How much should you pay for a great wine? It is not a trick question but one that I often wonder about. A few weeks ago I spent the evening with rich friends and over dinner and at the after party, we drank ourselves through three Montrachet (Puligny and Chevalier) vintages from Domaine Leflaive, one of my favourite white Burgundy producers, great vintages from pretty much the entire range of Domaine Romanee Conti, some Chateau d’Yquem, Chateau Margaux, Clos de Vougeot, the little known but outstanding Clos Gaiyot (a tiny production, only in the best years) and more.

The next day, when I thought of the cost of the wine, I was slightly shocked. For me, it was one of those special evenings that occur rarely in a lifetime. But for my generous friends who have millions of dollars worth of wine in their personal cellars, it was the sort of evening they enjoy several times a year.

My friends are wine lovers with well-developed palates so they regard the money they spend on wine as worth the expense. But there are many rich people all over the world who order incredibly expensive wine only because they like the idea of drinking the very best --- even if it they can’t appreciate the taste.

The prices of red Bordeaux (and especially Chateau Lafite) went through the roof after the Chinese discovered the wines. Every wine-maker I have spoken to who has been to China to speak about wine complains that most top Chinese consumers know nothing about wine. But they don’t complain too hard: the Chateaux of Bordeaux have got rich out of the Chinese fascination with their wines.

It isn’t just the Chinese. Rich Russians are obsessed with Chateau Petrus, one of the world’s most expensive Bordeaux wines and order it nearly everywhere they go. Nobody believes that all of the oligarchs can really tell the difference between Petrus and the average red wine from the same region. But for the Russians, fine wine is like a designer outfit: it is the label that is most important.And the only flavour they can discern in great wine is price.

Similarly, around two decades ago, the great Champagne houses watched in amazement as a new market for their products developed among drug dealers and segments of America’s criminal underworld. The love for vintage, prestige champagne was also fuelled by rap musicians who began including champagne bottles in their videos. When the head of the old, high-quality, family-run house of Louis Roederer was quoted as saying that he didn’t really care about this sort of consumption, there was a huge backlash and the rappers immediately stopped drinking Cristal (from Roederer), till then, the rap world’s champagne of choice.

Instead they switched to Ace of Spades (French name: Armand de Brignac), a blingy (gold bottle), super-expensive Champagne that was relatively unknown in France. (Five years ago, I looked for it in vain on wine lists in the Champagne region. Since then, it has finally achieved some small measure of visibility in France.) I interviewed the makers of Ace of Spades (the champagne house of Cattier) and they were delighted by its success but defensive about the France contempt for its quality. Ace of Spades had done very well at a blind tasting, they said. And indeed it had (well, at one blind tasting that I came across, anyway) but I doubt if the quality of the wine had much to do with its popularity in the rap world.

The point about drug dealers and oligarchs is not that they don’t have the right to drink very expensive wine. (If they can afford it, they can drink it; who are we to pour scorn on them?) It is that they distort the whole concept of value for wine and inflate prices beyond what was once considered acceptable.

It is true that the price of wine has always been determined by market demand and that market demand is influenced by many factors of which quality is only one. Of course, the oligarchs have pushed up the prices of Petrus, the Chinese have distorted Lafite prices and Ace of Spade would not command even half the price it now gets were it not for the rappers.

But wine prices have always been influenced by trends and fashion. In the 1990s, American consumers pushed up the prices of so-called French garage wines, that is, wines with a small production made from vineyards with no great reputation for terroir. Critics said that Americans liked these wines because they reminded them of the intense, concentrated wines of California. For whatever reason, such newly fashionable (but previously little known) wines as Le Pin soon began to command prices in the Petrus range.

But even Petrus has gained from fashion. Till the end of the Second World War, it was regarded as one of the better wines of Pomerol (a small region in Bordeaux) though not necessarily the best. It only came to global attention when it was served at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth in 1947. But prices finally rose to match those of top Bordeaux wines as late as the 1960s, when it became a favourite of the American rich.

Was the Petrus made before 1960, when prices were relatively low, worse than the high-priced wines they made in the late Sixties and after?

Bottles of Petrus. (Shutterstock)
Bottles of Petrus. (Shutterstock)

No. Of course not. Wine prices don’t necessarily reflect improvements or drops in quality.

All too often, consumers form opinions about wine on the basis of representations in popular media that are not necessarily accurate. In 2004, the Indie movie Sideways, about a loser who loves wine, was a surprise global hit and introduced a whole new generation to wine.

The lead character in the movie is a fan of the Pinot Noir grape, which he says is hard to grow but yields terrific wine. (Fair enough.) But he also hates the Merlot grape and threatens to walk out of tastings if anybody so much as mentions Merlot. This is puzzling because Merlot is a popular grape in Saint Emilion and Pomerol, two Bordeaux regions where it yields outstanding wines. So why does the character regard it with so much contempt? The movie does not explain why.

The finale of Sideways is when the lead character opens his prized bottle of Cheval Blanc 1961 at a fast food restaurant. His point is that one shouldn’t save great wines for an occasion. Whenever you open a great wine, it becomes an occasion, even if you open the bottle in a diner and drink the wine from a cheap plastic cup.

A still from the movie Sideways.
A still from the movie Sideways.

Well okay. But why doesn’t the lead character drink a great Burgundy given that he keeps saying he loves Pinot Noir? And why Cheval Blanc, which has no Pinot and is usually 50% Cabernet Franc?

But what is more intriguing is that the script originally called for the character to regard a bottle of Petrus as his most treasured wine and to drink Petrus not Cheval Blanc in the climax. The script was sent to the owners of Petrus who refused to let their wine be used in the movie. So, Cheval Blanc was the second choice.

This is odd because Petrus is made mostly from the hated Merlot. So, if the character hates Merlot, why does he love Petrus?

There is no logical answer to such questions. Perhaps if they had been given permission to use Petrus, they would have deleted the lines about merlot from the script. Or perhaps they added those lines only after Petrus told them to get lost.

Whatever the reason, Sideways had much influence among wine drinkers in America who began to treat Merlot with derision. So a new prejudice about the value and quality of a wine was born --- out of nothing and with no factual basis at all!

Fortunately for Petrus, the people who took their cues from Sideways either did not drink Petrus or did not realise that it was made from Merlot. (In California, wines are described by grape variety while French wines are described by region and often there is no mention of the grape variety on the label).

So when it comes to the prices of top wines, it is demand that determines price. A certain level of quality is taken for granted. But after that, the market with its prejudices and trends takes over.

Bottles of some of the world’s finest wines. (Shutterstock)
Bottles of some of the world’s finest wines. (Shutterstock)

Fortunately I have friends who love fine wine so I get to drink far better wine than I could ever afford if I was paying for it myself. But here are the few rules I set for myself when it comes to paying for wine.

* Life is too short to drink bad wine. In many European countries they drink wine with every meal. Inevitably this means that a lot of plonk gets drunk.

As so few of us eat European food at home on a daily basis, we are not under the same obligation to always drink wine with meals. I drink wine only when its good, when the food it is served with goes with wine and when there is an occasion.

That way, because I don’t drink regularly, I can afford to splash out on good wine with all the money I have saved from not ordering bottles of plonk.

* One advantage of drinking good wine at restaurants abroad is that such restaurants have great cellars with wines that you would not normally find in the shops and the sommeliers will guide you around the list.

This is not true in India where most restaurants serve the same wines from the same importers and the sommeliers rarely know anything about wine and recommend wines that I wouldn’t even cook with.

So here’s my policy. Buy a couple of bottles of good wine when you go abroad and drink them at home when you come back. It is by far the cheapest way of drinking wine and you will be able to drink good wines of your choosing at something like 25% of what they will cost you in an Indian hotel or restaurant.

* When you go out, don’t feel obliged to order wine with Chinese or other Oriental food or with Indian food. Beer goes well with Oriental food and Coke Zero and Pepsi Black go with everything.

Save your money for meals that call out for wine.

* If you want to drink Indian wine, do it at home and not at restaurants. While wine retail has yet to develop in India, it is usually quite easy to buy Indian wine at many places. Because these bottles have not come by ship or sat in containers outside customs, they are less likely to be spoiled.

You can order the same wines at restaurants but they will usually be so overpriced that you are better off buying them in the shops.

* Should you buy great wines? Sure. If you can afford it.

But if you can’t, then think about this: a really great wine will cost Rs 1.5 lakh or more on a hotel list. Isn’t there anything better that you can do with that much money?

If there isn’t, then you are a millionaire. Or you just lead a very empty life.


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