Is expensive wine worth the money?

What’s the relationship between price and wine quality – and how can a producer get people to pay more? Robert Joseph attends a tasting that makes him think.

Photo by Thomas Thompson on Unsplash
Photo by Thomas Thompson on Unsplash

Do you get what you pay for when you spend a lot more for a bottle of wine?

That wasn’t the question that was top of my mind when I joined 11 other mostly French tasters at the Calmel & Joseph estate in the south of France – but it was one that came out of the tasting.

All we knew was that we were to blind taste a series of red wines from a given set of regions. Apart from their colour and origins, the two dozen samples had one thing in common: they were all highly rated by Bettane & Desseauve and La Révue de Vin de France, the most respected authorities in the Gallic world of wine.

The men behind this tasting were Laurent Calmel and Jerome Joseph (no relation) who were following an earlier event, in which the €55 la Madone Corbières 2016 from their estate had come second in a line-up of top Languedoc-Roussillon reds. This time, the field had been extended to include wines from the southern Rhône. Though we didn’t know it at the time, nine of the glasses – over a third – contained examples of Châteauneuf du Pape.

So, what did we learn? Well, I was gratified to discover, when the identities were revealed, that my favourite, to which I gave 99 points, was also the overall winner: Château Rayas 2005 Châteauneuf, with an average score of 95.6. I haven’t often had the opportunity to drink Rayas, but it has always struck me as a wine that deserved its illustrious reputation. Unfortunately, that reputation comes at a price – in this case, €700.

I was also pretty much in line with my assessment of another famous wine from the same appellation, the Chateau Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin 2016, which I ranked 12th against an overall placing of 14th. Its average score of 91.5 was nothing to be ashamed of. But maybe someone handing over €480 might have expected more.

Especially if they stopped to think that, for the same price, they could have had 18 bottles of the 93.1-point Mas Cal Demoura, Les Combariolles, Terrasses du Larzac, 2016 which I placed second and ranked seventh overall.

The Châteauneufs mostly scored well, but their prices varied too. The €33 Clos du Mont Olivet 2017, for example, came eighth (seventh for me) overall, two points higher than the Domaine Marcoux Vieilles Vignes 2016 which cost €119.

Four of the top 10 wines were from Languedoc-Roussillon rather than the Rhône, and half of the most successful eight wines in the tasting were also among the eight cheapest, ranging from €19 (Domaine d’Aupilhac les Coclières, Montpeyroux 2017) to €37 (Tardieu Laurent Gigondas, Vieilles Vignes 2017), which were ranked fourth and third respectively.

Many years ago, I was so fascinated by this lack of relationship between regional reputation, price and perceived quality in blind tastings that I tried to create a Value-For-Money scale using a fairly simple equation. At the top of the scale, a 100-point wine selling for $10 had a great ‘value’ score of 50, while one with 85 points priced at $35, for example, would have a poor value score of 12.

Then a friend revealed the flaw in my system by applying it to cars. Audi and Volkswagen belong to the same corporate group, share many components and often get very similar scores from critics, but that knowledge doesn’t persuade many Audi buyers to save thousands of dollars by buying the cheaper brand. They are making an emotional, irrational purchase – just like buyers of bottles of wine costing, say, $25 or more.

Curiously, a currently popular mantra in the wine world freely acknowledges this irrationality. People who hate the idea of scoring out of 100 are often enthusiastic to the point of obsession about the need to tell ‘stories’ about wine. Consumers, it is said, want to know all about the place a wine comes from and the people who made it. Presumably, they love discovering the fact that Château Rayas, according to Berry Bros & Rudd was the creation of Jacques Raynaud, “one of the true characters in Châteauneuf… A notoriously shy and private man, he was known to avoid appointments by hiding in ditches that lined the rutted driveway leading to his château. However, he was recognised as one of the world's greatest winemakers.”

I don’t know Laurent Calmel and Jérome Joseph very well, but I like them both and I liked their 2107 la Madone enough to give it 90 points. They, however, were naturally disappointed to see it come 21st out of 24, and modestly said that it – like other wines from their region – “have some way to go if they want to figure higher up the list”. But they have no reason to beat themselves up. This was only the second vintage of the la Madone, and I’m sure future versions will indeed evolve.

But I’m just as certain it won’t just be their position on a scoreboard that enables them to sell their wines for far higher prices than they currently get. Over time, people will also be irrationally entranced by the 300 metre altitude vineyards and the individuality and the passion and the stories of the two men who have chosen to make this their vinous home.

So, in answer to the question with which I began this post, like it or not, what you get when you splash out on a bottle of wine – or a car - is never just about its quality. Whether you are happy to pay for reputation, rarity and stories is entirely up to you.

Robert Joseph

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