Food For Thought: Are the Most Expensive Wines Really Worth the Price?
It’s a good question, and one we’ve all surely faced when picking up a bottle for a party or when cooking for guests. It has many answers, far beyond just ‘yes’ and ‘no’, as the situation has to be taken into account, the audience that’ll savour each sip, and most importantly, the food enjoyed with it. Let’s face it, that latter point is really the only time it’s seriously considered, unless you really want to seem higher class. If I were to answer that question with my personal opinion then this article would be over quickly, since my answer is a resounding ‘no’.
But that’s not very helpful, is it? Well, alright, it is if you’re seriously considering spending a small fortune on a totem of good will. After all, sometimes it really is the thought that counts, and as far as I can tell it’s the only acceptable time spending such an incredible amount of money can be justified. If it’s a gift, if it’s in celebration of something, or if you’re trying to convince your potential parents-in-law that you’re not as classless as they blatantly deem you to be then sure, splurging a little may help; but only a little.
I say this as despite the fact that a well-rounded, full bodied bottle of red that costs a bit over a fiver from Sainsbury’s can do the job (like, really do the job well) it’s the kind of choice that you’d make simply for those reasons alone. Sure, it may taste quite good and it’ll be potent enough to make the world unfocused and blurry after half a bottle, but many would argue that wine is made for more than just those reasons and, as contradictive as it may sound, I agree with them. But don’t go overboard just because of a price tag, since it doesn’t always guarantee quality. Look at the newly elected President Trump, he virtually bought his way into the White House and I don’t think anyone could view him as worth even one percent of what he paid to get there.
But enough of political analogies, the point is that money can’t guarantee a good wine. Each can be tailored to specific tastes and certain dishes, so there can be a good reason to shell out a little extra, yet I can’t see any reason why someone would spent over £120,000 on one bottle (something which happened back in 2013 on a limited edition 12 litre bottle of Chateau Margaux).
So, back to the original question, are expensive wines worth it? It really comes down to who’s asking the question. The answer will still probably no if you’re asking it in the first place, as those who thoroughly enjoy wine in all its myriad forms are sure to know what to do with it. This holds true for occasions such as cheese tasting, where it’s almost expected to be a bit pretentious. Still, as any waiter will tell you in virtually any restaurant, certain wines go well with particular dishes, and if a good Pinot Noir can accent the tantalising tastes of a fillet steak then the price tag alongside it shouldn’t be too off putting. It is, however, worth asking them why they think it goes well with it, as well as asking them what goes well with other dishes. My general rule for this situation is that if they start repeating adjectives then they’re probably just repeating a few buzzwords their manager told them.
But diners should not be put off by any convoluted explanations about what goes best with what, as there is always one simple rule that can aid any selection. Even the slightest bit of research can help with this as well as Karen King, Wine Director at New York’s Union Square Café, once said that wines and foods of a particular region are often naturally fantastic pairings. For example, if you’re looking to make the most of both French and Seafood cuisines by opting for a bouillabaisse then recalling that the dish originated from Provence, a historical region of south eastern France, can bring a good selection of excellent white wines to make for potential partners. And when you keep this in mind you can pick out a few selections from a wine menu and, in all likelihood, find something perfect for the dish without having to simply pick the highest price option.
One exception to every rule I’ve spoken about however, is that glistening white elephant in the room; champagne. Or prosecco, if you prefer, yet the prices for that are normally gauged by how big the bottle is. With something that’s synonymous with luxury it’s hard to try and put logic to the price of that oh so potent, sparkling wonderment that is champagne. After all, Dom Pérignon himself said when first sipping the modern equivalency of ambrosia, “come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” and you know what? Stars don’t come cheap. But it’s one of those things in life where, most of the time, the pay is worth the payoff. After all, as Mark Twain once elegantly put it, “too much of anything is bad, but too much champagne is just right.”
So what’s the deal when it comes to this elixir of the gods? Well like everything it is, despite what Mr Twain so brilliantly said, best approached in moderation. With wine most folk will consider anything between £20 and £40 a good price range for a good wine, whereas for champagne another lower class bracket for the glorious stuff is around £25 to £50. Personally I’ve always kicked off any kind of celebration that demands even a hint of opulence with at least a chilled bottle of £10 prosecco, yet for a self-indulgent birthday or when seldom visiting the family I’ll bring along something like a £30 bottle of champagne (in my humble opinion, Piper Heidsieck Champagne Brut fits any occasion and is utterly delicious, so try that for any time you need something sparkling). Yet when I get back to my original musing of what justifies a larger price tag, champagne is an easier sell, as although a vintage wine or one pre-packaged in a wooden box’ll most likely impress a good champagne that you’d personally consider around £20 too expensive is pretty much guaranteed to please.
In conclusion, I more or less present cliff notes, which are thus: don’t feel you have to shell out more just because of an opinion or two, as it’s highly likely anyone you’re with won’t truly notice much of a difference, and if you’re buying it for yourself then don’t bother about the high shelf stuff (unless you’ve grown attached to something up there). There’s also something very important to remember when buying for someone else, which ties into previous points that I can’t stress enough; money doesn’t always buy quality, and if it’s for a gift then simply asking what they prefer can work wonders. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve heard of awkward stories where upon visiting a recipient of a wine the gifters will find the bottle gaining dust on a shelf, all but worthless swill as far as the giftee is concerned.
At the end of the day, wine is meant to be enjoyed. Pure and simple. Some ‘appreciate’ it, whilst others don’t care as long as it contains enough alcoholic units, but it’s different for everyone. If you’re really curious about different varieties then why not attend a wine tasting session? My recommendation for that though would be to listen a bit to the guy running it and plug your fingers in your ears for the rest of it. Self-proclaimed experts are always intolerable, no matter what the subject, yet with wine tasters you’ll want down every bottle they’ve got after hearing just a few ostentatious utterances. Oh, the undertones of oak are exquisite, are they? One’s palate is most delighted by the subtle cherry taste? I’d rather take my wisdom from drinkers like F.Scott Fitzgerald, who once spoke straight from my very own heart in saying “I’ll drink your champagne. I’ll drink every drop of it, I don’t care if it kills me.”
What do you think is the appropriate amount to spend on a bottle? Do you have any perfect pairings or particularly favourite wines or champagnes? Let us know via Facebook or twitter! With many places honouring the Gourmet Society discount of 25% off food and drink, there’s sure to be somewhere you can sample the best of both worlds at an excellent price near you! And of course, be sure to check out the rest of the gourmet goodness on the Gourmet Society blog!
By Tom Simpkins