French wine experience without breaking the bank.
1) Visit A Wine Store And Ask For Suggestions
Visiting a wine store in person is often an excellent way to discover new wines. You are most likely to receive good recommendations if you visit a store that has a large selection of wines from France and other countries. Ask for suggestions and tell them your budget (i.e., “I’m looking to dry a new French red wine and I can spend $50. What do you suggest?). By giving a budget you are willing to pay, you can avoid getting stuck discussing “why are French wines expensive?” when you go shopping.
2) Check Online Reviews To Create A Short List
Wine expert Robert Parker is credited with creating the modern craze for wine scores. In reality, people have been ranking wines for centuries. Today, we are living in a golden age of wine reviews. You can find wine reviews in magazines like Decanter (e.g., Top Wines of the Year). You can also find wine review databases like the excellent one offered by Natalie Maclean (i.e., LCBO wine reviews). I suggest spending a few minutes with some wine scores and see what you can discover.
Keep in mind that wine tasting and reviewing are personal. Wine professionals invest substantial time and effort in developing their senses and learning the ins and outs of wine. Nonetheless, individual wine preferences still play a significant role. If you don’t happen to like one reviewer’s suggestions, try out a different wine reviewer’s suggestions instead.
Tip: Don’t just look at the numeric wine score! Looking at the wine review itself come often becomes more informative. Wine reviewers will often provide tips on food and wine pairings and advice on when to drink wines (e.g., some wines are “drink now” while others have the potential to age for more extended periods).
3) Browse Wine Selections And Look For Quality Markers
What if you only have a few minutes to grab a bottle of wine? You might be worried about finding a good deal because you hear people question why are French wines expensive. In other cases, you don’t have the luxury of time to research wines. In that case, I recommend looking for wine quality markers. Fortunately, the rule of thumb for French wines is simple. Look for the wine label that provides geographical detail like region (e.g., Bordeaux) and a specific wine appellation. On the wine bottle label, you can also look for other designations like AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée).