What determines the price of wine

The secret of expensive wines

Classification systems determine how prices are set on the wine market

Wine can be expensive, and it's not necessarily just a question of the amount consumed. Some bottles can cost as much as the entire wine rack elsewhere. "But that in no way necessarily means better quality in the glass," says economic sociologist Jens Beckert, director at the Max Planck Institute for Social Research in Cologne. Using data from 1,890 different wines from 248 wineries in the Rheingau and Rheinhessen, he and the sociologist Jörg Rössel from the University of Zurich investigate which factors play a role in price formation on the German wine market. From a sociological point of view, it is also worth looking into the wine glass. As the study shows, the choice of wine reveals a lot about the nature of consumption: Apparently, people are not only what they eat, but also what they drink.

Quality wine, Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese or Großes Gewächs - in no other country in the world are there as many names for wines as in Germany. Connoisseurs who are just looking for a good drop have a hard time and are also confronted with enormous price differences. Because of its diversity, the wine market offers a fertile field of research for scientists who are interested in economic and social market interactions. On the one hand, because products are traded here, the quality of which is not apparent at first glance, as is the case, for example, with fruit or vegetables. On the other hand, because a status market has formed there alongside the standard market, on which completely different laws and prices apply.

The majority of the winegrowers in Germany adheres to the official classification system of the current wine law, which measures the "quality in the glass", which describes a sensory and analytical control of the wine and identifies various quality classes. In this official classification system, however, there are neither names nor vineyards with an ultimate top rating. With each vintage and wine, the test determines the quality anew: first after the harvest by measuring the must weight, which is primarily a result of the sugar content, and later by blind tasting by an independent commission. Last but not least, the wines can take part in a competition organized by the German Agricultural Society, with the best of the year being awarded medals.

Even if the predicate wines are not cheap, they hardly come close to the sums that are required for a French "Pétrus", for example - a 2006 vintage is offered in stores for 1,900 euros. "According to the official system, the large price ranges on the German wine market would hardly be possible," said Beckert. Also because the typical buyer of "quality-in-the-glass" products from the middle class of society would not be able to make the added value of a 1,000 euro wine plausible. "The bottom line for this target group is whether the wine tastes acceptable or not," says Beckert.

The high-price segment only developed in Germany with the introduction of a non-official classification system. In 2002 the private Association of German Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) introduced its own system, which, based on the French terroir principle, applies its own standards. Before that, the prices even for the better German wines had gradually slipped into the cellar. The turnaround in the 1970s to mass production and the wine scandals had ruined even the reputation of the Rieslings from the Rheingau and the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer growing region, which together with Bordeaux wines were among the most expensive and renowned luxury drinks in the region up to the 19th century fine company.

The terroir principle of the VDP refers to a quality that results from a historically grown interaction between geographical origin, soil conditions and climatic conditions, grape varieties and tradition as well as the winemaker's conception of quality. "Grand cru" means "First Location" and "First Growth" stands for "Premier Cru". Compared to the solid measurement results of the official "quality in the glass", such classifications appear to be vague. "They are more likely to be seen as symbolic qualities that embody moral or social values," says Beckert about the ideal value of these wines. "But it is just as important that the wine is selling certain properties that suit the lifestyle of the potential buyer," he adds. The price is also read as a quality signal. Prices justify themselves in this way.

As a product on the status market, buying or enjoying an expensive wine brings added value in terms of reputation. After all, such wines are rarely bought or uncorked without the appropriate audience. Often, especially when it comes to taste issues, the more expensive wine is not necessarily the more sensory choice. But this, too, is often part of the concept and functions as a further social distinguishing feature. The producers of these wines make use of the symbolic capital and produce wines with a difficult character, whose enjoyment must first be learned, says Beckert. Conversely, the preference for sweet wine in these circles is afflicted with low social status and cultural deficits.

As the study also shows, the legal and unofficial classification models compete with each other and are mutually exclusive. "The VDP is boycotting the official classification system by not only using other terms, but also not taking part in the performance shows organized by the German Agricultural Society," said Beckert. "On the other hand, the number of winemakers who follow the official classification is high. However, if they were classified in the Gault Millau, which is close to the principles of the terroir, the winemakers rarely present them at the official shows," says Beckert. However, it is unlikely that a vintner with an official quality rating will be honored with points or grapes in the renowned wine guide. "With a membership in the VDP, however, these chances are much better," he also found out.

For Beckert and Rössel, this indicates a clear separation of the two classification systems in Germany. "Winemakers usually choose a strategy," they note. This also makes the decision for a target group. The focus is not on the rationally weighing wine lover from the middle class who is looking for inexpensive enjoyment and weighs up the costs of goods and services, but rather the buyer, guided by specific lifestyles and aesthetic criteria, who can afford the equivalent of a bottle of wine Scroll through five-course menus. "Certified wines achieve a higher price - although that is not always a sign of higher quality or better taste," says Beckert.

(BF / HR)