I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, and like wine, my thinking has matured - rightly or wrongly - into the position I will outline below.
For the record, I have tasted or had small quantities of a few Bordeaux first growths, a few famous but not ultra-premium wines from Bordeaux, a few famous Burgundies (but not the ultra-famous DRCs or anything comparable), a few top Spanish wines (things like Pingus) - in short, wines costing £300-£1,000 a bottle, but not more expensive than that, that I know of. And in some cases I’ve had fabled old vintages of not-so-famous wines.
Coming from a position of relative scepticism about the likelihood of transcendental greatness in these wines, but fascination with the language used to describe them by great tasters and writers, I always looked very closely for signs of something truly different and unique when presented with the opportunity to taste them.
Even with my most critical, open-minded thinking and tasting hat on, I could never find the qualities in these wines that justified their prices.
I have indeed tasted wines which made my head and senses explode with joy and bewilderment, but they were not in the fabled category, and although always expensive (£50-200/bottle), they were never prohibitive.
I came to the following conclusion, which I maintain to this day:
- The price of a wine reflects, like any consumer product, a number of characteristics and qualities
- These include, but are not solely limited to: the qualities of the product itself; the cost to produce, market and distribute it; the reputation and prestige of the brand; the scarcity of the product; the demand for the product; the perceived likely future value of and demand for the product; etc.
- There is therefore a relatively easy curve to be drawn showing a long tail on the left, for bulk, industrial, large-quantity, cheap to produce wine, climbing steeply up on the right for the rare, premium, expensive wine; this curve is cut through with another line, which does not rise as steeply [important!] measuring the wine’s intrinsic quality as a drink
- The point at which latter two lines intersect is the point at which you cease to pay for the juice - you’re paying for the label, the brand, the status, the prestige, the true rarity and the perceived rarity
The gap between the two, after the intersection, is the diminishing return. (It would therefore look better presented upside-down, but I’ll leave that to the data visualisation gurus).
So, the debate then, is not about how or whether this occurs, but at which price point.
I read once that Tim Atkin felt it was at about £50. My view, for what it’s worth against someone so erudite, is that it’s a little higher, at maybe £80. Regardless, somewhere between £50 and £100 there is a point at which the increased intrinsic quality/beauty/greatness/fabulousness of a wine (the word “intrinsic” is vitally important - it’s about the absolute quality, not the quality relative to the wine’s market or price bracket) ceases to be worth the additional pounds you’re spending.
You’ll find that beyond a certain price level (putting aside the occasional “bargain” or “discovery”) the increased greatness becomes more and more marginal - and eventually vanishing - for the extra you’re paying.
So, long answer, no, while there’s a lot of story-telling, dramatic value to saying “I once had a '82 Pétrus or a '61 Romanée-Conti” or whatever, I suspect they’re not mind-blowingly better than a wine in the same geographical and varietal category from a fabulous vintage that’s only in the £80-200 bracket.
Having said all of this, I would be more than thrilled to be invited to taste one of these. As a Burgundy lover, nothing would thrill me more than to taste a Romanée-Conti or La Tâche from any vintage!