A Fine Balance – why expensive wines and cheap wines often bore me

I am feeling increasingly marginalised in the wine world, my view of wine just does not seem to fit the modern market:

The Expensive Side

Books and critics, magazines and the twittering classes talk about the Cru Classés and En primeur Campaigns (what an ugly phrase), but to me that has as much to do with wine as investing money in Laithwaites. It is not really any longer about the wine, but the money and potential for profit. Much the same can be said about the sort of wine that the American magazines often discuss, these rich ‘collectors’ – the word means someone rich enough to buy a lot in this instance – smiling in front of their new purpose built cellar complete with a glass-walled showroom for their Petrus collection – that isn’t about wine either. Neither are the hugely expensive California Cabernets or Super-Tuscans anymore, they are all about esteem, branding, marketing and other people’s perception of your taste and wealth. It is the modern obsession with brand writ large and describing these as wine is a bit like saying that staying at the Peninsular Hotel in Hong Kong is travelling.

These wines can be great, but very few of us can afford to drink them and as they are more often bought for investment hardly anyone does seem to drink them, so in reality there is hardly any point to them from a wine perspective. That is why I mainly ignore such wines and focus on things that are more affordable and interesting – to me.

Tasting great and famous wine is a real treat, but it happens less and less as the prices of those wines become more and more divorced from the world of wine and ever more a part of the luxury industry. Do not misunderstand me, I love great wine and appreciate how wonderful they can be, but the consideration of the wine itself now only accounts for a small part of the market and following for wines like great Bordeaux, Super-Tuscans or Napa Cabernets.

I consider my skill to be in finding interesting, tasty, enjoyable wines that are full of character and offer great value for money. Anyone can tell you which Cru Classé to buy, it is all there in the books and on the web sites, but not everyone can point you to a superb wine from Spain that seriously over performs for its price. Asking for advice about wine and being given a list of Cru Classé clarets is a bit like asking for help about somewhere to stay and places to eat only to be given a list of 5 star hotels and Michelin starred restaurants – to me it sort of misses the point.

The real joy of wine for me is in finding something real and honest that thrills me and is not yet famous or over priced. Much like the pleasure of finding a wonderful, yet affordable restaurant while on holiday.

The Cheap Side

Strangely enough most of the wine UK consumers drink is not about wine either in my opinion. The great majority – around 85% – of wine drunk in this country retails at under £5 a bottle, so most of the stuff people drink day to day is commodity wine, made to a price and given perceived value by branding and never straying from the known. Much of this wine is drunk as a drink without food with the only criteria being price and whether the purchaser likes it.

This last point by the way is the biggest impediment to true appreciation of wine. Liking a wine when you taste it is not the last word with what I call ‘real‘ wine. Real wine is fickle and can change with mood and food, whereas commodity wine is usually bland enough, or fruity enough – verging often on sweet enough – to not really alter in the mouth at all. It is what it is come rain or shine, like a session lager.

Real wine will be wonderful with certain foods or moods and an anticlimax with something else – this is all part of what makes wine so fascinating. Choosing what to drink can be a bit like choosing what music to play, are you in the mood for jazz, country, prog-rock, pop or a waltz? How many times have you listened to a song and instantly enjoyed it, only to completely forget about it later, while the one that grew on you became a song that stayed with you forever?

Well, to me commodity wine is also nothing to do with wine, it might be a perfectly palatable liquid made from grapes, but it does not reflect a piece of land, a culture or tradition. I would genuinely prefer a less perfect wine full of character and expression than a squeaky clean commercial wine that slips down ok, but leaves no impression.

Just Right

There are plenty of lovely wines out there that deliver a great tasting experience and value for money. There are wines just waiting to be found that speak of a place and a culture and traditions and yet do not break most banks. Unfortunately most consumers seem to be too addicted to the bland and the 3 bottles for £10 or the dishonest half-price offers to bother to seek them out. I genuinely believe that even the supermarkets have small selections of more interesting and honest wines that never find their way onto the promotion shelves, so hardly ever get spotted by most people. It is a pity that more consumers do not look beyond the special offers, as there are some great cheaper wines out there.

At the other end of the spectrum there are plenty of wines that deliver interesting and varied drinking experiences that are close to or equal to that of the great and famous wines. For every 1er Cru Classé there is something less famous around the corner, for every lauded Super-Tuscan or Chianti Classico there is a wine that should be more widely appreciated. At the very least they will give a little light and shade to a constant diet of famous wines. – you never know, they might even impress your friends, but in a different way. You see you can never really claim credit for something like Château Lafite, but a delicious, more obscure wine sort of becomes your discovery and reflects on you just as much as serving something famous.

Let’s all get a bit more adventurous and find some wines that we enjoy outside our comfort zone.

9 thoughts on “A Fine Balance – why expensive wines and cheap wines often bore me

  1. As ever a thoughtful and lucid article containing much truth. I absolutely agree that what have, since the late eighties, become trophy wines are almost utterly irrelevant to most wine lovers – even the lawyers amongst us. Working at the so called fine wine end of the trade, I probably have a slightly skewed idea of what constitutes good value but even I love to drink good wines at around the £10-£15 mark from places like Portugal, Italy and Greece as well as France.

    I also agree with your comments re the mass market for wine. That is the real mass market, not the so-called mass market alluded to by one of your readers regarding natural wines last week.

    We British are nothing if not cheap and generally what we want is cheap and plentiful, whether it be the £3 chicken or the £4.49 bottle of wine. The Anglo Saxon ‘vertical’ drinking culture brilliantly dissected a few years ago by Andrew Barr has changed its fuel from Bacardi breezers to wine, but has not become a wine culture in the process.

  2. Interesting comments Q. I find that price is a factor, but the amount I pay (and the quality I get) changes based on the country or area. I’d much rather pay a premium for a stunner from Chile or Argentina.

    I’m not a Bordeaux fan in the first place (and I can’t afford the old/good stuff in the first place), but there is so much more to taste and experience in the big old world of wine. What happened to the thrill of the chase? Finding a bargain can be great fun – but it doesn’t get away from it having to be a “quality” wine.

  3. Thanks Mark, of course that all depends on what constitutes a bargain. For £15 or so you can get wonderful stuff.

    Thanks for posting

    • Thanks.
      Yes there are nice wines everywhere, so why are the wines most people drink so dull? And why do the wealthy have such a narrow focus on only famous and sought after wines (and everything else!)?

      • The rich are different from us; they have more money. But in every other respect they also herd together and are reassured by ‘their’ brands, their enclaves and like the rest of us they want to be easily recognised for what they are. 1st and 2nd growths are part of the uniform, like the Rolex.

  4. Very good point, I have noticed that when people become rich they seek other rich friends and drop their old ones, so yes herding together, so they do not have to feel embarrassed about the Bentley.

  5. Pingback: Australian Luxury « Quentin Sadler's Wine Page

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